For many genealogists it’s all about the tree. Creating a factual record of generations of ancestors is the focus of years of research. Filling in lines on your tree and adding names to your pedigree chart is a worthy goal, but it’s only a part of creating a family history. There is a story behind those entries on the tree. Capturing that narrative is what will interest readers.
Begin with an old idea which appeared first in Greek concepts of drama: unity of time, place, and action. Each of your ancestors was born, lived and died in a specific place at a specific time. Part of their story is entwined with the historical context of their time and place. Here are some questions that will help you discover the relationship between your ancestors and their time and place:
Has your family sunk deep roots in one place, so that its history is tied to what happened there? In his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt tells the story of his Irish roots and how they were shaped by “…the English and what they did to us for 800 years.” When you read Pulitzer Prize winning historian David McCullough’s biography of John Adams you realize that you can’t really understand our second president without understanding Braintree, Massachusetts in the late 18th century.
Have family members moved from a home place with which they had long been associated? In the United States, unless your are a native American, your family’s story is, somewhere an immigrant story. The reason your ancestors left the old country often offers a rich story. Did your ancestors come to the new world to escape religious or political persecution or did they join one of the many successive waves of immigrants who came to America in search of economic opportunity? How did the motive for moving here shape their experience after their arrival?
Have the members of your family dispersed widely? Why? What led ancestors to leave their home place and extended family behind? Were they motivated by a desire for economic or educational opportunities, careers, religious faith, or simply the desire for adventure? Did something happen within the family which led your ancestors to separate from each other?
What major economic, social, political or cultural events occurred during your ancestors’ lifetimes? In my own family one branch staked a claim to land in South Dakota following the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862. My grandfather went west to find gold during the Gold Rush in Alaska in 1898. He never struck it rich, but he eventually wound up in California for which I thank him. Another branch of the family left behind a homestead in Oklahoma in the 1930s when the Dust Bowl triggered a transcontinental migration of Okies to California. The Great Depression sounded the death knell of the family’s printing business.
So as you add branches to your family tree, don’t let your focus on the details obscure the broader view of your ancestors lives. Take a step back to gain a more expansive perspective on their time and place and you will find that your understanding of their individual stories will grow richer and more interesting.