Writing a Family History

A lithograph of the old free city of Kempten, to which my ancient ancestor fled to escape slavery.

This is going to be a bit sketchy and unpolished, but hopefully it will give you some ideas to use if you want to write your family’s history.  My book is on Amazon, but you can’t buy it. I’m the only one who can buy it, and as such I have bought enough copies to give one to each of my cousins, siblings, and their children as Christmas presents last year.  The history took many years to research and over a year to write, and I was lucky enough to have the work of several predecessors to build on.

It would help if you are now in your 30s or younger. In which case, the most important thing you can do is spend a lot of time talking to and your living relatives: Grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts. You get the drill. They’ll want to talk about the peaks and valleys- the best things they remember and the worst. That’s fine, but at some point, you need to guide them into talking about everyday life. How did they live, work, cook, use the toilet- everything. How did they water? How did they heat the house? Did they live in a house, or an apartment? Get the details. Also get any pictures and have them identify all of the people; their parents, grandparents, uncles, etc. And get them to talk about those people, too.

Write it all down, right away.

I didn’t do that.

Fortunately, my mother and my grandmother did a lot of that, but not in the detail I would like to have had it. Also, when we were kids, we asked a lot of questions about the old days, and although I never wrote the stories down, I do remember some. I would remember a heck of a lot more if I had written it down.

These stories of their own lives will be pretty accurate. The stuff that they remember about their grandparents, or stuff that has been passed down word of mouth, will also be mostly true, or not. Be prepared to find the or not when you start formal research.

You can use the family word of mouth to track your ancestors back to a region within a country and it will usually be fairly accurate, but if, let’s say your grandparents are already second generation Americans then errors, or misconceptions may have crept into their belief system.

Example, everyone in my family thought that my gr-grandfather came from Prussia. Probably this was because his wife was from Pommern, which had been annexed by Prussia. However, nothing could be found to verify his place of origin, so my distant cousin hired a genealogist, who tracked down his birth place-Württemberg, the complete opposite corner of Germany.

Get a DNA test of yourself. There are many firms that offer this, and you should decide based on whether you want health information and ancestry, or if you are more interested in just ancestry. The last I checked the autostomal test, the family test which is the one you want first, were all about $100. I ended up choosing Ancestry.com, not because they offer the best DNA package, but because they have the largest number of subscribers and they do “cousin” matching. They’ve stepped up their game since then and offer several DNA functions, including matching your cousins based on your common ancestor. The ultimate deciding factor however is that Ancestry did not and I think still does not allow DNA files from other providers at their website. However, most other providers allow Ancestry’s DNA  files to be submitted to their website. By using Ancestry.com I was able to get their analysis, then send my DNA file to several of the other services, MyHeritage and FamilyTree for example, and get their analysis of my DNA.

The DNA analysis and cousin matching turns out to be very helpful in providing biological “proof” of your family word of mouth and your formal research, and with the cousin matching, cousins whom you can contact, you might just benefit from their research and records, if you ask them. For instance, I didn’t believe the genealogists report that my gr-grandfather came from Wurttemberg. I though he had taken my cousin on a ride to get a quick payoff with the minimum amount of work, since the part of Württemberg we were said to be from was one of the best documented areas in Germany. He was right though, and one thing that proven it was that I started getting distant DNA cousins from the region and who had the same ancestors.

Unfortunately, you are not only going to have to pay for the DNA test, you are also going to have to sign up with Ancestry.com if you want to do thorough searches there, and if you are serious you are going to want at least the second level of membership, which allows you to search records in other countries.  The cost of that membership is over $500/year. If that’s a lot for you (everyone), then make the commitment, bite the bullet, and get to work on the research, save all the original documents “to your computer”, copy your final tree to your computer, save your DNA file to your computer- back it all up within the first year.

A Lithograph of log floating in old Württemberg. I altered this and used it for the cover of my book.

Meanwhile send your DNA file to FamilyTree DNA, My Heritage, GEDMatch (a fun one where you can compare your DNA to DNA from anthropological dig sites), Living DNA, WIkiTree, etc.  and they will generally process it for free and provide you with their take on your DNA.

At Ancestry.com you will get a bunch of “cousin” matches. I found a first cousin lost to me through a divorce, and I didn’t know I had until Ancestry matched us. We developed an online friendship.  Several 4th cousins provided a lot of information about my grandmother’s sisters and parents. So, try contacting the cousins you find on Ancestry. Most will ignore you, but the few who respond often have good information and are curious to know what you have found as well.

Ancestry’s take on my ancestry. Family Tree has a different take. If you do your DNA at Ancestry.com then you can load your file to many other sites and get their analysis for free.

One more thing to do before you start your formal search, and probably before you pay all that money to Ancestry. Write down your personal life history. Everything you remember about yourself growing up, your parents, and grandparents. At least your descendants will have that to reference when they want to know what life during this period was really like. One of the best references I had in preparing my grandfather’s family history was a twenty typed page life story written by his younger cousin. My father also wrote about sixteen pages about his service from the Battle of the Bulge to the end of the war.  I say that everyone starts a diary, but no one keeps it. We should have. Having not, write your story from memory.

Now you can start researching your family history. I’m assuming that you signed up for the Ancestry level two that gives you access to foreign records. There is a higher level, and it might be worthwhile, that gives you access to newspapers, military records, and some other stuff. I haven’t tried it.

Start by populating your family tree as best you can. When you finally get to a point where you need more information about a person, pull up the Ancestry search engine, a clunker in my opinion, and put in as much as you have about the last person you know about, for instance, your grandfather. Include everything you know: spouse, parents, children, etc. Keep last name at sounds like, similar to, the widest setting possible because often the county clerks, census takers, even family members butcher the last name spelling. The data search will grind out a bunch of records. If you don’t get anything and you are sure that your ancestor lived in a certain town at a specific point in time, go to the census record for that town at that time and page through it. You might find them under a completely unbelievable spelling of their name. With luck, particularly in German Europe, you will find records of the individual that also list their parents and you can walk the family tree back in time.

While much of what is in other’s family trees is true, much is also not. You should not take what others have put in the tree as gospel. Check their sources to see if they found any original records other than other people’s’ trees. Copying from tree to tree can result in absolutely nothing provable. Like much of my family, you could have a Württemberger coming from Prussia.

When you’ve been at this awhile, finding an ancestor born in 1632, died in 1678, married 1653, had six children, two who died in their youth, and then finding that you can also identify her parents and trace them as well, and you do this over and over, you start wanting to know a little more about these people. In the church records, if you are lucky, you get a one liner like “Peter the Older Ehemann” known as “the Schultheiß on the Mountain”, died July 12, 1563.  It’s not much, but even that little has important information. What’s a Schultheiß, you ask?

Farmers threshing wheat in Oklahoma.

Now you have to do prereferral research, which may have you pulling your hair out, but this is the most interesting research, because it begins reveal who these people were. Some of this general information you can lookup on line, but also look at all of your Ancestry “hints” for other sources which you can peruse. Look at Amazon for books and literature about the region your ancestor came from. If you can access Amazon in the country of your ancestor, do that. Sometimes they will have scholarly books and literature about the region where you ancestor came from. Open lines of communication with other people who are using Ancestry and seem to be knowledgeable.

Just because you cannot find informative records about your ancestors does not mean that you can’t tell their story. Often you can tell it by proxy.  For example, I don’t have photos of my gr-grandfather’s homestead in Nebraska, but Solomon Butcher took hundreds of photos of homesteads in Nebraska. My gr-grandfather’s might be there, but I haven’t found it, and besides that my ancestor was in Nebraska a decade before Butcher did his photo expedition. I imagine that my ancestor’s homestead was every bit as rustic as those photographed, so in the story of my gr-grandfather I posted photos from Butcher. I note that they are other people, but this is the way life the early settlers there lived.

My gr-grandfather’s homestead was outside of West Point, Nebraska, so I found the phone number of the library at West Point, and called to see if they had any records that could be viewed. We talked awhile and I mentioned a few names of people, my ancestor’s brothers in law, father in law, etc. and the lady said, “Oh, let me look, I think some of them are mentioned in The History of Elkhorn Valley, then she read to me from the book about one of my great uncles. Fortunately, I was able to find the book on Amazon and now it is in my library. I published the story about the gr-uncle in the family history.  In similar fashion, over years I have collected about a dozen books, several shipped from Germany that provide direct and indirect information about my gr-grandfather and his ancestors.

A photo from Solomon Butcher’s collection of Nebraska homesteads. You can access them on line.

I can’t guarantee that you will have the luck I had in finding stories about ancestors, but just to show you what is possible here is a list of key stories and where I got them, starting with the most distant past:

  1. The story of Hans, circa 1345, who was freed from slavery by escaping to the free city of Kempten. This story is disputed by some, but one distant relative has obtained Hans’s emancipation paper and I have a photo copy of it, and he recorded it in a history of that branch of the family.
  2. The entire known history of the region where my gr-grandfather came from in Württemberg written by a German scholar.
  3. The story of my ancestors being granted the right to harvest Harzen in the king’s forest, which is recorded in a compilation of the region’s local history in two sources.
  4. The history of the family line which was translated into typed German from script German by a scholar from the region.  He wrote several of this compilation books, which are known in Germany as Ortssippenbücher.
  5. The story of a battle between my ancestor’s and their emperor’s dragoons, which my ancestor’s, who were farmers, won. This is recorded in the Ortssippenbücher, history books, and even on the web. The farmers were tried in court later, and mostly forgiven. The remaining soldiers who were not killed outright by the farmers were executed by the Duke of Württemberg.
  6. A letter between to distant relatives who describe family word of mouth history of my gr-grandmother’s Pommern family and which states that her entire family immigrated to America, first settling in Canada then moving to Nebraska in 1867. This helped later in tracing their migration through census records.
  7. A word of mouth story written down by my gr-grandmother’s extended family moving from Waterton, Wisconsin to Nebraska where they joined up with my ancestors to settle near West Point.
  8. The story of a distant uncle’s homestead near West Point, found in The History of the Elkhorn Valley.
  9. A twenty page life history of a second cousin, which was among the documents transferred to my brother after my mother died.
  10. The probate papers of my gr-grandfather’s estate found with the search engine at Ancestry.com.
  11. In the “attic” (hard copy) and online, the history of the 331st Infantry Regiment in World War Two, called “We Saw It Through”, with photos to use with my Dad’s narrative about his combat experiences.

US troops during the Battle of the Bulge from the 331st records.

Of course, I was very lucky in that many other people had worked on the family history before I did, otherwise much of the above would never have been known to me. Your luck may vary, but if you have a hunch, never totally put it aside, because some day the verification may jump out at you from an unanticipated source.

On another occasion, as I was putting the book together, I came across some information that I could not verify. There is a guy in Germany, who is a distant cousin many times removed, who had given me information at one point, so I emailed him and asked if he had been the source of the data which I could not verify.  Among other things, he ended up researching a document on my oldest recorded ancestor with the Haizmann surname, and he translated the scripted German for me.

As I said, this was from the hip and could have been better organized, but  I think you get the idea: Dig, dig, dig, follow every lead, don’t be ashamed to ask for help, and after awhile you will have a story to write down and give to your children, nieces, nephews, cousins, and so on.

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