Southern California Genealogical Society

There's More to Family History...Than Names, Dates and Places
By Barbara McKinlay

It doesn't take long for most of us who are genealogists to find out that family members and friends are not very interested in the bare bones of our genealogical research–names, dates and places. They get a kind of a glazed look and try to melt away. But they are fascinated with the stories and background that go along with our data.

In last month’s The Searcher, I was fascinated with “My Rosary of Memories,” by Esther Hunter Mills. It told about life on the prairie, what the weather was like and what the family spent their time doing.In the same issue, “Route to the Gold Fields” by Charles Barnard pictured what it was like for New Englanders to travel through Texas and Mexico to eventually get to the gold fields of California.

Each of these stories is the kind of background that could be incorporated into a family history. Historical research can help to picture what it was like when pioneers came here. Recently, I have read “Daughter of Fortune,” by Isabel Allende. It depicts what San Francisco and the area around it was like during the Gold Rush–the boat trip, the harbor, the mass of tens and hovels. It was fascinating.

All researchers have periods of time in their search when they get really frustrated, wondering if they are ever going to find what they are looking for. I would like to suggest that such a point is a good place to call a halt for a while and turn to historical research.

Whatever the period or the area, there is a wealth of material at our disposal. Historical societies can provide the names of books and newspapers. Library files can lead the way to books. Interviews with family members can bring forth humorous family stories. In fact, time spent with family members can be very productive when you really interview them. It is surprising, but many things that you had never heard before will turn up.

Several years ago, I “interviewed” my husband. We did it during lunch for several weeks. He talked about things that I had never heard about before–the war in China where he was stationed, the pets he had when he was growing up, his first car, etc. In going through some of the things that had been saved from World War II, we found an old ration book. Our two boys were fascinated because they had never heard people talk about ration books before.

My father came from West Virginia. I subscribe to a periodical called “Goldenseal” that is chuck full of background material. The most recent issue has a wonderful article called “Coondog Heaven!” And several years ago, it even contained an article about my grandmother’s Richmond family who came from the area around Sandstone and Hinton.

The latest issue of the “Newsletter of the Santa Clara County Historical and Genealogical Society” describes “A Sod Home on the Great Plains.” When grandmothers and grandfathers are no longer around to tell us of their adventures, we can read about them in publications like this.

The tendency of most of us is to put off writing about these things until we are ready to publish a whole family history. I can guarantee that it is great fun to do all the research, but it takes will power and fortitude to sit down and put it all together. If, as you are doing the research, you take some time to write up the stories that you hear, and do some research into the areas where these families came from, your final job will be easier and go much faster. Don’t forget what great treasures you have: post cards, pictures, high school diplomas (my father’s from Hinton measures 24 inches by 24 inches!), naturalization records, clothing, toys and letters. Go through them several times. Take pictures of them. Describe them. Make them come alive. It’s great fun to look for this material to incorporate into your family histories, and really exciting to find it.

So–when the going gets rough, turn to the background of the people and the period and the place and see what you can uncover. And–write it up!

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Beginning Genealogy -Part 1
Beginning Genealogy -Part 2

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Getting Started #2: Organization

Getting Started #3: Vital Records Are Vital

Getting Started #4: Census Records

Getting Started #5: Correspondence

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