Family History: Writing Your Family’s Story

Ok, you’ve been gathering family history research for a while, so when is it time to compile it into an actual family story? On the one hand, you will never complete the task of researching, especially since more resources are coming on-line all the time, so you can’t wait until you have all the facts to begin. On the other hand, if you don’t start soon, you may lose track of your data and sources, and the people most interested in your work may pass on. Some experts suggest the best thing is to write up your results as you go, thus ensuring you document your sources as you derive your interpretations. Given these considerations, I chose to focus on the most recent time period, collect all the basic data I could find, and begin writing.

I selected as my subject, my grandfather’s ancestors from their arrival in the Americas until my grandfather’s marriage. By limiting my scope, I avoided the difficulties of researching ancestors overseas and the ethical dilemmas of how to record living relatives. (It’s best not to publicize any personal information of living people.) I also left the door open for future research and stories about the more ancient time period.

Frankly, after I had all the census records and some birth, marriage, and death records and a few newspaper clippings, I thought I could whip out a comprehensive family story in a month, maybe two. I’m on month eight. I have 162 pages so far, including illustrations, but not including the 502 endnotes. I found that getting the basic facts down was relatively easy, but presenting them in an engaging way and finding the meaning hidden in these facts was the challenging part. It was also the most fun.

Here are some tips based on what I have done.

  • Anytime you mention a place important to your story (where someone was born, or settled, for instance) include a map. This helps your reader become familiar with the landscape of your story.
  • Ask yourself, ‘Why did my ancestors make that decision’? and then try to find facts to address that query. My first question was, ‘Why did they leave their homeland’? and so I read about the living conditions at the time and causes of emigration.
  • Search for information about specific details, such as the ship they travelled on to reach the Americas. In one case, I found a painting of the ship and learned it had a steam engine and sails – who knew!? In another case, I found that my ancestors were involved in a documented cholera epidemic aboard ship, so I researched that disease and gained a greater appreciation of what they went through to get here.
  • Read histories about specific areas where your ancestors lived. This gives you a better idea of your ancestors’ experiences and may provide some interesting tidbits. I learned that some relatives lived through the most devastating natural disaster (in terms of lives lost) to occur in the United States (the Peshtigo fire of 1871), a detail that been lost over time.
  • When you find an ancestor on a historic land ownership map, look around at what and who else was there. I found information about the railroad that crossed the family land and a photo of a steam engine used there. I also researched the educational system to learn about the school that was built on their land. Neighbours can also turn out to be part of the story when they marry into the family.
  • Include lots of illustrations: photos, maps, family tree diagrams, newspaper clippings, documents (birth, marriage, and death registrations, baptismal records, funeral cards, homestead applications and certificates). These break up the text, while providing more information and sometimes even examples of ancestors’ handwriting and signatures.
  • Summarize the history of significant places (villages, townships, churches, houses), especially if your ancestors were involved in their building or development.
  • Describe legal processes such as naturalization or homestead acquisition, that your ancestors went through, since these vary in different places and through time.
  • Discuss occupational activities, like shoemaking or threshing, as well as recreational activities your ancestors engaged in. This helps flesh out the story of their lives and makes them more than just a name to your readers.

These are just a few ideas of what to include in a family story; whole books have been written on the subject! I think the most important thing is that you follow where the story of your ancestors leads you. If some aspect of their lives catches your attention, find out more about it. The knowledge you gain about their lives and your enthusiasm for telling their story will allow you to take your readers with you on your journey into your family’s history.

This article was originally printed in the Bergen News and is being reprinted with permission.