Wouldn't it be nice if each of our ancestors had written their
autobiographies? I don't want a 400-page masterpieceI'd settle for just one page about each one's life. Some of us are fortunate enough to find biographies in county histories, in other published materials, or even in manuscript form. However, many of us will not find such writings. You may wish to consider writing your ancestor's biography yourself.
Organizing Your Information
While there are many theories to biographical writing, it's generally
best to begin chronologically. An outline chronology of your
ancestor's life will provide a framework around which the biography
can be written. Another writing aid may be an alphabetical listing of
individuals known to be involved in your ancestor's life (parents,
spouses, children, neighbors, witnesses to documents, etc.).
Organizing your information in this fashion will also help to point
out gaps and holes in your research.
Getting the Details
The amount of information you are able to obtain will vary greatly
from one ancestor to another, from one time period to another, and
from one geographic area to another. Vital, census, church, probate,
court, and land records may provide many details of your ancestor's
life. Published county histories and genealogies may also provide
details, and there are many other sources that can be utilized. Some
details may have to be inferred from documents. One may speculate on
an ancestor's occupation based upon items listed in an estate
inventory. But speculation must be done carefully; for much of our
nation's past, owning one cow does not make the person a farmer! Most
of the records you currently have may include information on your
ancestor's vital events (birth, marriage, and death), but remember
that other documents may provide additional clues on your ancestor's
Finding Your Sources
In the ideal world, each record copy in your possession will have a
bibliographic citation. However, some of us obtained information
before we had been converted to the "school of documentation." Try to
locate the original source of this undocumented information. If there
is a document for which you are unable to locate a citation, consider
whether to include the information. If the biography is informal and
intended to assist you in researching further and uncover new leads,
perfect citation is not as important. Just remember that if you
intend to publish your ancestor's biography, some publication media
may want a complete citation. The citation is even more crucial if
the source contains information not obtained elsewhere.
Obtaining the citation may be helpful in its own right. While
preparing overheads for a presentation, I discovered that I had a
document with absolutely no reference. I granted myself a certain
amount of leeway; I had obtained the document when I was sixteen
years old. Given the document and the individual it focused on, an
hour of research was all that was needed to obtain a specific
citation. While re-researching the item in question, I discovered
additional information on the family involved. I might never have
discovered the information if I had not backtracked to locate the
source of the document.
Writing the Story
Your chronology and list of ancestral acquaintances should provide a
good framework from which to write the biography of your ancestor. It
is probably best to stick to the facts as much as possible . . .
after all, when writing an ancestor's biography, you usually are not
writing fiction. You may wish to speculate on certain items, but be
certain to clearly indicate that you are speculating and not speaking
from established fact.
You may wish to add information about your ancestor's ethnic group or
the historical time period to the story. Bear in mind that not every
member of an ethnic group necessarily practiced the same traditions
in exactly the same fashion. Be cautious in assuming that your
ancestor did everything in the "typical way." Some families followed
traditions more closely than others.
While researching one of my families in the late 1800s, I learned
that my widowed ancestor had remarried. Court records reveal that her
second husband had little say in the day-to-day operations of the
farm. In fact, she is listed as the head of household in the 1880
census, and her second husband is listed LAST in the family entrysomething beyond the norm. While reading a book about the ethnic
group to which these individuals belonged, I read a statement that
said that women who "brought property into a marriage" frequently
retained control over the property. This more fully explained what I
had discovered in the court records, and so the two pieces were tied
together with the idea that the practice "probably" explained the
information in the court records and the family's listing in the
Reading local, regional, and ethnic histories may provide some
additional tidbits to use in your sketch. Be careful that you do not
use the material to put more details into your ancestor's life than
were really there.
In your first draft, you don't need to win the Nobel Prize for
Literature. Get your thoughts down. Rewriting and editing are
valuable tools, and the process of re-writing may cause you to pick
up on genealogical clues that were not originally noticed.
But I Don't Have Much on My Ancestor!
There are many of us in that situation. Writing is a good way to
uncover "new" leads, and new leads are most frequently needed on
individuals for whom we have little information. Writing up these
ancestor's tales, even if they are short, may help us utilize new
sources or make connections and conclusions we were unable to make
before. Just creating your ancestor's chronology and acquaintance
chart may get your research jumpstarted.
What Else Will the Story Do for Me?
You may also wish to share what you have written with other
researchers. Keep in mind that once you publish the information
(whether in print or electronic media), anyone who sees it can use
the facts you have included in your write-up. You may wish to simply
submit a copy of your manuscript to a local historical or
genealogical society, which may even be interested in publishing it
in a quarterly journal. In this way, you have preserved the
information and created the potential for contacting new family
members and relatives. If the journal is received by the Allen County
Public Library, your article will be indexed in the Periodical Source
Index, or PERSI, as it is more commonly referred to (available to
Ancestry.com subscribers and for purchase on CD-ROM). PERSI allows
those who do not subscribe to various journals to learn of the
One Last Advantage
Writing one ancestor's biography is significantly smaller than
writing an entire family history. It may be a more manageable task
and one that you are able to actually "complete." While research on
most ancestors is never "finished," the amount of material on one
family member is easier to synthesize than is the information on five
generations of family members.
After you've written your ancestor's biography, consider writing your
own. After all, most of us would dearly love to have just one page
written by one of our long-since-dead relatives!
Michael John Neill, is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing..
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