Monday, April 16, 2012

Mining Your Family History for Story Ideas

One of my favorite TV shows (which my children and husband tease me about) is Who Do You Think You Are. On the show, celebrities, (and almost celebrities) research their family history trying to find a connection to their past, or find answers to some unknown family secret.

It's awesome.

My mom is a genealogist. That's what she does as for fun, money, and milkshakes.

Sarah Heald
Personal Hero
So I've always known about where I came from.

 I've always heard stories of my great great grandmother Sarah Heald, who sang for the Queen (or was it King?) of England, and then gave up a promising opera career in England to join the Mormon church and settle in a small town in Idaho.

I've always known about Annie Welker and her corncob pipe, who as an early Mormon pioneer, asked her husband to marry her widowed niece in Canada.

William Brewster has my nephew's eyes
I've known about king Niall of the Nine Hostages, who is my ancestor ( along with basically everyone else with Irish blood).

  I've known that both my mom and my dad are related to William Brewster who came over on the Mayflower.

 It's part of who I am to know where I came from.

When I look back at these names and dates written on a pedigree chart, I can't help but wonder what if felt like to grow up when they did. I can't help but wonder how my great great grandparents met, and what flowers adorned their wedding. I can't help, as a mother, to sympathies with my great (and great great grandmother) who lost children. I wonder what it'd be like to be the unmarried younger sister, whose name never continues on in perpetuity.

I think every person on this earth has heartbreak, and therefore, every person on this earth has a story. To me, I think  about the worst thing in the world that could happen is to be forgotten.

But there's just so many of us on this planet. So many people live and die, and never do anything that lives on or is remembered. But that doesn't mean our stories aren't important. It doesn't mean our heartbreak isn't real and important.

As the product of these strong men and women, whose choices and heartbreak determined how and where I was born, I have to go back and tell their story. Their stories. Because who else is going to do it?

If you don't happen to have a genealogist mother, or great aunt, or second cousin in California that does this kind of research, maybe you are the one who can start. Maybe you have an adventure in front of you in discovering where your people come from.

Here's how you start.

  1. Ask those who know. If your grandparents are still living, ask them about their family, about their parents, their upbringing. Ask your mom, and your cousins, and just keep your eyes and story net  open for stories.
  2. Look online. and, are two awesome resources to get started finding your story. Just type in your name, and look at what has already been discovered. 
  3. Look in your community for resources, like heritage centers, or libraries, historical societies. You never know what stories await you, until you look.

One thing else to think about, is that you don't need to research until you find the end of your line in order to find stories. My favorite episode of Who Do You Think You Are was the episode with Rita Wilson. She wanted to find out more about her father, and the secrets she uncovered about her recently passed father could break your heart. It's amazing what we don't know, at least until we look.

It's not about finding dates, and birth records. It's understanding who your parent really are, and what your grandparents felt, and why you were born where you were. It's about finding out where you got your curly hair, or your nose, or stubbornness, or maybe to explain away your children's rebel streak.

It's about connecting the dots, and doing the math, to find out how old someone was when they were married, or lost children, or died. It's about discovering the real life characters who made you who you are.

As a storyteller, doesn't that just make you curious?


  1. Hey, small world, my ancesters were on the Mayflower, too (Priscilla Mullens & John Alden of the 'Courtship of Miles Standish' fame). They probably hung out with William. What would they think if they knew that so many generations later we'd be friends - over the internet, no less!

    Family history is fascinating, the ebb and flow that brings people together. My fiery redheaded grandmother left her rural home when she was young to be a NYC society girl. When her father died, her mother opened a boarding house to support herself and she came home. She fell for a handsome farmer who boarded there. I love to imagine what two such different people were like when they were courting.

    Great inspiration! Great post!

  2. I don't know as much as my ancestors as I should, but you are right. There are great stories there. My grandfather has some fascinating stories about being a child during the depression, and I'm sure there are a lot more for me to discover.

    Thanks for the inspiration.

  3. Heh, rumor has it that one of my ancestors came over on the Mayflower too. But I've never seen anything to substantiate it, so I think it might just be wishful thinking. But extra cool bizarre if THREE of us had ancestors that came over on one ship together!

    I have two family stories of note. The first is on my dad's side, as researched by my (Mormon) aunt (she does a lot of research and shares it with the family - very cool). Apparently, one of my great, great grandmothers had an affair with a royal earl in the Danish court and bore his child. The girl lived with her father's family until she was 9 or 10, and then her mother kidnapped her (!) and took her to America. There, they joined the Mormon church. The earl contacted his daughter one last time before he died, and said that if she came and visited him he'd leave her his fortune. If not, she'd get nothing. She didn't want to make the trip across the Atlantic and leave her children (this was in the late nineteenth century, I think). So we missed out on the chance to be fabulously wealthy, but our family has done just fine. :)

    The other story is not fun or amusing in the least. During WWI, the Ottoman Empire believed the Armenians were conspiring with the Russians against them (some rebels were). Their solution was to start mass murdering Armenians. I'll spare you the details, but they killed somewhere between 1 million and 1.5 million people. My great grandmother Berjouhe was 14 years old. Her parents disguised her as an old woman so she wouldn't be raped by Turkish soldiers. They almost got caught on a train, but the Turkish officer recognized my great-great grandfather as the tailor who sewed his uniforms, and so he let them go - luckily for me and all my family.

    1. That's amazing. Wow! Both of those stories could be amazing novels.

  4. Good simple tips for family history. I think it is awesome the stories you can find. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Fabulous post! I have been thinking about this a lot since I heard author Ruta Sepetys, Shades of Gray, speak. Her amazing, best selling book is based completely on her family history. So cool! I want to find one of my own family history stories to write about.
    Time to do some genealogy.


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