Family History is About Real People

Family history is about people. Or, at least, it should be. But not just any people. These are your forebears. These are your relatives. You share their DNA. They are real flesh and blood people. OK, that last one isn’t completely correct if they’ve died, but they were still people who walked and talked and had their own relationships, just as you do. Some, of course, would say that family history is just like regular history – just a bunch of dry facts and boring dates and places that nobody could possibly remember, or even want to.

I would disagree. But what makes the difference between boring and fascinating? I would suggest that it is the stories and the images. For example, when I think of my gran,

I form a picture of her in my mind which, in turn, brings back all of the pleasant memories associated with her life. She was born 9 Feb 1885 in Cheltenham, she died on 13 Aug 1976, and was widowed in 1942. Those are facts, but they are not who she was, and nor do they define her life. Rather, they are simply reference points for her story.

Think about it. Wouldn’t you rather be remembered for who you are rather than the basic facts of your life referenced by birth, marriage, and death? And if it’s true for you then you have a responsibility to bring your forebears back to remembrance through pictures and the written word. (If you’re really lucky, the spoken word as well.)

What about those ancestors and cousins who you never knew in life? What are you going to do to bring them to life? Try these hints:

  • Newspaper archives (such as the British Newspaper Archive).
  • Research the history of the area they lived
  • Research their occupations as stated in a census? How and why might they have changed over time?
  • If they moved around over time, try to work out why.
  • Contact cousins who have already researched them. They may have pictures and other information.

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.