I talked about the importance of writing up your family history, awhile ago. Here are a few ideas for jump starting the writing of your family history and some topics to add meat to the bones of just boring old names and dates. My friend Andrea sent me a terrific quote a few weeks ago that is very appropriate:
“Better to write something now, than everything never.”
Here goes my list:
History of that city, or rural area
Example: The city of Tifton, GA (and the county) was named for Captain Henry Tift, who built large sawmills to harvest the lumber that would be central to this community. My great-great grandfather John Smith was born in Tifton. Many rural areas were named for large slaveowners.
Geography-what was the landscape like?
Example: Many of my ancestors from Hardin County lived along the Tennessee River, so that was a major influence on people’s lives. At the turn of the century, steamboat travel was frequent as were, according to the local paper, drownings of local citizens.
Migration patterns: where did most of the people that settled here come from? Where did many go to?
Examples: Most of the people in early Tennessee were a part of the westward migration from Virginia and North Carolina. This matches exactly the path of the slaveowner of my Tennessee ancestor, Malinda Holt. Also, I have mapped the migration of African-Americans from this county to Northern industries in the 1940s.
Items from U.S. national history, State history, and/or county history
Example: My friend Marion’s family is from Caroline County, VA, and I think the fact that the Lovings story happened there is very interesting (the couple that won a Supreme Court ruling against laws forbidding interracial marriages). Hardin County, TN was the site of a large Civil War battle and in many ways that informed the experiences of many slaves who ran away and joined the war effort. Tennessee had more black volunteers than any other state.
Use slave narratives & autobiographies from that area to document the slave experience, even if its not your ancestor
Example: For my ancestors from Montgomery County, MD, I include excerpts from the autobiography of Josiah Henson who was enslaved there. For Hardin County, TN, I use the WPA slave narrative of Edward Bradley, who was enslaved there.
Laws relating to slaves and freedmen
Example: After the Civil War, Maryland’s Eastern Shore utilized the apprenticing laws to basically re-enslave the children of their former slaves. The Freedmen’s Bureau had to fight to get their children back. I discuss this in my write-up of my ancestors from Somerset County, MD.
Illnesses and deaths
Example: There was a smallpox epidemic in 1873 in Jacksonville, FL, where my dad’s family lived, which forced many people to temporarily flee the city. Also, the 1918 flu pandemic touched just about every community. Use mortality census records for this topic as well.
Prominent People (both black and white)
Example: Harry Hooks amassed a fortune as a freed black shoemaker in Hardin County, TN before the Civil War, even enabling him to purchase his wife & children. Also, many prominent whites in the county, like William Cherry, were Unionists during the Civil War, which created an interesting dynamic there versus other Southern cities.
Major African-American churches, schools & businesses
Example: My grandfather owned two successful pharmacies in the booming 1940s business district of Jacksonville, Florida, which in part explains why this family never migrated North along with so many others. I find this community he was a part of simply fascinating, and I have documented other black businesses that existed alongside his.
This is by no means complete, but perhaps its given you some ideas to get started. For those who have started, can you tell me other topics that you have added to your family histories?