I discussed the importance of writing your family history awhile ago. This topic is one I feel very strongly about and I constantly impart to other genealogists. It is so important that we tell the stories of our families.
Here are a few more ideas for jump starting the writing of your family history. These topics can add meat to the bones of just names and dates. My friend Andrea sent me a terrific quote a few weeks ago that is very appropriate:
“Better to write something now, than everything never.”
Topics to Include in a Family History
History of your place of research
Example: The city of Tifton, GA (and the county) was named for Captain Henry Tift. He built large sawmills to harvest the lumber that would be central to this community.
My great-great grandfather John Smith was born in Tifton. Many rural areas were named for prominent men in the area, often slaveowners. (Update: 10/18/2018, I later discovered John was not born there, but the advice on the history still stands:))
Geography: what was the landscape like?
Example: Many of my ancestors from Hardin County lived along the Tennessee River. The River was a major influence on the lives of the townspeople. At the turn of the century, steamboat travel was frequent. As was, according to the local paper, drownings of local citizens!
Migration patterns: where did most of the people that settled in the area come from? When they left, where did they go?
Examples: Most of the people in early Tennessee were a part of the westward migration from Virginia and North Carolina. That was the migration path of Giles Holt, the slaveowner of my Tennessee ancestor, Malinda Holt. Also, I traced the Northern migration of African-Americans from Hardin County,TN after World War I. My own grandparents were apart of that story.
Items from U.S. national history, state history, and/or county history
Example: My friend Marion’s family is from Caroline County, VA, and I think the fact that the Lovings story happened there is very interesting. They are the couple whose Supreme Court case overturned state laws forbidding interracial marriages.
Hardin County, TN was the site of the Civil War battle of Shiloh. Tennessee’s early Union occupation in that way informed the experiences of many slaves who ran away (called “contrabands” of war) and joined the war effort. Tennessee also had more black volunteers than any other state.
Slave narratives & autobiographies
Example: For my ancestors from Montgomery County, MD, I included excerpts from the autobiography of Josiah Henson who was enslaved in the same place. For Hardin County, TN, I used the WPA narrative of Edward Bradley. We can understand something about the lives of our enslaved ancestors by the experiences of others nearby.
Laws relating to slaves and freedmen
Example: After the Civil War, Maryland’s former slaveowners utilized the apprenticing laws to essentially re-enslave the children of their former slaves. The Freedmen’s Bureau helped the former slaves fight to get their children back. I discussed this in my narrative of my ancestors from Somerset County, MD, where the practice was rampant.
Illnesses and deaths
Example: There was a yellow fever epidemic in 1873 in Jacksonville, FL, where my dad’s family lived. This outbreak forced many people to temporarily flee the city. So that is an important piece of history for families in that place and time.
The 1918 flu pandemic touched just about every community. Use death certificates, headstones and newspaper articles to get a sense of its effects where your ancestor’s lived.
Example: Harry Hooks amassed a fortune as a freed black shoemaker in Hardin County, TN before the Civil War. His wealth, probably due to his skilled labor, enabled him to purchase his wife & children.
Also, many prominent men in the county, like William Cherry, were Unionists during the Civil War. That created an interesting dynamic in comparison to other Southern cities. General Grant occupied the Cherry Mansion while his army was at Pittsburgh Landing.
Churches, schools & businesses
Example: My grandfather owned successful pharmacies in the booming 1940s business district of Jacksonville, Florida. This explains why his family never migrated North along with so many others. The story of the black business districts that grew up in cities all over the country are worth remembering.
The efforts that African-Americans put into building churches and schools always inspires me. They were largely destitute. My Prather family helped found Brooke Grove Church in Montgomery County, MD (number 15 in this historic pamphlet).
So include those histories–they tell the story of resistance, and hope and courage of a people.
This list is by no means complete, but perhaps its given you some ideas to get started. These kinds of details will make your narrative come alive. Especially since many of these communities are gone, these are some of the ways we can document their extraordinary stories of resilience.
For those who have started writing, can you tell me other topics that you have added to your family histories?
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.