Friday, April 30, 2010

Confessions of a Storytelling Family Historian; Part II, Doing the Footwork

Confession 1: In this community of serious genealogist, being a teller of stories places me in a space apart, and indeed intimidates me.
Confession 2: A desire to be recognized as a serious historian, as well as a gifted story teller.
Confession 3: When I started this series, I did not have a clue as to how I write.

So this is what I know. Storytelling, and especially in the realm of family history, is serious business. Outside my storytelling world there are those waiting for the misstep, the wrong year, the wrong picture, the crack in the story's facade. My readers they will tell me about it --- and so they should. This weaver of dreams and what-might-have-been's learned (usually the hard way) to relentlessly do the research.

I live in rural southern Oregon. The internet is my friend, Google is my friend, Ancestry is my friend. Hours are spent staring into the computer screen, plinking out queries, trying here and looking there – scouring for historical documents available to me. The research process is the same for genealogist, historians and the teller of stories. We gather bits and pieces of information to weave a tapestry of our subjects lives in time and space. As a story teller, I tend to look at the hard facts with a desire fill in the blanks, shapes and colors.

Research for a good story, especially for family history, has two separate but related phases; First, the research specifically related to the person or persons in the story, and secondly, research into the specific time and place. I start by creating a framework for my family stories --- a scaffold to which I add names, dates, places and events. When I am lucky I the “old ones” left me stories, letters, and the “begats” of Bibles and family trees. Although there was a time when I viewed such items as the Truth, now these are just pieces of information to verify. We all share this process of obtaining and verifying historical documents, however, as a storyteller, I always want more - more emotion, more color, more sounds and sights, more taste and feel.

In my storytelling brain, every piece of information forms a picture of at that particular time and place. For instance, I had only three pieces of information for Baby Irene and her 18-month life: a death certificate, a short death notice from a newspaper, and an old family picture that always graced my grandmothers wall. My mind's eye saw the untimely death of beautiful baby girl in the break-lands of Oregon's high desert. She was attended by a country doctor who came up with a very sophisticated cause of death, given the place and time --- a snapshot of her story.

My search for Baby Irene's story took me further afield, even though I had a significant amount of secondary information about the area and people of eastern Oregon. The list questions for my secondary research included: What did this medical terminology mean in 1905? What was the history of this disease? How would a country doctor in a small town in eastern Oregon know about such a sophisticated disease? Does that disease have any relevance to future generations? After delving into the morass of 19th century writings about “Marasiuus Juvenile, probably Tubercular sclerosis” and the current understanding of the disease, my head and heart began reconciling the lovely, laughing baby with the ultimate ravages of the disease.

Orena's Story was, in many respects, a very different process for me. I had a jumble of family stories but no real image of her came through until I was looking for her headstone in the family cemetery. Intrigued, so I started my scaffolding by going back to census reports; starting at 1840 and going through 1930. I viewed every page of Johnson County census reports as though I was a newcomer to the community and visiting new neighbors. In the process, I became acquainted with who lived next door, across the valley; I found old familiar names and names that would join the family in the future.

The 1850 & 1860 Tennessee Census reports for Johnson County provided an emerging set of scenes. The David L Keyes, his wife and family were a tight-knit, well-to-do family of four boys and three girls, surrounded by grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. By 1860, the grandfather Keyes and David's youngest son, 4 year old Benjamin, had died. As I followed the census reports, each became a mini scene painting a picture in my mind of a changing family, household shrinking as children moving out on their own, Tennessee relatives coming and going, and losing beloved uncles and parents.

Although the variety of hard facts tend to be stronger in census reports, Wills are one of my favorite documents as there is a certain immediacy of thoughts and feelings of the person, as well as the likely affects of the Will upon family members. The Wills of Orena's Uncle James and her father David clearly reflect that she received a substantially greater share than her cousins and siblings. Although neither Will states that this largess was due to her steadfast care of family, the backdrop is clear.

I also plow my way through all the family documents I can find such as Bibles, letters, recipes, journals, ledgers, and pictures. Gleaned bits and pieces to give texture and color to the scenes in my head. Fleshing out Orena's life, required reading histories of Tennessee and Tennessee families of the time period; then on to Oregon's histories of Benton, Wasco and Wheeler Counties, as well as family histories and genealogies; and researching ship travel from New York to Panama, building the Panama railroad, and travel over the Isthmus of Panama. Each of these gave me a glimmer of the sights and experiences Orena and her family.

Maps, especially maps of different eras, are one of my favorite tools. The graphic images form the questions: How far the distances? Where the mountains and rivers lay? Where roads were” Where roads were not? What kinds of roads? Villages Towns? These are the insights that go far beyond words. Maps of Oregon in the 1800s , make it obvious that the Willamette River, the old fur trading routes of the early 1800s, was still a viable form of transportation in 1870. Considering they had to transport 7 to 10 people, the accompanying luggage, and supplies, it is no wonder that the Orena's family chose the fur trader's route down the river, rather than slogging in mule drawn wagons over roads that were muddy during the rainy season and dusty during the rest of the year – and always bone jarring.

Family photos provide a visual aspect to the story, but often there may only be one picture such as with Orena. A lovely young woman, 23 years old, frozen in time. To round out my visual images I search for photos, drawings, and newspapers of that particular locality and era, such as clothing, transportation, houses, street scenes, church activities, stores and occupations. As I place my subject in a real time and place, the textures, color are added to the fleshed-out skeleton of my subject's life.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention using local museums and historical societies. In addition to the bits of information related to the individual I am researching, I find the greatest boon of the local groups to be the realm of historical setting. Staff member quite often have a long standing relationship with the area, as well as the families past and present. Most of all, I appreciate their willingness to share their time and even personal history that is relevant to my research.

At some point the writer must say, “ The research is finished (well, research is never finished) and now it is time for work of writing” --- and that is Confessions, Pt.III.

Also see Confessions, Pt.I


  1. Congratulations, Joan, on your Follow Friday feature! You deserve it!!!


  2. I'm certainly not the talented writer you are Joan but my thought process is virtually the same as yours. It's as if you read my mind when it comes to wanting to be seen as a legitimate genealogist but knowing that your story telling sets you apart. I don't have your history of creating stories from childhood on but I feel the same yearning you do to tell the stories of the people on my family tree. I'm much less concerned with how many names are on my tree and much more concerned with learning about the life and times of my peasant ancestors who worked the fields in rural Poland for centuries. Citing sources irritates me. I just don't want to be bothered with it. Where's the story in that??? But I do it because I should, because all serious genealogists do. But oh how I'd like to spend that time on writing stories instead!

    I really feel a connection with you after reading this series (so far). I only hope that one day I'll be as good a storyteller!

    Thanks for writing this very thoughtful series. I can't wait to read what comes next!

  3. Ahh I was looking for this, and not sure why I did not find it. I had been waiting for the next part. and part three too. I see it's going to be a great day!
    I wish you continued good luck.

  4. Something else you maybe know, Other than panama route, can you tell me even via blog posts the routes and methods of travel to oregon/ time period before 1900. if my Meyer went to Oregon anytime after 1876--- 1900--1020. Is the way by california [ Donner group] or could they come way up north through northern states?