Volume 1, Number 6
Every family, including yours, has a history and it is important that it be written down. History that is not written is soon forgotten or else it slips into the misty realm of folklore. In discovering the story of your ancestors, you will be discovering the only real link with the past that you have.
The primary reason for writing your family history will be to preserve it for your own family. Another reason is that when your family's history touches other families, when it is a part of local, state or national history, it becomes important to a widening circle of people outside your family.
Once you have determined to write the history of your family, the next question is how to go about it.
The first thing to do is to gather all the material you can. You will find that there will be two kinds of information: facts that can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, and stories that have come down by word of mouth, difficult to prove or disprove. These stories, or family legends, are often quite colorful. However, we need to remember that fiction has a way of creeping in every time a story is told. A memory may be faulty; there may be unintentional mistakes; or there may have been a little imagination used to fill in a gap each time the story is repeated. You needn't feel, however, that you have to reject all family legends which you can't prove; there is almost always some truth in them. But for the accuracy of your history, it is a good idea to distinguish between them and the things you know for certain.
Perhaps the easiest way to begin gathering material is to write down what you yourself know. A great number of people, when they have finished doing this, are dismayed by how little they know about their own families.
The natural thing to do next is to look for other sources of information. This is where the real work begins. It takes a lot of time. But the real pleasure begins here, too. As you practice your hobby of collecting family history, you will find your knowledge of local history growing and you will be rewarded with an increasing awareness of the community around you.
You will probably begin to ask questions of the older members of your family. Not many of us have infallible memories, so it is a good idea to put the information they give you on paper as soon as possible.
In addition to these talks, you will begin a search for family records. These have a way of getting scattered over the years, and it can take a lot of detective work to locate even a part of them. You will be looking for family Bibles, letters, diaries, photograph albums. If you are lucky, you may find a family history left by someone in the preceding generations. You may also find information about your family in histories of counties, or in a book of biographies of leading citizens such as A Reminiscent History of the Ozark Region, published by Goodspeed Brothers, Chicago, in 1894.
Old friends of your family are likely to have information for you, too. Quite often they will have photographs of older members of your family since it was the custom several years ago, to exchange photographs with friends more than we do today.
All of this may take quite a bit of knocking on doors, but if you enjoy old-fashioned "visiting", you will find yourself looking forward to these talks. To listen to an old-timer remember his friendship with your grandfather when they were both young gives you a new understanding of your grandfather. He becomes a young man again and you see him, sometimes for the first time, through the eyes of an adult.
There are many places to search for old documents which concern your family. There may be church records of baptisms, marriages, deaths. The county courthouse is another place to look for records. You will discover that courthouses burned down with an alarming frequency during the last century. If the records did not burn, many of them were destroyed by carelessness, were eaten by mice, or were thrown out in a general house cleaning. But if the courthouse files are intact, there should be a record of all landowners since the county was created. Deedbooks will carry old place names, as well as the wife's name if the man was married when he sold his property.
Archives in the State capital or at the state university will have some information about local communities which may be useful to you. Your search may even lead you to the National Archives in Washington, D. C. They will have the reports of the censuses taken every ten years since 1790, and those up to 1880 are open to the public. (We have on file copies of the censuses for Taney County for 1840 and 1850 and will be receiving soon the report for 1860.)
If you can't make a trip to Washington; but don't mind spending a little money, you can write to the National Archives for a list of persons who can be hired to look up information for you.
You many want to do some research in local newspapers. If the newspapers are still being published, they will have their own files, and may give you permission to do research there. Other newspapers may be on microfilm in libraries or state historical societies.
At some point or other, you will come to the place where you have done all the research you can for the time being. You will have collected enough material so that you have fairly complete information about several members of your family. You are ready now to put it in the form of a history. It will probably not be a complete history, but additions can be made to it as time passes and as new facts are discovered. The important thing will be that in years to come your account of your family's story will be an increasingly valuable source for others who will be searching for information about the past.
As you write, make your his-
tory as accurate and as complete as possible. Include a "family tree" showing
births, marriages, names of children, deaths. Put in all the information you
have about as many of the members of the family as you can. This "over-writing",
leaving nothing out, will be of interest mainly to you and to other members
of your family. They will be the first and most interested readers of your history.
The pruning of your family history can come later when you write it for your local historical society. Your story will then reach readers who are not members of your family and you will want to make it of more general interest. This will mean leaving out some details. Also, almost every family has a few family skeletons which are just as well left in the closet. In choosing what to leave out, your own common sense will be your best guide.
As for other guides in writing your family's story for the historical quarterly, we can list a few suggestions you may want to use.
1. If possible, tie in the history of your family with national, regional, or state history. If some member was a well known figure of history, this will be easy, but failing that, look for your family's part in the important movements or developments in our country. The great Westward movements through Tennessee and Kentucky brought ancestors of many of the people now living in our Missouri and Arkansas region.
2. Tie in your family's history with that of the local community. Describe the businesses or professions they engaged in; mention some of their activities in church affairs, in politics, in fraternal or service organizations. Point out any contributions they made toward shaping the community into what it is today.
3. Distinguish between fact and legend. If you aren't reasonably sure of the accuracy of a statement, but believe it is probably true, say so.
4. Give your story a beginning, a middle, and an end. Although everyone has his own method of organizing material, an outline of some kind is necessary, even if it isn't written down. Two of the most common types of outline are one based on dates and one arranged according to subject.
5. Acknowledge sources. Give credit where credit is due. Having based your history on interviews or on printed material, list the sources at the end of your article.
If you should quote directly from a work that is copyrighted, you will need to get permission from the owner of the copyright. Normally, a copyright is in effect for twenty-eight years, but it may be renewed for another twenty eight years. When the copyright has run out, a work becomes public property.
6. Include pictures with your history. If possible, include copies of photographs, instead of originals which cannot be replaced, to illustrate the story. If you can not get a copy made and wish to use original pictures, you can be assured that no harm will come to them intentionally. However, they may by accident be damaged or lost.
The last question to consider is when to start writing your family history. The answer is right now. As soon as you begin, you will realize that you are late in beginning. Sources you could have found a year ago are no longer available. Memories have faded, people who could have helped you are gone, the family Bible or other records have been lost. But you will find sources today which will be gone a year from now.
So pick up your pencil and write down everything you know about your family. That's the easiest way to start and the only person who can do it is you.
Copyright Ó White River Valley Historical Quarterly