What do Google, the Rootsweb database, my online Albuquerque Years eBook memoir, and this blog have in common? There could be any number of answers to that question, but the one I’m looking for is that they led to the unexpected email appearance a couple of days ago of a far-removed cousin on my mother’s father’s branch of the family.
His great-grandparents are brother and sister to my mother’s great-grandparents. I already knew a lot about that branch of my family, and the bare thread of the story as it moves through nearly two centuries from Ireland to Scotland, to Illinois, to New Mexico, looping up to the Klondike, back to Seattle, and down to New Mexico again before it frays at the end. Several relatives have been hooked on genealogy for decades and have probably found all the documents there are to find. My diligent daughter-in-law has posted an amazing number of entries on the Rootsweb site, making the collective knowledge easy as pie to access.
All that research has produced a helter skelter array of facts, but facts alone are little more than disconnected pieces of a puzzle. I had already set about the task of sorting and arranging the pieces to compile a more comprehensive narrative. The information Dan shared gave me quite a few new pieces and a broader view of others.
Wanting to anchor these new insights before they evaporate or I lose the notes, I pulled out the timeline I began compiling some time ago. Timelines are excellent tools for making sense of family history. The computer is perfect for making them, because it’s so easy to make changes and add extra rows as new information comes to light. I also color coded sets of children and added a column to indicate who the parents are for each birth. I'm feeling my way along on the format, trying to make it visually obvious.
As you arrange things that way, you begin to notice new connections. For example, I had assumed the Dinsmore brothers came over from the same mining camp as the Cowan sisters. However, the longer I peered at places of birth and where the earlier generations were born, I realized that they are unlikely to have known each other in Scotland. The brothers were probably near Edinburgh in the east, and the Cowans left from the Glasgow area in the west.
Before too long, I began to feel the need to add explanations of simple facts, so I opened another document and began writing. In this phase I’m able to look up events and other historical evidence of living conditions in that time and place and extrapolate what life was probably like for them. For example, I can raise the question of how they survived the notorious six-month coal mine strike in Braidwood, Illinois in 1877.
As I worked I also added snippets of material from other documents, like testimony from divorce proceedings I have copies of, notes my mother made, and similar material. The picture has developed considerably.
Adding story to flesh out the bones dug up by the family genealogists is a lot of work, but it’s a labor of love. I’m certainly learning a lot and coming to have even deeper appreciation for the variety of challenges my ancestors, especially my foremothers, faced! Hopefully it will make that corner of history come alive for my descendants too.
Write now: start jotting down some memories of your ancestors. If you have genealogical records, make a timeline of a branch of the family, and use that to draft an overview of people and events. Track down some distant relatives and see what else you can learn. You’ll have lots to talk about at family gatherings and your descendants will thank you.