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Five Easy Ways to Start Your Family History Project
By: Dhyan Atkinson
I will never forget the afternoon my Great Aunt Mildred read my Great, Great Grandfather’s autobiography to us out loud. The story was only two pages long, and written in long-hand, front and back. It seemed so brief to capture an entire life but it was 100% more than I had from any of my other great, great, grandparents!
One of the stories J.C. Atkinson told was of helping his brother’s family move by covered wagon from Wisconsin to the Nebraska Territory. He drove the extra wagon, helped them build a sod house, and then turned around and walked home. WALKED HOME! By himself across the unbroken prairie! He angled his way across the Nebraska and Kansas until he got to the Missouri River. He worked his way downstream on a river boat and then got hired to work on another boat going back up the Mississippi. He said he got back home to Wisconsin “with 50 cents in my pocket and a terrible fit of ague.” I have so often wished I could ask him what he saw as a young man on that walking and working tour across the United States in the mid 1800s!
I also wonder why my other great great grandparents didn’t leave us even a single line of text about their lives but it is probably the same reason so many of us don’t think to leave a legacy for our families and future generations.
• We’re busy living our lives.
• We may think that only the stories of famous people are worth saving.
• We don’t know where to start.
Let me share with you five good starting points. All of them can be done using the “How do you eat an elephant? – One bite at a time” strategy; meaning you can do a little at a time and still get a lot done. By the time you’ve worked on just one section, you will probably be bitten by the family history bug (I was!) and cruise right into writing a personal history for your family. Here are five things to do first.
1. Organize Your Photographs
Many people have pictures, including ancestral pictures all over the house. Albums here. Shoeboxes and cigar boxes there.
• Step number one is to get all your photographs in one place.
• Step number two is to go through the pictures, a batch at a time, and write on the back of each who is in the picture, when the picture was taken, and what is happening in the picture. You may not know all these things, capture as many as you can.
• Here is another, perhaps easier, method. My mother had a half dozen albums from her childhood. I numbered all the pictures and then sat beside her with my digital recorder as she talked about each picture. I learned so much! And I captured many family stories, prompted by my mother’s seeing the pictures, in both in my mother’s voice and in transcription. There is a CD and transcription in the front of every album now. This project was easy and fun!
• The last thing you might want to do is scan all family pictures into the computer and share them with the rest of the family. Too often in the past, pictures were divided up between members of a family resulting in no one having a complete photographic record. Degenerating pictures can often be saved and restored using something like Photoshop. Once your pictures are digitized and shared, you can start agitating for the rest of the family to send you copies of the photographs they have.
2. Heirlooms, Memorabilia and Treasures
The problem with Great Aunt Net’s footstool, Grandma Groeger’s treadle sewing machine, and my father’s antique scientific scales is that they are never going to fold up flat so they can be included in a personal history book. 3D heirlooms need to be documented. Documenting the treasures in your family is another activity that can be done one item at a time. I purchased a copy of “Our Family Heirlooms and Their Stores” by Patsy Kuentz to help document heirlooms in my family but you can also create your own way of documenting.
One easy way to start is to just walk around the house with a little notebook and write about each heirloom: who owned it, how old is it, where is it currently stored, and any stories there may be behind it. Take a digital picture of each item and attach it to the page. Include on your list all the information of historic and monetary value but also remember to include things that no one but members of your family would include as treasures: the pillow cases Grandma Atkinson hand-embroidered, the crock used to make pickles during the Great Depression, the Christmas tree ornaments made by the kids in the family in the 1950s, the myrtle wood bowl purchased on the family trip to Colorado in 1925.
When you get ready to write your personal history you can include pictures of these heirlooms, memorabilia and treasures as “sidebars” or “text boxes” for example weaving in the picture of Great Aunt Net’s footstool when she shows up in the story.
3. Written Material
Look around and see what paper records you have in your family. You may have your Great, Great Grandmother’s naturalization papers framed on the wall or a diary she kept as crossed the ocean from Europe to America. My father has a record of every purchase he made from the time he was first married in 1948 to today. (Okay, my Dad is a little bit obsessive compulsive, but in a nice way!) At first glance one might think “Who cares that we bought an Easter dress for my little sister in 1957, at Hertzfelds, and it cost $12.35?” but these small details begin to paint a picture of family life and the times they lived in.
Start by looking for newspaper announcements on births, weddings, anniversaries, special events, and deaths. Check the family bible for memorial or Holy cards. Also ask the older members of your family if they have saved any letters, journals, or diaries. My aunt saved and then returned all the letters my father wrote to her when he was in the army during WWII. Perhaps your mother is keeping her love letters from your Dad. I had no idea that the autobiography of my Great, Great Grandfather, JC Atkinson, existed until I was interviewing my grandmother on her life story and Great Aunt Mildred “remembered” she had “grandpa’s letter about his life.”
If you want to go a step further, you can search census and other records for bits and pieces of family history. Personally, I am longing to make a trip to Pawnee City and Humphrey (the tiny towns in Nebraska where my parents grew up in) to search the newspaper archives for interesting articles about several generations of my family and their various businesses.
4. Make a List of Chapters
My first family history project was a Family History Cookbook. It started inadvertently because one morning in early December I decided I couldn’t live another day without my grandmother’s recipe for Christmas caramels. It took me about 15 minutes to locate it. I just called my Dad and he had the recipe but I didn’t anticipate that he would then tell me the whole story about my grandmother as a candy maker, how sugar was about all they had in abundance for Christmas presents during the Depression, and how everyone in town wanted Grandma Amy to make them Divinity at Christmas. Gradually the book grew to include recipes for typical holiday dinners down the generations as well as creating a chronicle of what the Farm Generation ate, what the Wonder Bread Generation typically ate, and how my family is eating today. Once I got started, I knew I wanted recipes from my grandmothers, my own family as I was growing up, and I even wrote a chapter about C-Rations and things my father was fed as a soldier on the front lines in World War II. (Shocking! I said to my Dad, “What they fed you doesn’t look all that nutritious.” He replied, “They were feeding people they didn’t expect would live very long.” Yikes!)
Your book doesn’t have to be specialized like a Family History Cookbook. You can include anything you know or find out, but it is fun to start by making a list of chapters for your family history before you start writing.
5. Other Sources
Once you know what you want to write about, identify who is the “keeper of that information” in your family. Perhaps there is more than one person. I got lots of information about growing up on the farm from both my Dad and his brother. Great Aunt Mildred had the only copy of JC Atkinson’s autobiography. My cousin Lisa has my Grandma Groeger’s cookbook with all her handwritten notes. I heard that one of my great grandmothers’ made great dipped chocolates before there was even refrigeration; turns out one of my Dad’s cousins still had the recipe. She also told me some stories about my Dad as a child and their grandparents that I would never have heard otherwise. The more sources you have for your family history, the more windows you have on the past. It was fun for me talking to all these elderly cousins and Aunts and I might never have gotten to know them otherwise.
Make a list of everyone in your family (including neighbors and friends of the family) who might be coaxed into telling you fascinating stories about your family. It helps if you share your chapters list to get them started or come with a list of questions.
Again, individually, these projects do not take much time or effort if you work on them a little bit at a time. You start out asking your mother a single question: ‘Who are the people in this picture?’ and sooner or later you end up with a family treasure of your own; a personal and written record of your family’s life. Good luck and good hunting!
Observations: This site was very helpful in getting me organized so I could create a Family Tree for our upcoming family reunion. Many relatives sent me information and photographs to add to the booklet that was to flush out the actual family tree chart. I had spread everything out on the dining room table. I was under a tight deadline so I ended up bringing my breakfast lunch and dinner into my work space. My sister who came over to help one evening warned me about not putting anything on the table that could spill. I have two frisky cats and she could envision them jumping up onto the table and knocking over liquids or scattering the many papers and photographs. To be carefully I set any drinks on a side table and we decided to keep the doors closed.
One afternoon I heard my cell phone ring. I had left it in the kitchen and ran out to grab it, leaving the door to the hallway open. Sure enough when I returned there were both cats sitting on the table in the midst of the photos. They were batting the pencils around and scattering a few of the photos. As I approached the two frisky fellows one jumped across to the side table with the other following. I lunged to grab them and they went into catch me if you can mode knocking over my pitcher of ice coffee onto the Persian carpet that covers the dining room floor. I mopped up the coffee but knew that there was going to be a stain on the rug. Thank goodness I had listened to my sister. At least all my work was mostly ok- just a few scattered photos. I called my sister. Help me out here. I need a name of a rug cleaning company. She did a quick google search for expert rug cleaning for NYC apts and found Agara Rug Cleaning NYC, a family owned business that had great ratings. Plus she said they specialize in in cleaning and rug repair and restoration of antique rugs. They also offer free Scotchgard protection on all rugs. I profusely thanks her and made the call. I was surprised that they came that afternoon, gave me an estimate and took away the rug to be cleaned. I was amazed at the rug when it was returned two weeks later. They had repaired the fringe that my vacuum cleaner had eaten. It looked great. I have almost finished most of the family tree and the stories for each person. I still needed to scan the photos and add them to their appropriate pages, but I am well on my way.
The response to the booklet was overwhelmingly positive. I was asked if a website could be created for the reunion and have the information in the booklet posted online. I was familiar over seeing the building of websites. A friend had asked me several years ago to help her create an e commerce site for her wig store. We utilized a site that helped e commerce entrepreneurs learn all about ecommerce platforms. They understood very well the requirements of business owners and the steep learning curve that is required to create a successful site. The site offers reviews of the newest software tools, comparisons among the top e commerce platforms, along with sharing tips and solutions one encounters with an e commerce site. I still read their informative blog posts.
So I suppose I do have some knowledge, but.... I finally asked the webmaster and coder who actually built my friend's e commerce wig store site if she could help me out. And she was very willing. Although the site wasn't totally finished by the reunion, my extended family is continuing to ask me to add more photos - of that reunion- and up to date info. We even have linked it to our family facebook page. Another reunion is being held in 2023 and once again, I am adding more info and pictures of the newest members to our clan.
Once again thanks for the tips and instructive help.
How To Organize Your Family History
By: Cheryle Hoover Davis
How many times have you set about to write your family history, only to run across the daunting task of putting it all together in a manner which will make sense?
Many people give up writing their family history at this point. Too much information! So much to write about! If you are like me, you’ve spent years researching your ancestors only to find piles of papers, notes, and website URLs piling up on your desktop.
The key to writing your family history is to GET ORGANIZED, but take it one small step at a time!
We’ve all seen articles on how to organize your clutter and make our homes neat and pleasing. This knowledge can be applied to genealogy research, and writing your history, also!
One interesting thing I have noticed is that most experts on home organization emphasize ‘one step at a time.’ If you choose to do it all at once, you’ve set yourself up for failure before you’ve even begun. Giving yourself permission to do just a little at a time will make the task so much easier.
I know when I began cleaning out the clutter of closets, kitchen cabinets and ‘junk drawers’ I began to feel overwhelmed. I was making a bigger mess and never getting it all finished. What a self defeating experience! Another side effect was not knowing where anything was after I’d made such a mess.
Being a clutter-junkie was something I inherited from my mother, the difference being, she always seemed to have it all organized and easily accessible. In my case, I am dis-organizationally organized. I know where that note about Uncle Harry is in that pile of papers on my desktop, thank you very much. I remember where I put that scrap of paper with Auntie Dorothy’s phone number from 1982 on it. My mother laughed too, so go ahead - laugh out loud!
If you are a ‘neatnik’, ignore this article. If you are a ‘clutter junkie’, read on!
One day, while working on a family history project, I was feeling quite overwhelmed at all the information I had and was able to produce no clearly written story. My mother’s voice came back to haunt me: “You need to get organized…you need to get organized…you need to get organized.”
Ok, alright, Mother, I hear you! But, HOW?
Remember your mother telling you: “Everything has a place…blah blah blah”? Well, it’s true (don’t tell my mother I said that - I‘ll never live it down).
It’s not easy for us clutter junkies, however. I decided I would take it…one small step at a time. First, I cleaned off my desktop. I just threw everything in a couple boxes. There. Done. Finished. Finis.
Well, that was so easy, I decided to take the next step. Sorting out one box. I had file folders, so I placed each surname in a separate folder. Easy enough. It was all going well.
The next step was soon to follow, as the last had been so easy. Before I knew it, it was all organized, the information easily found, and I was ready to begin writing!
The next step was actually writing my family history.
I’ll take it…one step at a time.
Separating Fact from Fiction in Historical Family Stories
By: Paul Duxbury and Kevin Cook
As you sit down to do a genealogy interview with your grandfather, he leans over and whispers to you, "You know, your great-great-grandmother was a Cherokee Indian Princess, don't you?" You will probably encounter this at some point in your family history research. Most people do. It can be extremely difficult to decipher fact from fiction as you are working through your research. While most of the stories you hear will have bits of truth embedded in them, it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction.
One of the first ways to decide what is and is not true is to familiarize your self with the common family history myths most genealogy researchers encounter. The first one is the story about some member of your family being an Indian princess. This myth almost always takes place in the Cherokee tribe, though you might occasionally hear of a Navajo or Apache princess. There are many reasons this myth might have evolved, but the primary one was prejudice against Native Americans. In past years, it was very difficult for most parts of American society to accept any white males marrying Native American women. Giving her the status of princess, while usually completely false, made it a bit easier to deal with. It is important to remember, though, that simply having Native American ancestry may also be a complete myth. It has become a rather popular ancestry to acknowledge in the past few years, so it is important to find some solid evidence before you jump into the belief.
Another popular myth is that three brothers immigrated to America. You rarely hear about seven brothers or two brothers and one sister. As a result, it can make tracking passenger manifests and other documentation difficult if the numbers and the genders of the immigrants are skewed. You will want to try to confirm that there were actually three brothers instead of one brother and two uncles or whatever other numbers, genders, and relationships your family immigrants may have had. The myth of having a stowaway immigrant history is also a popular one. Everyone seems to have had a great grandfather who was a stowaway on a ship. It seems to be more interesting. The truth is, though, that this was not a common practice. Even if you truly did have a stowaway in your family, they will be listed on the passenger arrival list of the ship, typically in the index or on the last page, as they were usually discovered before the ship managed to dock.
Another interesting genealogy myth is the one about having someone famous in your background. It's hard to have the name Smith without considering the possibility that you were once related to John Smith, the explorer. That, however, doesn't make it so. You will have to do some serious research, here, because it is possible that you were actually related to someone famous, but it is not likely. It is just a story people tell to make them feel as if they are legitimizing the family line. One final popular myth is that the family surname was switched at Ellis Island. No such practice ever existed. The most Ellis Island officials ever did was comparing the passenger names to the list created at the departure of the ship. In all likelihood, any names that were switched occurred because the immigrants themselves wanted the names changed to better fit with current American society at the time.
Once you've figured out the popular myths, it's time to start working the truth out of your own family stories. It is best to rely on actual documentation, or primary sources, for your major finds. However, that is not always possible. As a result, if you must rely on oral history interviews, one of the best tips is to be sure to verify the information you have gotten through two or three other people. Relatives are notorious for trying the make the family sound a bit different than it actually is, and talking to several family members can usually help you find the level of truth that you need in your research.
Sorting out fact from fiction in family myths can be very difficult sometimes, but doing it well the first time will help you get an accurate family history that will help generations to come will appreciate.
By: Dhyan Atkinson
If they were living today, many of our female ancestors would be considered successful entrepreneurs and small business owners with a home-based business. A few generations back it was more commonly thought that women were just “bringing in a little extra money to help the family out.” The men in the family were considered the bread-winners. This was not always strictly true. Many of our female ancestors made significant financial contributions to their families, although often this contribution was not considered valuable enough that recognition of our grandmother’s business accomplishments passed down in family history. In my own family, I nearly missed knowing about the business savvy and technical expertise of my maternal grandmother. Having started my own business in the past few years, it made a tremendous difference to me discovering that my grandmother had done the same.
My grandmother, Emma Groeger, had a treadle sewing machine that sat in the corner of her kitchen facing a west window. The kitchen was the heart of my grandmother’s house. Not only did we all spend a lot of time in her kitchen when we visited but when we were gone she spent her days in that sunny west-facing corner sewing for her neighbors.
I had a deep nostalgia for that sewing machine. As children my sister and I were allowed to sit in the chair and work the pedals. We watched the sharp little needle flashing up and down. We got to go through the drawers looking at the spools of colored thread, the tiny embroidery scissors, worn thimbles, cards of rick-rack and ribbon, and other sewing paraphernalia. Best of all, the middle drawer on the left was full of rescued buttons, cut from clothing before it went into the rag box. Big buttons, baby buttons, cloth covered buttons, pearl buttons, special buttons, plain buttons… every shape, color and size filled the drawer. My sister and I would pour them all out and take turns picking until we had divided the pile. Grandma then gave us each a needle threaded with a long thread and a button at the end and we made ourselves button necklaces.
When my grandmother died very suddenly her sewing machine came to live at my parent’s house. It got tucked away down in the basement in a corner. It could be seen, but no one could work the pedals any more and that special middle drawer on the left was blocked by one end of the sofa.
One afternoon, 20 years after my grandmother died, my mother and I were reminiscing about her and I suddenly said “Do you suppose the buttons are still there in the sewing machine drawer?” My mother said she didn’t see why they wouldn’t be; nothing had been touched or moved since Grandma last used the machine. In a flash, we were down in the basement pulling the old sewing machine out into the middle of the room where we could look at it.
It was different sitting at Grandma’s sewing machine now that I was an adult. It was amazing to sit where she had sat so many hours of her life and know that her machine was just exactly as she had left it the day that she died. Yes, the buttons were all there! And, as we opened the rest of the drawers, I smelled once again a faint scent of my grandmother’s perfume and house and clear evidence of her life right down to the pencil stubs she sharpened by razor blade, and the little spiral notebooks she used to keep track of her sewing jobs.
Most importantly, we found something that day that completely changed my view of my Grandmother. We found, tucked into the most current of her little spiral notebooks, the final, canceled check she used to pay for her house from all her little 10 cent, 50 cent, and one dollar sewing jobs. The check was dated 1945 and my Grandmother died in the late 1960s. Clearly she had transferred that cancelled check from job book to job book over the years to remind herself of what she had accomplished with her work.
I had never thought of my grandmother as a business woman. My family referred to Grandma as a “housewife who took in a little sewing on the side.” However finding this canceled check prompted my mother to tell me the real story. My grandfather was sick, hospitalized, and unable to work for many years during the Great Depression. At times the family was so poor they lived on tomatoes and bread for weeks. My grandmother gardened and made all the family clothes but still times were so tough my mother had to quit taking her beloved piano lessons because the family couldn’t afford the 50 cents per week they cost.
Eventually my grandmother was hired to run a youth center in her town for the WPA and later, when the center closed, she boarded students from farm families during the school week, often getting paid in chickens, eggs and vegetables which kept her family fed. She began ”taking in sewing” (which should really read “Began her own custom sewing business”) during a time when other job opportunities were not open to women and at a time when small town families could not afford “store-boughten” clothes. (Read that “She found a great niche for her services which was in high demand in her community!”) She was so talented that she had only to look at a picture of a dress cut from the newspaper and she could make it herself. All during the Depression she not only kept clothes on her family’s back and food on the table but she managed to set a little money aside each week until she had enough to purchase a lovely two story house, the very house she had dreamed of owning for years. It cost her $6,000 in the 1940s but she paid for it with the pennies, nickels and dimes she earned with her sewing.
Had I not sat at my Grandmother’s sewing machine I might never have known she was an extraordinarily talented seamstress, entrepreneur and business woman or that she was so proud of herself that she kept a reminder of her success inside the sewing machine she used until the day she died.
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