Breathe Life Into Your Ancestor's Story

by Betty Malesky | May 3, 2012

Betty Malesky

Nearly all family researchers have one thing in common--we love doing research. Nothing equals the challenge of the hunt, the satisfaction of finding another clue and finally the thrill of solving another ancestral puzzle. The next step for all of us should be writing that ancestor's story, but so often that's where we fall short.

The time and expense spent solving the puzzle is wasted if we never write the story, a story interesting and compelling enough that our descendants will be eager to read it. Here again, we fall short. A few short sentences of facts and dates will never hold a reader's attention for long. Everyone has a story, and we need to breathe life into our ancestor's story in order to bring him/her to life.

I don't mean we should invent a story or put that ancestor into situations where he never was. Rather use the facts found about his life, learn more about him by studying the history and nature of his community, church, occupation, and associates, whatever influenced him or wherever he had influence.

The Community

An ancestral story must be told in the context of his/her time. Today this is not so difficult with the vast array of resources available on the Internet. Begin by seeking town or county histories of the area where your family lived. Nearly every area no matter how small can be discovered on the Web. Google's eBooks is a great starting point. Many local histories were written in the late 1800s and are out of copyright and digitized by Google. Even if your ancestor is not mentioned, you can learn about the area and his associates who are.

Another option is contacting the tourist agency or historical society where your family lived. Oxford is a small town is in Warren County, New Jersey. While visiting there I found a pamphlet published locally in 1996 with many details of early life. Oxford's rich iron deposits, the only source of bog iron in New Jersey, kept its iron furnace operating 24 hours a day, the focal point of a town that thrived for over 200 years.

My ancestor Thomas Sheridan's deed located his land on the north side of the Furnace Brook on the main road through Oxford directly west and adjacent to the furnace. He farmed and raised cattle, but quoting the pamphlet I was able to write: "Thomas and his sons farmed to the roar of the furnace and the clang of the bell rung twice a day to signal the pouring of iron. The family went to sleep to 'the eerie light from the furnace hearth that illuminated the night . . . for miles around . . . [and] awoke in the morning . . . to the pervasive odor of sulfur.'"

Using What You Have

Thomas's father John Sheridan was a Scots Irishman who settled in Hunterdon County, New Jersey prior to the Revolution. He never appears in a census as all New Jersey census records are lost prior to 1930. The only official records that support his life are his service record in the Revolution and a few New Jersey tax records. His 1778 enlistment gave his age as 33 years and described him as being "5 feet 5 inches tall, with a fair complexion and brown hair."

He never recorded the purchase for seven acres of land with a dwelling house, but its acquisition only days before he enlisted is described in a deed of sale after his death. From that information and a pamphlet about New Jersey's Revolutionary draft digitized on the Internet, it seems he likely agreed to enlist and serve for a Militia draftee in exchange for a cash payment with which he bought the lot.

In New Jersey's published index to wills, I discovered Sheridan witnessed wills for two neighbors. By obtaining microfilm of the original wills, I found his original signature as a witness. He signed his name with a flourish implying that he was well educated for the time. John's son was a weaver likely as his father before him, a trade usually passed from father to son and common among the Scots Irish. Despite not knowing where he was from, the dates of his birth, marriage or death I wrote over 1000 words painting a picture of John Sheridan's life substantiated by the few facts I was able to find.

Assistance from Common Sources

If your man served in the military, seek information about the regiment and battles participated in, particularly if it was the Civil War or the American Revolution. Many regimental histories have been reproduced on the Internet and are easily found. A Civil War ancestor was his regiment's drummer. I tracked his travels in service using the regimental history and learned he never participated in a battle during the war.

Census information is invaluable when depicting an ancestor. Some families stayed in one place for a lifetime, others moved on every few years. You can follow a family's path across the country in the U. S. census taken every ten years. Learn more about each community in which they lived, what their neighbors were like, and you're well on your way to learning more about your own family. Often families moved in groups and you'll recognize some of the same names from census to census. Watch for patterns among your ancestors and their acquaintances.

Look for newspaper articles mentioning your family members. Another ancestor was named as delegate to a New York Republican state convention in 1809. This news tells me not only his political preference and that he was active in politics but that he likely cast his vote for Thomas Jefferson the party's presidential candidate in 1800 and 1804.

My 4th great grandfather Dr. Gaius Smith was the first witness in the murder trial of Stephen Arnold in 1805. Details about the case and Smith's part in treating the abused child who died were widely publicized at the time making an interesting incident to relate in his story. My ancestor Robert Mattocks captained sailing brigs, packets and at least one steamboat on the Hudson River. He placed numerous ads in New York City newspapers advertising his sailings, rates and luxurious accommodations available in the late 1700s.

Occupational Interest

Normally the U.S. censuses from 1850 on indicate what each member of a household did for a living. Deeds also often provide a man's occupation, designating him for example, as "John Smith, butcher," or "Francis Jones, taylor." Once you know your ancestor's occupation, learn more about it in articles on the Internet and relate how he performed his daily tasks in his story. The website, is a good starting point or search for his specific occupation.

Probate inventory is helpful for pinning down a man's occupation prior to 1850. In 1802 Benjamin Belden's will probated in Rye, New York, shows an inventory of: "... 25 tand Calveskins, 1 lot of leather, a man's sadel & bridel, 57 pair of shus, 1 pair of boots & 1 pair of shues, l lot of leather & lining, towls & lasts in shop, shuthread, 3 pair of small shus, 1 pair of mens shus, 1 small skin,..." undoubtedly indicating a shoemaker.

Inventories normally listed only personal property, not real estate. Belden's total inventory of 371.18.8 equals roughly $27,810 in today's dollars. To make the conversion, I used an Internet currency calculator at UwacaWeb . This could also be used to calculate value of land purchased or sold. Other online converters will convert colonial dollars into today's dollars.

Don't Forget the Women

It is more difficult but not impossible to write interesting stories about female ancestors. In 1865, my great, great grandmother was sued for divorce on grounds of adultery by her second husband after a marriage of only a few months. I proceeded to find all the information I could about the case and each and every person mentioned in it. I concluded she was not guilty, just desperate to end a disastrous marriage to an unreasonable man. The only ground for divorce in the 1800s in New York was adultery--to be free she had to agree to the charge. I titled that story, "The Vindication of Sarah."

Another widowed great grandmother operated a boarding house for over 25 years. In the 1900 census she boarded seven men aged 22 to 66, carpenters, painters, a motorman and a clerk. Having raised six children alone she was likely accustomed to the endless cooking, cleaning, and laundry chores.

Each Story is Unique

Remember the intent is not to create a life for an ancestor, but to use the facts of his/her life to demonstrate character, morals, a life-style and a place in time. Each person is unique and each lived a unique life. Make a timeline for your subject and his family to be sure every event is considered. Study everything you know about the individual and blend those facts into a story.

I've given a number of suggestions for finding details and filling in the blanks. As you ponder your ancestors' lives, their community and their associates, you will discover other bits of information that can be incorporated into the stories you write, interesting stories that descendants will enjoy reading. Bringing ancestors to life will enrich their descendant's lives.

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