Turn Genealogy into Family History

family_history1The difference between genealogy and family history is subtle. Many people tend to use these terms interchangeably. I know I do, and in most situations that is not a problem. Even so, they are different. Genealogy is the study of your family lineage and is usually very precise. It documents birth, marriage, and  death records. It also links people to the preceding generation. Family history, on the other hand, while it does include genealogy, is (or should be) a lot more than that.

To put it another way, family history includes anything that helps to preserve a family legacy such as video and audio recordings, family stories,  pictures, and so forth. Collecting all this information is what builds a family history. Anything else is just facts and figures. Here are a few questions you ought to ask:

  • What did your ancestor do? What was his job?
  • How did she live?
  • Where did they move to?
  • What historical events did he witness?
  • What events occurred in her community that influenced the decisions she made?
  • Why did they migrate?

Collecting all of this information – and turning it into a story – is what builds a family history.

One of the best ways to get other members of the family to show an interest and share your love of family history is to bring alive your ancestral family.  Nobody is really enthralled by knowing that your great grandfather was born on this date and place and died on that date and place.  That can be boring, especially to the rising generation.  Your ancestors were people who lived lives in much the same way that you do with your family, so make sure you tell their story in an entertaining way.

Bring them back to life by adding historical events that took place during their life. It is easier to motivate family members if they know that great-great grandfather was born just after the (American) Civil War, or that your great grandmother was a suffragette.  Their birth and their death information is only part of telling their stories. What were their lives like when these events were occurring?

Ancestry has done a pretty good job in this regard. For example, consider these screenshots from my grandmother’s Ancestry page. It starts off with an editable synopsis

of her life and also shows how I am related to her. Next, there is a map showing where events that occurred in her life. And the life events are interspersed with other events, such as this one of the Women’s Social and Political Union. And the gallery shows all of the pictures and documents I have gathered.

There are other websites that can also give you events relevant to the period in history you are looking at. OnThisDay.com, for example offers a listing of many major events, although it does not cover every single day. It does not cover anything on my date of birth, for example, but it is still pretty comprehensive. Newspaper archives are also excellent for gleaning information, especially events local to your family.

Stories and Memories for Family History

Stories1

Here is a perfect example of why we ought to write down our stories and record memories and connect them to our ancestors, and how not to do it.

A little while ago I was researching one woman who appeared in all of the available censuses for England & Wales. That’s from 1841 right through 1911. What was interesting was seeing her age in each census. We know they are taken every 10 years, right? But in her case she apparently only aged 9 years between censuses – even before she got married! (I’m guessing she’s the one who gave the data to the enumerator.) But it continued afterwards as well. 

While that is interesting, I then found that when she died, the person reporting the death gave her correct age. So, somebody in the family was aware of the truth (more likely several people). But this gives us some interesting facts to help flesh out her character. She was clearly concerned about what others thought of her appearance, and was sufficiently dominant that her parents, husband, and, later, her children, continued to pander to her – at least, during her lifetime.

Now, I suppose one could say that these conclusions are based on conjecture, but really, isn’t that what most storytelling is? You ask any football fan how a given goal was scored and you will likely get as many variations as there were fans attending the game. Besides, I really warmed to her after I saw what was going on, and it’s so much more interesting than just plain, boring, facts and documents.

So, why am I offering this up as an example of what not to do? Because I did not record this at the time of my research. As a result, I have no idea who I am writing about. I’m sure I’ll come across it one day and will be sure to add the story, but until then I will just have to resolve to be more diligent in my story writing.

At any rate, stories and memories should bring history to life. Don’t know much about a particular family? If you know where they lived you can always research the history of the area and show the type of work they were likely involved in and so forth.