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About Writing Your Family History

Part I - The WHAT

© by Felix G. Game

Many books exist about how to write your family history. I neither want to quote them to you, nor find fault with them. Instead, I would like to bring the whole subject close-to-home, to the level where you and I operate every day. I am writing this on the premise that some of you have considered, are in the process of, or will some day consider writing down the results of your research in some organized fashion which will hopefully be intelligible to a descendant 250 years from now.

If you are thinking about how to preserve your research results, you must already have accumulated a fair bit of data, and there is a good chance that most of it consists of BMD (birth, marriage, death) names, dates and places. And for many people who are "working on their genealogy" this is not only entirely satisfactory, but an end in itself. It takes a lot of work to gather BMD data and the perseverance of a researcher who manages to go back 200 or 300 years to accumulate such date is admirable. What they have is, however, not a family history as I see it. 

What is the difference between genealogy and family history?  

I see genealogy as the tracing of a pedigree, a lineage. There is much valuable information to be learned from this, and is a daily topic of conversation in small villages where most everyone is related to everyone else. People need to know who they can marry, and who is too closely related. People want to know which families tend to develop certain sicknesses, and which ones can be expected to live a long and healthy life. The BMD data will provide that information, and more. We are at the mercy of the cleric who entered the event into his register, and if he was thorough, we can occasionally find the identity of three generations in one entry. If he was lazy or stupid, we will find an entry of a birth that says "Josef" son of Josef" and we will not even know the family name of that child.  By and large we are, however,  able to follow the genetic line of our ancestors quite well, and are able fill in most of the fields of a genealogy program that we use to store this data. It is clear to me that genealogy is event driven. The events that drive it are the ones recorded in the registers of religious or civil authorities. It can be exciting to find yet another  name we can key into our program, but let us be honest, it is rather dry data. I often get the impression that all that seems to matter is to find and record a person's date of birth, date of marriage and date of death, and that no one really cares what sort of a person is represented by those dates. Was it a  happy or sad person, capable or deficient, respected or hated, poor or rich? It is when we want to know those things that we begin to work on our  Family History.

What should be included in the family history you want to write?

That question is easy to answer: Everything! I have found that f amily history is the stranger-than-fiction part of our ancestry, the part that often helps us to understand ourselves better, or at least to be a bit more compassionate towards the family misfit we prefer not to talk about. Family history is a small part of world history, a very small part to be sure, unless you have someone like Napoleon  in your tree, someone who actually helped shape history. Most of us will not find a Napoleon in our family tree, but most of us will in fact find very interesting people who will provide us with very proud moments during our research. It could be for their courage when fighting in the King's army, or fighting off Indians, or for walking 30 miles in a blizzard to get help for a sick wife, or simply for having been an industrious, upstanding, well-respected citizen. Each person is part of history, and their contributions do not have to be glamorous, but most of the time we will not be able to help admiring how they adapted to and coped with the situation their lives bestowed on them. But to find out any of this, we must care enough to want to know.

You probably know more family history already than you give yourself credit for. Most people hear parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles tell stories about some long ago event which has been handed down as oral tradition. If some of these legends sound far-fetched do not disregard them out of hand. Be a family historian and research every little sliver of that story against recorded historic events. Most family legends have a basis in truth, and if they were worth retelling over decades, then something must have happened to make this a worthwhile topic to be told and retold at family gatherings.

Now that you have most of the names and dates entered into a data base use that as a gridwork for your research. Find in this grid the oldest living relatives then go and talk to them, and ask intelligent questions. It is best to prepare these beforehand, and they should be questions that indicate your understanding of life's intricacies. How did great-grandfather meet his bride who lived thirty miles away on the other side of the mountain? Or did they have trains back then? Was there a train anywhere near that place? In which year did it go into operation? All you have to do is imagine yourself climbing a mountain to go see your future bride 30 miles away, and the questions will come by themselves.       

Some aspects of gathering information for a family history have more to do with understanding life than with being a historian. If we really want to understand our ancestors and their families we need to ask specific questions, and then we need to try and find answers. I am very impressed, for example, with the researcher who has found that he descends from a long line of farmers, and who has taken the trouble to research what it meant to be a farmer two hundred years ago - when there were no tractors, and when even the price of an ox was often beyond the resources of a colonist. The researcher needs to be curious about obligations the ancestors had. Did they have to donate a predetermined number of days of free labor to help the estate owner harvest the crops - just about the time the ancestor's own crops were ready to be harvested? Living in a purely agricultural setting, how did the colonists acquire cash money to buy footwear, salt, nails, the services of a midwife, or a coffin? Today even your friendly neighborhood lawyer may experience a periodic "cash flow" problem. Back then cash money must have been one of the most crucial concerns of a family. How did they get cash? How much of their crop could they sell for cash yet still have enough left to feed their own family until the next harvest? How much did a burial cost? How much did the midwives charge? There were  few jobs that actually paid cash . Not much cash, but cash just the same. Some villages had a man who had to ring the church bells for reasons other than summoning the faithful, such as to warn of an approaching storm, or in case of fire, or if there was imminent danger of armed hostilities. Other occupations that brought in cash were held by the teacher who had to be scribe, notary, musician and choir master all wrapped in one, by the various communal herdsmen who looked after cattle, sheep, pigs, or horses. Some villages even had a night watchman. Vineyard watchmen, who occasionally shot their colleagues, were also paid in cash. There were also tradesmen, who might ply their trade on a part-time basis. The cobbler and the cooper were much in demand, and so was the midwife. And let us not forget that there were also physicians, and probably veterinarians - although I have yet to come across a vet in all my research - perhaps the blacksmith was expected to know all about animals.

We would like to think that our ancestors were nice people. How can we tell whether they were nice people or not? Inasmuch as we spend a lot of time with our noses in parish registers, we should be able to get some idea about that. Did you notice in the baptismal registers that two of the people named are the sponsors, also known as the Godfather and the Godmother? And in the marriage register, did you notice that normally two people are named as witnesses? Yes, of course you have noticed. But did you make a point of going through the registers systematically to see how many times a specific ancestor was acting either as a sponsor or as a witness? I came across one GGGG-grandfather, whose record required three pages to list the number of times he fulfilled one or the other of those functions. For recording such things in my documentation, I now use a heading which I call "Social Interaction". I would like to think that people who were often asked to act as Godparents at baptisms, or to be witness to a marriage, were respected and of above average  popularity among their village peers. Perhaps they were even  considered well off since being Godfather or witness brought with it the "privilege" of paying the priest for his ministrations (remember how difficult it was to acquire cash money). Such information is all there in the parish records, and in old  newspapers.

Also available in the records is the occupation, or "station in life". It may not look like much, but to the observant researcher an important aspect of family history will be revealed when in the birth register the father's occupation, which on the occasion of successive births may have been shown as "servant", all of a sudden changes to "farmer", or when his station changes from "cotter" to "landowner". The last one is, of course, a direct challenge to the researcher to confirm in the land registers that ownership was actually involved. In the meantime we can accept the cleric's entry on the basis that everyone knew everybody else and no one could get away with making untrue pretensions on such a solemn occasion. We should also look at the final entry in the death register which often shows the occupation of the deceased - this will tell us the highest social rung a person attained.
One aspect of my own family history which initially disturbed me, was the tendency for a rather hasty remarriage by men whose wives had just died. It almost seemed indecent to have them rush to the altar with a new, and almost always much younger woman only sixty days after the previous wife had died. Some did this two or three times. Were these men unfeeling monsters? If you found this in your family, did you examine and probe for reasons? After reviewing the records, I had to admit that they had compelling reasons to act that way: They had a house full of small children needing a mother. To make a living these men had to work the fields, or hire themselves out at whatever work was available. A more immediate need than a half dozen small children crying for food and attention can hardly be imagined.

On the topic of children, I often get into arguments with some of my contemporaries who see something irresponsible in having many children on a meager income. I get into arguments because I don't like people of today becoming judgmental about how people 200 years ago lived their lives. What could they have done? How much did they know? It is a known fact that many children died very young, and the causes are not all elegant. Many were just too weak at birth, many succumbed to childhood illnesses which today are no longer a threat, and many others became victims of epidemics. Perhaps people had an instinctive belief that they should have many to finish up with a few. Far from condemning my prolific ancestors, I applaud the ones who managed to raise their children to adulthood with only a small number of deaths.

So when you aim to publish your family history, there will be two ends that will have to work towards the middle. At one end there must be a great amount of compulsive curiosity to find out as much as possible about the lives of those before us. On the other end there must be a never-failing awareness that we are preserving something for people perhaps six or more generations into the future, and that we must make sure that we say things in a way they will understand. The rest is simply a matter of patience and imaginative perseverance, and will fall into place almost by itself.

The point of this discussion is that it is one thing to find an ancestor referred to by his occupation and simply write the information down, and that it is a totally different thing to use this information to determine what role the ancestor may have played in his community, and what standard of living that role provided for his family.

It is almost unavoidable when working on a family history not to read about the relevant history of the region. There are some excellent works to be found where we least suspect them, and quite often they contain detailed descriptions of local customs as they existed, the degree of attention paid to ethnic garb and to cooperative methods of harvesting, to customs and protocol connected with weddings and such. Reading such works fills in the gaps in your family history, and if you do it carefully, and watch the time periods closely, you will be able to insert a few pages of very interesting general information in places where you have not been able to find out anything specific about your own ancestors.

There are records sitting around in archives that we either ignore, or perhaps are not even aware of. Many of them have solid family history information. Although life tended to be simpler, there was already a structure, and a bureaucracy in place. And wherever there is a bureaucracy, there will be a paper trail . Going outside the confines of parish records, we know that people got mixed up with the civil authorities for such things as land transactions, settling of estates, holding of office in the community, being drafted into the army, getting arrested for shooting a rabbit. Some fell victim to violent acts or accidents. One of my ancestors, a guard of vineyards, was shot dead by a fellow guard, another ancestor had his head bashed in by the big cast-iron wheel of the estate's water well. I can just visualize the full pail slipping from his hand back down into the black depths of the well, immediately starting the wheel to spin fast and furiously the handle becoming a lethal weapon. Another was helping a friend to build a house and the brick wall collapsed on him doing enough internal damage to kill him after two days of suffering. These were young men in their twenties and thirties and all had small children. Reading the parish records I have frequently encountered widows and widowers in their early twenties.

In closing I would like to mention one ingredient of family history that I find neglected: All our ancestors were using money, and some of that money was very attractive. As a one-time numismatist, I can vouch for the fact that coins minted in the Austrian Empire are among the most delicate-looking and aesthetically satisfying ones. They were trusted and respected, and continue to be used to this day (the Maria Theresia Thaler, first struck in 1753 is still legal tender in some regions of the Balkan and Africa). Images of these pretty coins, which were so important to the people whose lives we are researching, will look good in anyone's family history. I for one intend to include in my manuscript several pictures of the coins that were in circulation during the lifetime of my ancestors. I will also try to make these images more meaningful by providing examples of what each coin could buy.

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