Monday, October 12, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Write Your Family's History

Researching your family's history has never been easier. Of all the HarvilleQuarters on my list, there is probably none that has benefited more from the widespread availability of the Internet and all the genealogical resources that can be accessed - and the breadth of resources is growing every day, literally.

I've been doing family research long enough to remember the not-so-good old days. In my twenties, I decided to do some digging into family history, both because I was interested and because I happened to live near my father's family's ancestral home in Wisconsin. I prowled around cemeteries looking for gravestones with the Harville name, pored through thick volumes of handwritten birth, death and marriage records in the county courthouse and perused county histories from the late 1800's looking for some mention of a Harville. I also asked questions of my older relatives who, as I recall, were not terribly forthcoming. I did manage to piece together a basic family tree, gather photographs of gravestones, and found one 1913 obituary that turned out to be quite helpful in nailing down a few facts.

The best discovery I made was on my Grandma Harville's side of the family, the Shattucks. I recalled Grandma mentioning that her family had owned a published Shattuck family history written when her mother was a baby. The book traced the Shattucks back generation by generation to the one who landed in Massachusetts in the 1620's, not on the Mayflower but within ten years. This book had been lost and Grandma suspected a cousin who had moved to Oklahoma as the culprit. I was delighted to discover a copy of this book in the Wisconsin Historical Library and I was able to make copies of all the pages that related to our direct ancestry back to William Shattuck, the Massachusetts settler. It even included a complete inventory of his possessions taken at his death. Grandma was in her late 80's then and it made me happy to show her the pages she remembered reading as a child.

I did a little additional research in the Newberry Library when I was in graduate school in Chicago, but basically put family history aside until two years ago. I read a reference to in an article and decided to check it out. I did a search on William Harville, my great-great grandfather. I knew from the 1913 obituary of one of his sons that he had moved his family from central Illinois to Wisconsin in the 1840's, but had found nothing earlier than that. But on, there was a question posted on a William Harville who had married a Jane Dunagan in central Illinois in 1827. I concluded that this William Harville was most likely my ancestor, and although the query had remained unanswered for seven years, I posted a response with a few relevant facts.

Within 12 hours, I had an email from a very, very distant cousin in Washington, the query's originator, who agreed we were talking about the same William and bolstered her conclusions with some additional facts she had uncovered. This led to many emails within a few days as we pooled our knowledge and "Cousin Lea," as I now think of her, provided me with the fruits of her 30-plus years of family research (her great-great grandfather and mine were brothers). I can now trace my Harville ancestors back to North Carolina, Virginia and London into the 1600's.

I subscribed to and have spent many fruitful, tantalizing and frustrating hours filling in missing pieces. The pleasure is similar to a jigsaw puzzle, except you don't know what the picture looks like, the number of pieces, or how many have been lost. But it's a great feeling when you stumble on a new fact that links several other pieces into a coherent picture. So the Web has been a blessing for family historians, both for the vast collections of census, military and other records as well as its ability to help us find each other and share information, as with Cousin Lea.

On the other hand, shoe leather is still required. I made a major discovery while slogging through microfilmed copies of the weekly Grant County Herald at the State Historical Society. I was looking for something else, but suddenly noted an announcement in an 1878 paper that my great-great grandmother had filed for divorce. The next week's paper covered the circuit court results which listed the divorce as granted. Whoa! I'd certainly never heard that little fact when I was growing up!
I consulted by email with Cousin Lea, who noted that the only grounds for divorce in those days were desertion or adultery. I wasn't sure which to hope for.

But I then discovered that all the circuit court records for Grant County are in a basement room at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, so I made a call. The attendant said it was hard to predict what might be in the file, but any and all paperwork presented with the case would be there. I made a quick trip to Platteville and held my breath when she gave me an envelope tied with a ribbon. Inside were the divorce decree, an accounting of all the costs of the divorce, and, most interesting of all, the handwritten transcript of testimony presented by my great-great grandmother and three of her sons, including my great-grandfather.

Turned out it
was desertion. She was 59 and he was 74, and they'd been married 31 years. Of course, I'd love to know the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey used to say, but with family history, the more you find out, the more you wish you knew. You simply have to accept there will always be unsolved mysteries.

I have not yet written the definitive Harville family history but I intend to take a HarvilleQuarter to do so. Besides the data available on the Web, technology makes it easy to lay out and print a family history with scanned images of photographs, census records and newspaper articles to add interest for the readers. You can take advantage of software that will create a family tree and customize maps to show the migration patterns of your ancestors. You can also insert local historical and geographic descriptions from town and county histories published when your ancestors were in residence, whether or not they were mentioned by name.

And the possibilities become more numerous each day as new content is added to the Internet and new features are added to software. If your history is online rather than printed, you can include audio and video clips - what a great way to preserve and distribute grandpa's oral reminiscences of growing up in the Depression.
This is one HarvilleQuarter I'm really looking forward to.

The photograph is of my grandparents and their first five children, taken in 1908. My father is the baby.

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