What makes someone worthy of a biography? Do they have to be famous? Publishers think so. Your bookstore sells biographies of people in the news, not because their lives are necessarily more interesting or meaningful than others, but because their fame sells books.
I have a classmate who lost all four limbs to a virus and returned to teaching in only nine months. My husband’s father went to work in the coal mines at age eleven but made it out by becoming a safety engineer. Emilie Loring lived a full life, got to retirement age, and then turned out thirty best-sellers that made her famous. I will make you a bet that your family has worthy stories, too. They only need to be discovered and told.
We tend to think biography is about famous people, and genealogy is what families do. Biography goes for depth–the motivations, character, and personality of a person. Genealogy, on the other hand, tends to go for extent—how far back in time can you go? Can you fill in the branches, twigs, and leaves of your family tree? To me, genealogy is simply biography, over and over. Whether it’s a single life or a whole family tree, the goal is to tell a story.
But all of those people! All of those dates! The television series “Who Do You Think You Are?” has popularized the rewards of genealogical research, but it sure glosses over the research process. How convenient, to sit down with a nice archivist who has your family’s secrets already bookmarked for you. The real process can take years, and who has time for that?
If you know me at all, you might imagine I’d have a different take on it. First, I think of it less as research and more as “sleuthing.” Research is serious; sleuthing is an adventure! Discovering a story that hasn’t been told is like finding a vein of gold in an unexpected place. All of a sudden, you understand something that you might never have suspected. For example, before Emilie Loring was an author, she was an Arts & Crafts metal worker who made both silver boxes and jewelry. Had history gone differently, we might have found her works in museums instead of libraries.
“I fastened a buffer to the wheel. With my foot on the treadle I can make it hum. I’ve been using tools for years. I ought to be skilled.” Hilltops Clear
Do some of it yourself.
Families tend to have a few people who do the sleuthing and many more who happily receive the results. My advice is to do at least some part of the work yourself, even if it is just a single search through the census or newspapers or family albums. What we discover becomes ours in a way that what we are given never does. And if you like instant gratification as much as I do, concentrate first on the stories closest to you in time, from the resources that are most available. You will probably have results in an hour. In a weekend, you could have enough to call the family about.
Here are my best recommendations, after you’ve collected what your family already knows:
My favorite site for forms is the MidContinent Public Library in Independence, Missouri. http://www.mymcpl.org/genealogy/family-history-forms They even have a family tree for children to color. Theirs is a well-conceived site with plenty of useful information about researching family histories.
Hands-down, Ancestry.com is the site I use most. http://www.ancestry.com You can use it for free in libraries, or you can buy a membership and access it from home. I use my World Explorer membership almost daily.
For New England heritage, including westward migration states, the New England Historical Genealogical Society’s paid site is terrific: http://www.americanancestors.org I especially like their free, weekly newsletter that has referred me, more than once, to a new, online source. http://www.americanancestors.org/browse/publications/the-weekly-genealogist/digital-archive/ Find them on Facebook, too.
Searchable, digitized newspapers are a godsend. The Library of Congress’ Chronicling America project lists many newspapers available to the public: http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/newspapers/ You may have to spend an afternoon with Google to figure out more options for your locality, but don’t ignore them; old papers are lively repositories of local news and gossip.
Compelling and personal
Cemeteries, basements, and local historical societies have the kinds of treasures whose information will never be digitized, even if they are some day catalogued. A trip to Forest Hills Cemetery yielded this about Emilie’s grandfather:
His stone symbolized his life’s journey, with seaweed on top for the native of Portland, and on the back, the one line that he claimed for himself throughout his adulthood: “Albert Baker, Printer.” A small stone for his daughter Annie was placed at his side. Happy Landings
Find an object and discover its story. There’s a reason that it was preserved, and if you find that, you have a peek into something personal. Few are excited by names and dates; nearly everyone is moved by a compelling, personal story.
Tell the stories.
Whole industries are built on telling stories that capture our imaginations. Your family’s real stories are no less compelling, and they will disappear forever, unless someone passes them on. I found so many precious, side stories while researching Emilie that I retired early from a teaching career that I loved in order to pursue and tell them. You don’t have to quit your job, but please, do tell the stories.
“No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away…” Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man
Share this blog with everyone you know who has an interest in family stories. Sometimes, all that’s needed is a little help at the start. If you give it a try, let me know how it goes for you. I’m happy to help with ideas.