Writing Your Family History

Genealogy has greatly increased in popularity over the last decade, with many of us baby boomers wanting to discover our roots and also to pass on this information to our children and grandchildren. Sometimes it is prompted by a child or grandchild wanting information for a Family Tree Project in school; sometimes it is our own curiosity; and sometimes it is simply a hobby that grows out of all proportion. Whatever the reason, the first question is usually: Where do I start? The second question should be: Do I want a family tree or a detailed family history? There is a big difference in the time and research required.

The family tree is very basic. John and Jane Black married in 1775 and had: Ann, Robert, Elizabeth, James, Leonard, William, Ruth and Mary. This is a basic family tree and is usually written in a vertical ‘tree’ format. Dates are usually included – births, marriages and deaths – but little else. Software programs are available that will do much of the work for you and many people do use them; all you have to do in enter the details. I prefer to do mine in HTML format because it’s easier to make changes or additions and to add extra information. I like to have total control over the finished product, but that’s a personal choice. Then again, my granddaughter tells me I’m weird anyway!

Now try this version: John Black married Jane Green on 12 October 1775 at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Hillview. Their children were: Ann, 1777, died; Robert, 1779; Elizabeth, 1780; James, 1782; Leonard, 1784; William and Ruth, twins, 1786; and Mary, 1790. Ann and Leonard died of scarlet fever at six and four months respectively. Robert was lost at sea at the age of 17. Records show that the men of the family were fishermen, mostly engaged in the inshore fishery. Their life was a constant struggle to keep food on the table and clothes on their backs. They lived in a two-room cabin with an attic where the children slept. Their diet consisted mainly of fish, which was salted for winter use, and the basic vegetables that the women grew in their gardens and stored in root cellars. They kept a few sheep for wool, chickens, and maybe a cow for milk. There was a one-room school in the community which most children under 12 attended in the winter months. Church services were held there when the clergy visited about once every six weeks. About the only social activity in their lives was chatting with friends and neighbours on Sundays when no work was done. This contains much more detail and is a family history.

When researching a family history, one encounters many stumbling blocks and brick walls. Often, this is a case of illegitimate births where the father is not revealed, lost records or events simply not being recorded. There are numerous spelling variations and inconsistent dates. Marriage records show the place of residence at the time of the marriage which may not necessarily be the birth place of the individual. Sometimes, the place of residence is incorrectly listed as the place of birth on a death record. Therefore, one has to read very carefully and do as much cross-referencing as possible. The whole process requires countless hours, a great deal of time and gallons of coffee to keep you awake and sane!

Ah, but when you find some obscure record you have been seeking, some tiny piece of the infinite puzzle that consumes all your waking hours the excitement is almost euphoric. I have been known to actually shout out loud in such instances – luckily no one is around to hear me!

Researching one’s family history is a backward process. By that, I mean, you literally have to work backwards. First, you start with what you know of your immediate family. Then you question all living relatives; pick their brains for anything they can tell you. Oh, and be sure to dig out and record all the interesting little stories and anecdotes they can relate, unless you’re just doing a basic family tree. Believe me; it will make for fascinating reading.

The next step is to search birth, marriage and death records, as well as land grants. Newspapers and even court records can yield results too. Sometimes, this may require visiting other places, but an impressive amount of information is accessible through the Internet these days. A Google search for a particular family can bring interesting results, including making contact with cousins, distant cousins to be sure, but the connection is still there – and so is the desire to learn more about your mutual ancestors. I have found a number of cousins that way and had the extreme good fortune to have met several of them.

A complete family history generally includes as much detailed information as possible about the lives of your ancestors. I look for things like when and where they married, including details about the church; where their children were baptized; and the communities they lived in. But, more importantly, to get a complete picture, you need all available information about their lifestyles – details of their work, homes and living conditions, how they cooked, what they ate, social activities, community descriptions and any historical events that might have affected their lives in any way.

When you find an ancestor’s marriage record, it often provides the ages of the bride and groom, the groom’s occupation, when and where married, who married them and who the witnesses were. You now have the necessary data to search for the spouse’s birth record and find the names of his or her parents, etc. A death record will usually give the cause of death, age at time of death, place of death, birth and internment, attending physician if there was one, and the clergy who did the burial. Each generation you complete is the building block for researching the previous generation.

So, if you want to learn about your ‘roots’, I hope I’ve given you some practical guidelines to get you started. Once you start digging, one of two things will happen: boredom and frustration will cause you to give up quickly; or you will get bitten by the genealogy bug and spend every spare minute researching.

© Fay Herridge
Published in Canadian Stories, Feb/Mar 2013

Non-fiction 1

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