Sunday, January 27, 2008

Put your Family History in Context

I’ve become increasingly interested in my family history of late, and it’s become abundantly clear to me that I’m not alone. Even within my own family tree, there are multiple people researching independently and cooperatively over the internet. And people all over the world are doing the same, tracing their own family histories.

However, after all those years of researching are done, you’ve got to write it all up and leave the best possible record of your work, and of your family. But, this isn’t easy. Many people out there aren’t the best writers and in an effort to stick to the facts, the family history that you treasure often comes out dry and boring to another reader – even to your children. Part of the problem might have to do with your methods.

Most people who are writing family histories tend to want to single out their family. You dig through archives and church records and you find your most distant relative. Let’s say, John from Suffolk county, England, born in 1765. But, you probably don’t know very much about John, beyond his name and where he lived. So you start your family history something like this:

“The first known member of our family was named John. He lived in Suffolk County, England and was born in 1765. We know this because his name is written in a Church register.”

Typically, this is followed by who John married, what children he begot, and then proceeds to the more recent family history for which more information is available.

It can be frustrating, faced with only one little signature in a church register, and seemingly nothing else to go by to find out who your ancestor was. However, John didn’t think of himself as a man who left a single record for future generations, he thought of himself as a part of a community, living in an even wider community. So, when faced with this shortage of information, put your family in context.

You know John lived in Suffolk in the late eighteenth century. What else happened there during that time? Was there a war that affected the people of Suffolk? A religious movement? A political battle? Who was the local lord? What was he like? Who was the minister at John’s church? Can you find a copy of a sermon given by that minister? What did the people of Suffolk want out of life? What was the landscape like? How did they differ from other Englishmen? What did they tend to eat for dinner?

Questions like these can bring to light new information about John and his neighbours that can bring him to life. The brief and boring factual account becomes:

“The first known member of our family was named John. He lived in Suffolk County, England and was born in 1765. We know very little about John, but we do know quite a lot about the county he lived in. At the time of John’s birth, it was known as a center of weaving, and produced mainly for the European export market. Most rural families were in some way connected to this cottage industry, and it is quite possible John’s family was too. Around the time John turned twenty-five, Napoleon blocked this export trade and the people of Suffolk fell on hard economic times…

The major religion in Suffolk at the time was still the Anglican church, however compared to many regions of England, Suffolk had a very high dissenting population, mainly Quakers and Methodists. We know from the name of Church John attended, that he was one of these Quakers. Quakers at this time were known for their strong belief in…”

This context lets us feel like we know John just a little bit better. Even though we don’t know exactly what he did, thought or said, we know what his home might have been like. And you’re not doing him a disservice by lumping him in with his neighbours, you’re giving him life on the pages of your family manuscript that a one-time record of his signature does not.

Our ancestors thought of themselves as a part of a broader community. So there’s no harm in representing them as such. And hey, with a little context, you might even write a history that someone else might want to read it.

1 comment:

William J. Turkel said...

Adam, "John" is a lot like the central character in Corbin's Life of an Unknown.