Saturday, June 11, 2011

FGS 2011: 2 hour family narrative workshop

Social history serves two purposes for genealogists, according to Diane Gagel:
  • Provides clues as to what may have happened to our ancestors or why they did things.
  • Fills in gaps in our family details when writing family histories or narratives.

Diane VanSkiver Gagel, MA will be teaching a special 2-hour workshop titled Social History and Genealogy: Writing a Family Narrative during the 2011 Federation of Genealogical Society Conference in Springfield, Illinois. Class participants can expect to practice combining social history with family information to create a Family History Narrative which is more than just names, dates, and places.

A retired college instructor, freelance writer, and professional genealogist, Diane has a M. A. in American Studies. Diane has been a speaker at NGS, FGS, and the Ohio Genealogical Society Annual Conferences. Diane has served as Chairman of the Board of the Ohio Genealogical Society and is the Immediate Past President of OGS as well as a Fellow of OGS.

As an official 2011 FGS Conference Blogger, Ol' Myrt had the privilege of interviewing Diane about the workshop.

QUESTION: What social history resources are considered reliable?

In general, the resources I consider reliable are those written contemporary to a particular event or time--primary sources and secondarily I use social history sources that are usually written by professional historians and have well-documented their research.

For example, when I was writing about a pioneer Anabaptist family in NW Ohio who came to Ohio from NY via the Erie Canal in the 1830s, I relied on contemporary accounts about travel on the canal, one of which was Charles Dickens who had traveled the canal within the time frame. I also used histories of the canal as well as the bibliographies in the secondary sources that led me to more primary sources. This same family arrived in Cleveland after using a lake steamer to take them from Buffalo to Cleveland: for this I relied on other contemporary sources, like the Cleveland newspapers at the time and also a painting of what the public square looked like in 1832. From these I deduced what the family would have done and seen from the time they left the steamer to when they boarded another canal boat in Ohio to take them to Wayne Co. OH.

Other sources I use are memoirs of people who lived in the same area, or participated in the same events, i.e. a specific Civil War regiment. County histories often contain "pioneer reminiscences" that may be helpful for migration stories, pioneer life, etc.

Some books I have used include Albion's Seed by David Hackett Fischer; The Americans: A Social History of the US 1587-1914 by J. C. Furnas. I also use life in America compilations of comtemporary writings like My Native Land: Life in America, 1790-1870 by Warren S. Tryon. PERSI [PERiodical Source Index] can point out published first person accounts found in genealogical and historical journals.

I have also used primary sources like estate inventories to extrapolate what an ancestor's life or house was like. For example, I have seen House inventories from 17th Century New Amsterdam that give a room by room inventory of the deceased's home. In others, if no books are listed, then the family was probably not very literate. The tools, the animals, etc listed in inventories can provide the details around which one can write how they made their living or occupations. These details along with the examples I have given above all can come together to write a family narrative.

Of course, now with the Internet, many of the out of print books are now more accessible. I use Google books a great deal, along with other genealogy type sites: Ancestry, Footnote, etc.

QUESTION: What software do you recommend folks use to write a family history narrative?

I use Word for the narrative part. Genealogy programs that would be helpful are those that create timelines. However, when I first started using computers for my genealogy, I used PAF [Personal Ancestral File], which I still use as my primary database. When I put notes for individuals in the program, I put them in chronological order, starting with the date of the event, i.e. land purchase, military service, etc., so I could print them out to use as a reference in finding social history sources.

Using the timelines can then be cross-referenced with history timeline books or online for a general outline of what what going on in America or another country. Putting a family in historical context is very important. For example, I have a German ancestor who came to America with a complete family--wife and 7 children. However, when I pick him up in Ohio records, his wife and 3 children are missing--in one year's time. What happened? American and local Ohio history told me that most German immigrants at the time in SW Ohio used the Miami-Erie Canal to go from Cincinnati to Dayton in 1832. History timelines listed that cholera was very deadly that year along the canals, including the M-E Canal. I then found a little newspaper blurb in Dayton regarding the landing of a canal boat filled with Germans suffering from cholera. This was the same time and place as my ancestors' journey. No names were mentioned, but I deduced this is probably what happened. 

Diane's workshop T-209  Social History: Writing a Family Narrative is scheduled on Thursday before and after lunch. Check the program schedule for the room assignment.
  • 11am to 12pm
  • 2pm to 3pm
Come to the workshop with sharpened pencils and be ready to write!

Register for the 2011 FGS Conference by visiting: 

Happy family tree climbing!
Myrt     :)
Your friend in genealogy.

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