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Genealogy: Filling in Your Family History Details

Learn how to put all your research together to compile a story about your family history.

Genealogy: Filling in Your Family History Details

The events of Anson and Cornelia's lives were chronicled through the records. Census listings were examined; They showed that Anson was a farmer. County records were searched for his estate record. His will revealed that he was in “a very infirm state of health” when he made it in 1852. He left his wife Cornelia in control until the oldest child became 21. He added that she was to treat each in a manner as “nearly equal as possible” but “always giving those that are the most needy and unfortunate the preference.” He desired that his estate be sold and the family maintained from the funds. He specified that funds were to be for support and education.

His obituary confirmed his parentage and his birth, and his age at death as 37. It added that at age 14 he joined the Methodist Episcopal Church, and served as class leader and steward most of the time until his death. He died of pulmonary consumption (tuberculosis).

Beginning to Know and Understand

Now we start to understand this family and the lives they led. We sense the struggle of the family: moving from New York to Wisconsin and then having the father die before reaching 40; the young mother, nursing her sick, contagious husband, then left alone to raise five children and keep the farm going. Researching the land sales, we find that Cornelia sold the farm in pieces for their maintenance, following Anson's instructions. She kept some of the land, and, in 1860, was listed as a farm widow. In 1880, although no longer on the farm, Cornelia was still in Ft. Atkinson, living with her school-teacher daughter.

To continue the story of the family's life, the lives of the children were followed, too. The son Marsena served in the Civil War, opening a new study area for details to add to his life story. The children began marrying, and some moved to Illinois, Missouri, and, ultimately, California, when the transcontinental train was connected. (The historical events surrounding the completion of the train route also provided fascinating details.) Another son became a doctor and went to Montana, while a third became a dentist and headed to Alaska. Cornelia had done well, seeing that they were educated. The family continued to make its way, and then adventure and the Far West beckoned the children, just as it had their parents.

Tree Tips

Many books can give you ideas of how to craft the stories you're telling. One of the best is Lawrence Gouldrup's Writing the Family Narrative. He includes an annotated bibliography of books written about families. The books he lists are examples of various approaches.

Writing the Story

Writing your family history is more than a mere rearrangement of the family group sheet into a narrative paragraph, but you need not be a professional writer to complete the picture. If you have difficulty, write brief sections with the goal of piecing it all together. Try writing it as a letter to some other family member.

Never think that your writing must be polished and of publishing caliber to be worthwhile. Think of how excited you are to find anything written by your ancestors. What your reader wants are the details that perhaps only you can supply. A bonus of writing about your ancestors is that you will quickly see what you are missing and what events you want to investigate.

Your ancestors were ordinary people, making choices good and bad, raising wayward teenagers, caring for elderly parents. These stories are about them: real people coping with real problems and successes. They are as much a thread in the fabric of history as the important personages in the history books.

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