Sometimes It Pays to Look at the Small Picture



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.

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