I hated writing, but writing Family History is my Passion

In school, I hated writing, but I love writing about family history. It is one of my passions, but to be readable by my family, I have developed a method that seems to work.

I start by asking myself, What’s my topic? Why is it important? Then I write down the basic facts and stories that I have. Next, I go back to refine it which also usually leads to more research to fill in the missing details to answer my questions.

I try to have the first sentence or paragraph of the finished product reveal something important to the topic, so I grab the reader’s attention. I try to think about why my grandchildren or great-grandchildren would want to read my story. After my opening, the facts and other content need to flow to tell the story I want to tell. The information should flow in a logical order that slowly tells my story. At the end, I summarize my point or transition to the next topic.

The steps above are my method, but it is not from a writing course. If you are finding it hard to get started, you need just to start writing and do the best you can. Keep it simple and use your words and style. If you don’t write it down, who will?

Short Passage from one of my Family Histories – Peter Whittinghill

I write a lot about saving your family history in narratives. Below is an example from one of my families. The passage begins with “Sometime in 1795.” I added information at the beginning and end to give you some context for the sample portion of the total story.

Peter Whittinghill’s move to Kentucky

(Please note that the focus of this passage is about Peter Whittinghill’s migration from Virginia to Kentucky. Details of his life I included before and after his move to Kentucky are summaries of longer narratives)

 Peter Whittinghill was my 4th great-grandfather. He was born in 1752 in Germany and arrived in Virginia in 1770 as a redemptioner (German term similar to indentured servant). He paid for his passage by becoming an apprentice to a mill-wright and married his daughter Catherine Gabbert in 1775. He served in the Virginia militia during the American Revolution and in 1781, he purchased 59 acres along the North Fork of the James River (now called the Maury River) in Rockbridge County where he built a grist mill.

In 1783, the end of the Revolutionary War curtailed trade with Britain and led to a sharp decline in the economy in America immediately following the war. However, the vast lands west of the Appalachians were now available to settlers brave enough to relocate there. Some of the lands were given out in grants to Revolutionary War veterans in payment for their services, and more land was available for purchase at a low cost. These circumstances resulted in a massive movement of settlers to the western territories in the decades following the war.

Sometime in 1795 or early 1796, Peter decided he would move his family west of the Appalachian Mountains. On April 5, 1796, Peter sold his land in Rockbridge for fifty pounds current money of Virginia to Benjamin Hart, who was his brother-in-law. After the sale of his land in April of 1796, Peter and his family began the trek to Kentucky. Family tradition believes that Peter packed a set of grinding stones in the wagons along with some of their furniture, tools, stores, and other needed items. Oxen usually pulled the wagons, and the settlers also brought some livestock such as cattle and pigs. A few of the males rode horses, but most of the travelers walked the trail, herded the livestock, and helped by pushing or pulling the wagons when needed.

Peter probably traveled with members of the Gabbert family and other friends from Rockbridge County. The Gabberts and many surnames found in Rockbridge County records are also in records where Peter lived in Kentucky. The group had two paths they could take. One was directly west from Amherst County through the Appalachian Mountains to the New River near present-day Green Sulphur Springs. The second and most probable path started by going overland 110 miles south from Amherst to the New River near Blacksburg using the Great Valley Road.

At Blacksburg, they found the trail along the banks of the New River. They traveled north on the trace that earlier settlers had cut along its banks from the old Indian Trails. The New River is very shallow with many rapids and is not navigable so that is why rafts are not used. The New River eventually merges with the Kanawha River which flows into the Ohio River. Before the New River reaches the Kanawha, it winds through a narrow gorge for about twenty miles. At the gorge, the trace leaves the banks of the river and follows the bluffs above the river and then descends the slopes of Cotton Hill to rejoin the river below Kanawha Falls. The Kanawha River flows relatively flat to the Ohio River with the mountains above on both sides of its banks. The trip took 3-4 weeks and required setting up many campsites along the banks of the river. Children gathered firewood while the women set up the cooking fires and cooked the meals. The men hunted game during the day for their meals. If they encountered bad weather, they erected lean-tos to wait-out the rain.

At Gallipolis on the Ohio River, the travelers build rafts to float down the Ohio River 120 miles to Maysville, Kentucky. The family then trekked 70 miles overland south to Fayette County.

After traveling about 550 miles through the wilderness or on the Ohio River, they stopped for a short time in Fayette County, Kentucky, which is present-day Lexington. Peter and Catherine probably spent the fall of 1797 looking for land. They selected land in Mercer County, Kentucky which is about 15-20 miles west of Lexington. Peter and Catherine purchased their land in Mercer County, Kentucky on January 26, 1798, from John Stillwell. The deed lists that Stillwell sold the property to Peter Whittinghill of Fayette County, Kentucky. The purchase price was 100 pounds of Kentucky money. Peter ran his grist-mill and farmed in Mercer County for fifteen years before he sold his land and moved 130 miles west to Ohio County, Kentucky. Family tradition believes Peter also moved the grinding stones. His sons continued to use the millstones in their gristmills after Peter advanced to old-age. He died at age 92 in 1844.

Problems with Names

Finding the documents for your ancestors is thrilling. It may lead to an addiction to genealogy and family history. However, there is a challenge when their names are difficult to spell or pronounce. Another problem is interpreting the handwriting on the document.

The name on my grandfather’s manifest was correct but the indexer recorded with the wrong first four letters in the indexed record. Another set of grandparents dropped a few letters in their name once they arrived and this variation made the search very frustrating. I also had difficulty because first names were Americanized and I had to learn the Polish name that appeared on the manifest.

The myth of name changes

Many families believe immigration officials changed family names when the immigrants entered America. However, this is a myth. Officials usually recorded the names on passenger manifests based on official documents presented by the immigrant to the shipping line at the time of boarding. Changing their names would be illegal. Also, immigration stations were staffed with large numbers of translators to help ensure officials recorded accurately the information that was given by the immigrants. If families changed the spelling of their surnames, they did it after arrival, and this was usually to make it easier for the people around them to pronounce and write their name.

Name variations and spelling

Some instances of differences in names found on documents may have been caused when the recording person wrote the name phonetically. Immigrants may not have caught the misspelling of their name because the immigrant may have been illiterate. Also, the immigrant may have recognized their name written in the Cyrillic alphabet or Hebrew but did not know what the person wrote because he used the Latin alphabet.

Other problems were the given names found on documents. The immigrant may have preferred to use their middle name in their daily life, but official documents required their full Christian name. Another challenge we have is to identify the European spelling of the given names.

Searching

Remembering that documents may list your ancestor’s name as a variant should help you find your ancestor faster. Use the correct spelling first and if you cannot find them, use name variations and wildcards. First names are important in your search, and the record may list one of the variations of a given name. Sometimes it is best to use part of the given name with wildcards to reduce the problem with the given name variants. Research the spellings of given names for the countries of your ancestors and find books that provide surname variations

We are descendants of immigrants, and our ancestors contributed to the tremendous growth in America. The industrial growth in the 1900s could not have happened without the immigrants. Find the documents that add to their story to honor them and save for your future generations.

Be patient and remember to have fun looking for your family history.

Start Your Family History Journey

Researching your family history can have some very exciting moments.  Find your first census record and feel the thrill of seeing a snapshot of your family.  I became addicted to genealogy research after finding my grandfather’s passenger manifest and had difficulty waiting to find my next piece of my family’s history. Start your search, and you can also feel this thrill once you find that first document. Filling in more generations of your family tree and finding more family facts will start to haunt your waking thoughts. Get started and be prepared to make researching your family history a lifelong journey. Just like a great novel, it will be hard to put down.

Try to have a goal in your research. I intended to learn more about my family’s heritage and to preserve what I find for my children and grandchildren. Your goals can be similar to mine or yours can be as simple as doing an in-depth study of one of your famous ancestors. Start your journey at home. Collect documents, pictures, and letters that you and your immediate family have stored away in old shoe boxes in the closet or stuffed in desk drawers. Remember also that it is critical to interview your older relatives to save their memories and oral history.

Be organized in your research because this will save you time but will also point the way for more research. I use summaries to organize my facts and as a reference tool while doing my research. My summaries can make my research more efficient and helps me find more documents and facts. The summaries also help me focus my search efforts. Summaries are also a great way to share what I find with my family. Sharing gives me more opportunities for other family members to contribute more oral history, pictures, and old papers. Be prepared to uncover more areas to research after sharing your work. Remember to identify and label the family pictures. Asking relatives to determine who is in the pictures will help extend your family tree and also turn on the memories of the relatives who are trying to help.

Records you find may be confusing, misleading and wrong.  You will need to continually analyze and interpret your information and note where you got your information. As a beginner to genealogy, start now to note where you get every piece of information. Record your information as you find your facts. You may hear arguments that keeping up with sources are time-consuming and too much trouble. It isn’t fun, but without your source information, you can’t evaluate, analyze, and draw conclusions. And you can’t pass along your information because at least one family member will ask, “But how do you know?”

Companies and organizations are listing more and more genealogy records in online databases, and these are great sources to begin your research. However, there are many more genealogy records stored in libraries and historical archives that also may include your ancestors. Be sure to use all the sources in your research, both online and in person. You will be rewarded for your efforts.

Use books, genealogy programs, genealogy conferences, genealogy societies, online educational offerings, and social media to sharpen your genealogy skills. Again, once you start your journey, it will probably be a lifelong passion.

My last thought that may help you develop the same passion for genealogy as I have is

“Remember to have fun.”

Save the memories of your older relatives

  1. Talking to older relatives is a critical early step in genealogical research. Do this as soon as possible. Don’t wait until tomorrow because your relative may suddenly not be there.
  2. Prepare a ring binder with your summaries, charts, and photos to show your progress to your relative
  3. Discussions should be an equal exchange of information and should not be an interrogation.
  4. Establish rapport with family members before interviewing them
  5. Avoid questions that seek a “Yes” or “No” answer
  6. Let your relative talk, do not interrupt them. Their conversation will make them feel comfortable. Learn to listen.
  7. Try to check the information from oral histories – treat information as clues.
  8. Re-visit your relative after you have new and exciting information to show them. Seeing your material may turn on their memory for another story.

Self-Publishing Family Histories

CreateSpace is down and no longer usable to publish my family histories. All of my previous work was moved to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). This created a problem for family histories because Amazon now demanded all published work be available for public sale which removed the privacy from my family histories.

I now use Lulu.com to self-publish my family histories that I want to remain private. Lulu allows us to publish our works using three options: retail, direct, and private. Family histories can remain private using the direct and private option. The private option requires all purchases of the book to go through the author. The direct option creates a private web page for the book that can not be found by search engines and can be accessed only through using the correct web address assigned to the page. I distribute this address to family members by including it on the copyright page of the books that I give or sell privately to family members. These two options are similar to how my family history books were set up on Createspace before the changes made by Amazon.

I had considered publishing on Lulu.com when I first began publishing my family histories but decide to use Createspace because the cost of the books was much lower at Createspace. One of my family histories is 482 pages and would cost $6.63 on Createspace but now costs $15.86 on Lulu. Since I no longer have Createspace as an option, Lulu is currently the best option to publish a family history and preserve its privacy and have convenient ordering for family members in the future.

However, if privacy is not an issue than Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) is a more cost-effective option.

Save your Family Memories

I write family histories to save the stories, pictures, and family history for my children, grandchildren, and all of my future generations. Family gatherings, especially at Christmas time is a great time to start doing this for your family. Collect what you can, write down what you hear, and save them in a ring binder. Organize them by family and ancestor. I hated writing in high school and college but I love doing this. Please try to start. If we don’t do it, who will?