If you love genealogy, you might spend a fair amount of time baffled at your less-interested relatives. Aren’t they curious about their roots, their heritage? Don’t they care where they came from? Isn’t it fascinating to find out details about their ancestors’ lives?
In a word, no.
Unless you’ve been bitten by the genealogy bug, dusty old photos and crumbly old gravestones are not the height of entertainment, I’m sad to say. If you want to engage the rest of your family, you’ll need to frame your family history as a story. In this series, we’ll use storytelling principles to enrich our family histories — and maybe even spark some interest in those glazed-over relatives’ eyes.
Start with the Facts
I get it. You have endless pedigree charts and family group sheets and person profiles. Maybe there are a few really interesting ancestors for whom you’ve compiled whole dossiers. That’s good – that’s the backbone of your plot.
However, that’s all it is – a framework. You’re going to need to put some meat on those bones. Luckily, a list of facts will encourage us to look for relationships between those facts even if none is explicitly stated.
I can think of no example that serves to illustrate the point better than that of my 4th great-grand uncle, Hamilton Cornell. Here is a list of his facts, without any analysis. (Note: I have linked to Familysearch.org where most census images can be viewed for free, although my initial research source was Ancestry.com.)
- Birth: Between 1810-1844. Many conflicting dates reported.
- 1850: Lived in Troupsburg, Steuben county, NY with wife Chloe & five children.
- 1860: Lived in Matteson, WI with wife Henrietta & three children.
- 1865: Lived in Olmsted, MN with wife Eugenia & two children.
- November 1866: Summons for a complaint filed at Shawano county, WI by Heneriett Cornell.
- 1870: Lived in Oakland, Freeborn county, MN with wife Eugenia & four children
- 1875: Lived in Freeborn county MN with wife(?) I. E. and three children.
- 1880: Lived in Spruce Gulch, Dakota Territory with wife Eugenia, three children, and two boarders.
- 1900: Lived in Inyo county, CA alone.
- 1910: Lived in Anaheim, CA; enumerated twice. April 21-lived alone; May 4-lived with daughter’s family.
- 1914: Died in Anaheim, CA. (Information at this link researched by Linda Cornell Reese.)
Do you hear a story roiling to the surface? Your job is to tell it, not as a list with an overflow of dates and places, but in human terms.
A word of caution here. Fiction writers can use the tendency to look for patterns to their advantage in constructing a plot, but it can be a pitfall for family history writers, because we have to maintain contact with reality. Include the right facts to avoid drawing erroneous conclusions, and where assumptions and speculations begin to fill the gaps between facts, be careful not to cast guesswork as truth.
Move on to the Clues
When you started your genealogical odyssey, the first thing you did was start asking questions and gathering clues. Details, memories, family legends, general impressions. In some cases, even the thing no one knows (or is willing to talk about) can be a clue.
Then you started your research, and if your experience was anything like mine, you probably saw that not every clue is 100% accurate. However, armed with your facts, you can return to those early impressions and let them inform your storytelling.
One of the family legends I knew going in was the story that we were related to Ezra Cornell, the founder of Cornell University, and supposedly, his descendants could attend school there for free. (The blog Ithacating in Cornell Heights has the scoop on that here.) Still, it was definitely a story to take with a grain of salt, especially since I couldn’t find the link between our family and his.
Then I found an entry for Hamilton Cornell’s grandson and namesake in a digital copy of Landmarks of Steuben County (link requires subscription access; originally published 1896). The short paragraph makes mention of the family’s connection to Cornell University. Not so coincidentally, it was also mentioned in Hamilton Sr.’s obituary, published in an Anaheim CA newspaper in 1914. When I finally found the family tie, I had to laugh. I won’t take the space here to explain it, but it was what you might call “distant” 100 years ago. Today, I’m as related to Ezra Cornell as I am to anyone who might happen to read these words.
That a rumor crossed five generations to get to me is a testament to something worth interpreting. It’s a clue, and it informs the story of Hamilton Cornell with the braggadocio and smooth talking that I’ll just bet he was famous for.
Fill in the Gaps
And another thing, too. I’ve never seen a picture of him and don’t know if one exists, but I’d venture to guess that Hamilton Cornell was one handsome son of a gun, and if anyone ever got the better of him, it was by exploiting his obvious weakness for greener pastures, wherever they may lie.
Your histories will also have gaps, places where you can fairly project and suppose. The in-between bits are the places where you shade in the colors and details, as much as you can, to create interest for your audience.
Next week, we’ll continue A Genealogist’s Guide to Storytelling by talking about Character, Conflict, and Cost.
Question for You
Have you ever tried your hand at writing down your family’s stories? What was your experience? Leave a comment below!