Genealogists resources are helpful for any writer describing episodes of the past. Before you yell, “BAHHHH Research” and run (or click) away, stay with me (or check out Do Memoir and Research Belong Together? and come back). This list of genealogy resources for memoirists will help you incorporate historical details that bring your memories to life. The facts you gleam make a great way to “show, not tell” the settings of your stories, increasing your readers’ understanding of your past.
Provide Social History Backdrops
Steal a page from family historians. They can’t talk to their ‘characters’ or ask, “what were you thinking?” So, they examine history, so they can take a walk in their ancestors’ shoes.
Social context can help readers visualize how people looked, dressed, and behaved. It can also explain cultural and religious influences. In other words, it can help explain why they may have made the decisions they did. As you look at the genealogical resources for memoirists below, think about what types of context you might want to add to your story.
What clothing did people wear during that time and place? Did clothing reflect the religious backgrounds or social standing? Their work ethic? Did some characters of your past have practical reasons to choose what they wore? Or, were people more beholden to fashion than expediency.
What were the rhythms of the place you’re writing about? A center of commerce? A sleepy hollow in which denizens only occasionally ventured out for reasons unrelated to the local markets and houses of worship? A close-knit circle of friends? Perhaps you lived in a community within a community, such as an Irish neighborhood in a diverse city. Was it an urban area, compact small town, or a rural area? How did the town change throughout the decades?
Did cultural or religious traditions define the household, town, or greater community? Did they bind people together or create rifts of estrangement and misunderstanding? Were you and your family immersed in the culture or did you observe it as relative outsiders?
What occupation did your family practice? Was it passed on from father to son and daughters? Or was the family business divided along gender lines? Did a desire to work lead the family to migrate? Were the characters of your past living out their dreams or supporting their families? What repercussions did a chosen occupation have on family life?
Education, training, or lack thereof
How educated were your family members or other important characters? Were they self-taught or apprentices? Did they attend school? Think about what type of school they attended. Was it typical or atypical for the time. For instance, farm family members attended school, but perhaps not every year or every season.
Don’t forget to give readers a good overview of who was who in the family. Graphics, such as a snippet of a pedigree chart, can prevent readers from getting bogged down in who was related to who.
Useful Genealogy Resources for Memoirists and Memory Writers
Census Reports show who lived where. They also include great nuggets of information such as if your ancestors owned land, the number of acres they had, and whether they had servants or took in boarders. yMan years include people’s ability to read, write, and speak English. You can access census records (including images) through FamilySearch.org, Ancestry.com, and Heritage Quest, just to name a few. Important: look at the images. Don’t simply skim the indexed information.
Estate Inventories are a little more difficult to come by, but worth the effort. They give a snapshot of a person’s life by listing what possessions they had. Estate inventories are kept with probate records in the county of a person’s death. However, some can be found online at Familysearch.org or Ancestry.com.
City Directories supply a biographical sketch about a city, as well as where stores, houses, and community centers were located. Read more about what you can find in Amy Johnson Crow’s “What You Might be Mission in City Directories.”
Also known as Passenger Arrival Lists, these documents reveal much more than who arrived on what ship. Examining the images of these lists, you can see whether people traveled 1st class or steerage. In addition, you can see the nationalities of their fellow passengers and whether the ship carried predominately families or business and leisure travelers. You can see how long the voyage took and what time of year your family member or ancestor traveled. When compared to a timeline of historical events, immigration lists provide clues to historical context. You can also find stories of chains of immigration in which some family members came to a new land and sent for relatives soon after. Read how to access passenger arrival lists at the National Archives.
Becoming increasingly available, school reports reveal how family members did in school, who their teachers were and how long they stayed in school. See Lisa Allison’s article “Getting Started with School Records for Genealogy Research” for more information.
The Sanborn Map Company produced fire insurance maps of 28 US states, as well as some cities in Canada and Mexico for over 100 years. The Library of Congress and ProQuest, LLC have searchable digital collections. According to ProQuest, these maps include “information such as the outline of each building, the size, shape and construction materials, heights, and function of structures, location of windows and doors. The maps also give street names, street and sidewalk widths, property boundaries, building use, and house and block numbers.”
Military records and military pension files
Military resources are hard to beat when it comes to collecting historical information. Resources are too plentiful to summarize in a bullet point. Family Search’s Military Records wiki gives a helpful overview of what records are available and where to find them.
Family photo albums and scrapbooks
Don’t make the mistake of overlooking the resources languishing in the back of your closets. These books provide gads of family and heritage information and give up many clues to social context on closer examination. For instance, perusing an album assembled in the 1930s with my mother in law, I saw the places the family normally gathered, what pets they had, and where they took their vacations, not to mention the styles of the day.
Other Online Genealogy Resources for Memoirists
- Local and regional history books have information about houses, clothing, and neighborhoods and the conditions that early settlers faced.
- Socialhistory.com provides stories told against the back drop of history and is a great site to mine for ideas.
- http://playback.fm/birthday-song lists what songs were playing the day someone was born.
- Google Earth offers an historical view of some locations. Though they don’t go back very far, this is very useful for neighborhood that have been recently demolished or to get a feel for a place you’ve never had the opportunity to visit in person.