Sometimes It Pays to Look at the Small Picture


Wikipedia

Wikipedia

The Asian game of go is a two-player game in which black and white pieces are laid down one by one on a grid. The goal is to to capture more territory than your opponent. It is a slow game of strategy. It is so complex that, unlike chess, top-level go players still routinely beat computer opponents.

Like any good game, go is a series of interesting conflicts and decisions during the course of play. However, it is unusual in that very few pieces are removed from the board, and none are moved to a different place on the grid once they have been laid down. The result is that, at the end, it is possible to see a record of nearly every act throughout the entire game. The end results are readily seen, but the causes and immediate effects of each turn are not always apparent.

Family history is much the same way. People’s lives are full of interesting conflicts, decisions, and circumstances, but so far forward in time, we often only see the end results or effects. Great-grandma was born here in this year and died there in this year. Great-grandpa had two wives and six children. We often learn about our ancestors through documents such as birth certificates or census records, but most of the time they only provide plain vanilla information. Unfortunately, we can’t always supplement our findings with rich narratives about them in newspapers, journals, or county histories. How can we learn more about them personally, and the experiences they had?

Here is a simple, fascinating way to get to know your ancestors and reveal the stories hidden in the information we manage to collect. Instead of looking at the big picture, with all the generations neatly laid out in a chart and family group records complete with dates for every event for every individual, try a more focused observation:

  1. Pick one ancestor of interest
  2. Focus on one moment of time in his or her life
  3. Construct a narrative about his or his family’s circumstances at that one moment

This approach can help you to understand what joys and trials a family was passing through before it was known what the end result would be. You may wish to pick a moment in time when the ancestor was the same age as you are now, or shortly after a death in the family, or right before the family moved or immigrated.

The following example is a short narrative I wrote about J. R. Maxwell. He lived from 1820-1889, but I chose to write from his perspective in about 1848.

“I’ve lived in Huron County for about seven years now. I’m living with the George Todd family in Wakeman Township. My mother, brothers, and sisters (I’m the eldest) are living in Ashland County. My father recently died, though only around fifty years old. My mother, just over fifty herself, continues to raise the family alone. John and Matilda have left home, but the rest of the children are still living there: David, about 20; Robert, about 18; Ellen, about 14; William, about 12; and Mary, about 10. She helps to take care of little Columbus Dileno Mumper, about 2. They tease me about settling down, but that’ll happen when it happens.
“I remember our home in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, but since it’s been twelve or thirteen years now since we moved to Ohio, William and Mary have known no other home, and I doubt Ellen remembers any of it much at all.”

This is not a very complex piece of literature, but it helps me to understand the family dynamics that must have existed. Instead of just observing that his father died this year and the children were born these years, I get a more colorful picture about the implications of his father’s untimely death. I can more easily picture his mother with a half-raised family, having to work together to support themselves. As for J. R., I don’t know for sure whether he was teased about not being married at age 28, but with five younger siblings, I would call it a safe bet.

Try this for a few of your ancestors and see what you learn. At the least, you will get to know your family better, and it may even help you to see an opening in a sticky research problem.

Don’t be afraid to try new things


Don’t be afraid to try new sources. I know we all love the convenience of the internet in finding new information about our family history. But as great as the internet is it doesn’t have everything on it. So if you are not finding a record that you are looking for try another source. Public libraries are a great source, especially for obituaries. Another that I wouldn’t have first thought of trying is a local newspaper. When I was trying to find an obituary, I tried the public library but they did not carry them at their library. So the library suggested trying the local newspaper. I did and they were able to help me locate the obituary I was looking for. It was something that the newspaper had never done before also, but they were willing to help and it worked out great. So remember there is more than one way to obtain a record you are looking for and it never hurts to just ask.

One Hundred Years of Social Media


An interesting thing has happened in the last few years: the explosion of social networking and social media. We have been able to be constantly updated about the activities of our friends and relatives like never before…but it’s only a 21st Century manifestation of our tendency to spy on each other.
In historical newspapers, many of which are available at Ancestry.com, you will often find a column labeled “Personal” or “Society” or equivalent, in which many events, trivial and otherwise, are recorded forever about the lives of our ancestors. Here are links to two examples from 1912, one hundred years ago next month (subscription to Ancestry required):

Sheboygan (Wisconsin) Press, 3 January 1912, “Personal Pickups”

The Daily Courier, Connellsville, Pennsylvania, 1 January 1912, “Personal” on column 4 (also see the “Social Calendar”)

Translated to Facebook or Twitter parlance, they don’t seem too far out of place!
“In Milwaukee today!” – @Jbitter1912
“It’s a girl!!” – @MrandMrsJosephMeyer1912
“Love spending time with family!” – @MissLucileMooneyofGlenbeulah1912
“back in madison for another semester” – @HerbertMaurer1912
“Back east for 2 months it will be awesome!” – @MissMarySinclair1912
“Bridge party Thursday” – Mrs. John F. Torrence
(Will you be attending? [ ] Accept [X] Ignore)

You can learn all kinds of stuff, even if a lot of it is simply announcements of who is in town and who is visiting who. You could learn birthdates, a maiden name, a person’s hometown, whether a relative was still living by a certain date, and so on.
There are hundreds of thousands of newspaper images online, and on microfilm in local libraries. Don’t forget about this valuable resource!

An interesting thing has happened in the last few years: the explosion of social networking and social media. We have been able to be constantly updated about the activities of our friends and relatives like never before…but it’s only a 21st Century manifestation of our tendency to spy on each other. In historical newspapers, many of which are available at Ancestry.com, you will often find a column labeled “Personal” or “Society” or equivalent, in which many events, trivial and otherwise, are recorded forever about the lives of our ancestors. Here are links to two examples from 1912, one hundred years ago next month (subscription to Ancestry required): Sheboygan (Wisconsin) Press, 3 January 1912, “Personal Pickups” The Daily Courier, Connellsville, Pennsylvania, 1 January 1912, “Personal” on column 4 (also see the “Social Calendar”) Translated to Facebook or Twitter parlance, they don’t seem too far out of place! “In Milwaukee today!” – @Jbitter1912 “It’s a girl!!” – @MrandMrsJosephMeyer1912 “Love spending time with family!” – @MissLucileMooneyofGlenbeulah1912 “back in madison for another semester” – @HerbertMaurer1912 “Back east for 2 months it will be awesome!” – @MissMarySinclair1912 “Bridge party Thursday” – Mrs. John F. Torrence (Will you be attending? [ ] Accept [X] Ignore) You can learn all kinds of stuff, even if a lot of it is simply announcements of who is in town and who is visiting who. You could learn birthdates, a maiden name, a person’s hometown, whether a relative was still living by a certain date, and so on. There are hundreds of thousands of newspaper images online, and on microfilm in local libraries. Don’t forget about this valuable resource!

Some Things You Never Miss Until They’re Gone


An evergreen tree up the hill in the neighborhood where I grew up was decorated with hundreds of lights every year for Christmas. For decades it has been a landmark in town during the holidays, visible from a distance. It can be found on a map-painting of the city which hung in City Hall.

Last week, an unusually powerful windstorm swept through the western United States, causing millions of dollars of damage. My hometown and neighboring towns are susceptible to winds funneling through the eastern mountain canyons, and were no exception this time. The tall tree, which reached 55 feet (it’s easier to measure now), was one of the hundreds of trees throughout the area felled by hurricane-strength forces.

My mom texted me the morning after the wind had come in and reported that the famous tree had been blown down. I was surprised to realize how much I would miss it! It had just been taken for granted that the tree would be lit for the Christmas season, a bright, festive annual treat for the neighborhood.

(See the story here.)

How many things, places, events are a part of your family traditions, or a part of your family’s collective memories, that are taken for granted? The car the kids drove when they turned 16, the elementary school all the kids attended, the treehouse in the woods, the city park where you walk the dog. Eventually, the car will be junked, the school will be torn down, the woods will become a subdivision, and the park will be remodeled. We don’t usally think to take pictures or videos of things and places such as these, but how many stories and experiences do they bring back to mind! Having a picture, a reminder of some kind, is like having a key to your memories. Better to have a backup on hand when the original disappears so you can more easily access those memories and stories in order to record them for posterity.

It’s too late for anyone to take their own picture of the old tree in all its glory, but it’s a good reminder not to take for granted those things which bring back good memories.

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