Land records are an excellent source of genealogy information. They can give clues to the surname of female ancestors who have married, as well as, the names of an ancestor’s parents, spouse and children. When used in combination with other resources, land records can be a great asset to your genealogy research.
Many states have an online database of land and property tax records. In some cases a user account must be created to access the information. The index can be viewed for free and document images can be viewed for a nominal fee. The index detail usually contains enough information for genealogy research; occasionally it may be necessary to purchase a document image to obtain more details.
There are several ways to search land records, but two search methods are best for genealogy research: Grantor/Grantee and Lot/Square. The Grantor/Grantee search can be used to locate property owned by an individual. The grantor is the old owner of the property (usually the seller) and the grantee is the new owner (usually the buyer). The Lot/Square search method can be used to locate all the owners for a property.
The Real Property Tax database can be used to locate the Lot/Square for an address. Most property tax databases only have information for property that is currently standing. Therefore, you may not be able to find information for property that has been demolished or the street name has changed.
The following example illustrates how I used land records along with other resources to make progress in solving one of my genealogy mysteries. Since many of individuals in the example are living or recently deceased, I have changed the names and other pertinent information to protect their privacy.
Family oral history states that the grandmother of Marissa Farr was the sister of my ancestor named Catherine Streeter. One of my research challenges was to identify the name of Marissa Farr’s grandmother and determine if there was a connection to my Streeter ancestors. I knew Marissa Farr lived in Washington, DC and the ancestor in question was born in Virginia, moved to Washington, DC where she lived until she died.
I started my research with a search for Marissa Farr in Ancestry.com which yielded a Social Security Death Index (SSDI) record and a US Public Records Index. I used the date of death from the SSDI record to obtain Marissa’s obituary which provided the names of her children and a living sibling.
I then performed a Grantor/Grantee search for Marissa Farr in the Washington DC land records and retrieved several records. I sorted the list by Lot/Square and Filing Date in order to view the information for each Lot/Square in chronological order.
From this information I noted that Marissa was associated with three properties, which I will refer to a Property A, Property B and Property C. The next step was to perform a Lot/Square search in the land records for each property. One land record for Property A immediately caught my eye because it contained the name Marissa Riddle Farr. I assumed Riddle was Marissa’s maiden name so I started with that record. The record index detail showed:
|Farr, Marissa Riddle||Morris, Martha Riddle|
|Mercer, Dorothy Riddle|
|Morris, Martha Riddle|
From this information I surmised that Riddle was Marissa Farr’s maiden name and the other people listed were her siblings and/or parents.
I searched the census for Marissa Riddle in Washington, DC and located her in the 1920 Census in the household of Thomas Riddle. Martha, Dorothy and a younger Thomas along with several other children were also listed in the household. This information supported my theory that Riddle was Marissa’s maiden name and the individuals listed in the land record were her siblings. The census record also gave the names of Marissa’s parents (Thomas and Leslie Riddle).
I performed another search of the census for Thomas Riddle in Washington, DC and located records for the family in the 1910, 1930 and 1940 censuses. The 1940 census showed the family living at 123 Maple in Washington, DC. I searched the Real Property database for the address in order to obtain the lot/square. The lot/square for the address matched the lot/square for Property A.
I then searched the land records for the lot/square associated with Property A and sorted the results in ascending order by filing date. The online land records database only went back to the early 1920’s and the property appeared to have had been in the family before the 1920’s.
Reviewing the index details for the land records provided a wealth of information to develop more theories. I continued to search the census records, marriage records, birth records and obituaries to find information to support or refute my theories.
The index detail for another land record showed:
|Riddle, Leslie||Mercer, Clifton|
|Riddle, Thomas||Mercer, Dorothy|
Base on the research I had just completed, I knew that Leslie and Thomas were Marissa’s parents and Dorothy was Marissa’s sister. I surmised that Clifton was Dorothy’s husband. A search of the marriage index confirmed that Clifton was Dorothy’s husband and Dorothy’s maiden name was Riddle.
The index detail for a third land record for Property A showed:
|Morris, Martha Riddle||Morris, Martha Riddle|
From this information I surmised that Richard was Martha’s husband. A search of the marriage index showed her husband’s name was Charles not Richard. I located a SSDI record for Martha and used the date of death from the record to locate her obituary. From her obituary, I learned that Richard was her son and the names of her other children.
I continued the process with all of the land records for Property A and gathered more information about the Riddle family.
When I had completed my research with the land records for Property A, I focused my attention on the land records for Property B. The index detail for one record showed:
|Dawson, M||Farr, M|
Since the index detail did not provide much information, I purchased the document image to obtain additional insight. The document showed Marissa changing her name on the land record from “Marissa Dawson” to “Marissa Farr” after a divorce. From this information I surmised, Farr was Marissa surname after a second marriage and Dawson was her surname after her first marriage.
A second land record for Property B showed:
|XYZ Development Company||Dawson, George|
|Dawson, Marissa N|
From this document I surmised that George Dawson was Marissa’s first husband. I located George and Marissa Dawson in the 1940 Census. Also living in the household were several children and lodgers. The names of two of the children matched the children’s names in Marissa Farr’s obituary. Three lodgers were Clifton, Dorothy and Doris Mercer. Base on the information obtained for the Riddle family while researching the land records for Property A and the ages of the Mercers’, I knew Dorothy Mercer was Marissa’s sister and Clifton was Dorothy’s husband and surmised Doris was Clifton’s and Dorothy’s daughter. I searched the marriage index and found a record for George Dawson and Marissa Riddle . The marriage information confirmed that Marissa Riddle and Marissa Dawson were the same person and George Dawson was her husband.
The index detail for the third land record for Property B did not provide much information either, so I purchased that document image as well. The document was a Waiver and Quite Claim Deed which identified the name of Marissa’s second husband, William E. Farr. I searched the marriage index and found an entry for Marissa N Riddle and William Ellsworth Farr.
I also searched the Real Property Tax database for the address found in the US Public Records Index for Marissa Farr. The search results showed the lot/square matched the lot/square for Property B.
The land record for Property C showed the property was owned by William Farr’s parents and several of their children and their spouses. Since I was not interested in William Farr, I did not do further research.
In then focused my attention on finding the names of Marissa Farr’s grandparents (specifically her grandmothers) in order to make the connection between the grandmother and my ancestor. I knew my ancestor was born in Virginia; however, I had conflicting information on the exact location. Family oral history stated she was from Fluvanna Virginia, her death certificate indicates she was born in Blue Valley, Virginia and the birth certificate for one of her children indicates she was born in Almar, Virginia.
From the census records, I knew that Marissa’s father (Thomas Riddle) and both his parents were born in Virginia. I did a search for Thomas Riddle in Ancestry.com. The results showed more than one Thomas Riddle around his age who was born in Virginia.
I decided to focus my research on Marissa’s mother (Leslie Riddle). I used the birth date from Marissa’s Farr’s SSDI record to request a copy of Marissa’s birth certificate which indicated Leslie’s maiden name was Sumner.
I performed a search on Ancestry.com for Leslie Sumner and found her in the 1900 household of Micah Sumner along with his wife Isabel and their children. The family was also located in the 1880, and 1910 censuses. In the 1880 census, the household of Micah Sumner consisted of his wife, children, a cousin and two boarders named Catherine Streeter and Lee Streeter. In the 1910 census, the household of Micah Sumner consisted of his wife, children, a three other people. Two of the people are a husband and wife named Emma and Clifton Jenkins and a 83 year old widow named Sarah Streeter.
I searched for Micah Sumner in the marriage, birth and death index and retrieved a marriage record for Micah Sumner and Elizabeth Patton, ten birth records and a death record for Micah Sumner. I was somewhat disappointed that the marriage index record indicated Elizabeth’s maiden name was Patton. I was hoping her maiden name would be Streeter.
The first few birth index records showed the mother’s name as Elizabeth Patton. A few others showed the mother’s maiden name as “Elizabeth Streeter Patton”. All of the birth index records indicate Elizabeth was born in Virginia. Three of the records indicated Elizabeth was born in Albemarle, Virginia (The county was spelled slightly different on each record).
I still have more research to do, but my research using land records has provided the following clues that lead me to believe Elizabeth Patton may be related to Catherine Streeter:
- Catherine Streeter and Lee Streeter are boarders in the 1880 household of Micah Sumner. There is a nine year age difference between Elizabeth and Catherine (Elizabeth is older) and a one year age difference between Catherine and Lee. Catherine, Lee and Elizabeth may be siblings or Catherine may be Elizabeth’s sister and Lee may be Catherine’s husband.
- Sarah Streeter is a boarder in the 1910 household of Micah Sumner. Sarah may be Elizabeth’s mother.
- Elizabeth’s full maiden name is listed as Elizabeth Streeter Patton on several of her children’s birth records. Perhaps Elizabeth’s marriage to Micah Sumner was her second marriage and Patton is her surname from her first marriage.
- Catherine Streeter’s place of birth of one of her children’s birth certificates is Almar, Virginia. It is a stretch but Almar may be a misspelling of a mispronunciation of Albemarle.
This example was somewhat lengthy, but I hope you picked up a few tips on how to use land records along with other resources to research your family history. With the exception of Marissa Riddle’s birth certificate, I was able to perform all of the research online using the following resources:
- Ancestry.com to view census records, the Social Security Death Index (SSDI), the US Public Records Index, as well as, city directories. I did not mention City Directories in my example, but I used them as well. I have found that many of the City Directories are not indexed or often contain transcription errors. Therefore, it is not a good idea to depend on the search feature to locate a name. Instead it is best to directly access the directory for the specific city and year; and browse through the pages to locate the individual.
- Familysearch.org to view the Marriage, Birth and Death record index, as well as, the actual marriage record. The website also has free access to census records and the Social Security Death Index.
- Legacy.com to obtain obituaries.
- Local newspaper obituary database
- State online Recorder of the Deeds database to access land records.
- State online Real Property Tax database to locate lot/square for property using an address.
I enjoy looking at old photographs. When looking through my grandfather’s photo album the other day, I noticed a lot of the pictures were not labeled and the photo album was starting to fall apart. That got me to thinking about ways to preserve the photographs. I decided to share tips for preserving photographs as well as a few pictures from my grandfather’s days as a student at Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now Tuskegee University) in the 1920’s. Click on the photograph to enlarge.
- Identify. Write lightly on the back of the picture with a soft-lead No.2 pencil. Identify the people (use real names, not titles or nicknames), date, occasion, location and other pertinent information. Do not write with an ink pen or felt-tip marker because the ink will bleed through the photo.
- Photo albums are a good way to organize your photographs. The album should contain acid free paper and contain PVC-free plastics such as, Polypropylene, Polyester, Polyethelyne, Tyvek and Mylar. Look for products labeled “archival” or “archival safe.”
- Do not use photo albums that feature plastic sheeting over gummed pages. The adhesives, papers and plastics will damage the photographs over time.
- It is best to use photo albums with sleeves to secure the photograph in the album. If you prefer to fasten the photograph to the page; archival mounting corners are good method for securing photographs
- Do not use regular glue or tape to hold photographs in albums. These items contain chemicals which will cause the photograph to deteriorate. Use special photo-safe glue and tape instead.
- Do not place metal fasteners (paper clips,staples, etc.) or rubber bands on photos. Fasteners will rust and tear or indent photographs. Rubber bands will melt and become stuck to the photograph.
- Store loose photographs in acid-free paper boxes with acid-free paper dividers.
- Store photographs and photo albums in a cool, dark, dry place with low humidity. Exposure to extreme conditions such as heat, cold, high humidity or direct sunlight cause photographs to deteriorate and/or grow mildew.
- If you have negatives, store the negatives in a separate location from the pictures
- Do not store photos in attics, garages and basements. These are rarely insulated and do not have controlled temperatures. Additionally those areas usually contain pest and rodents which like to eat paper.
- Keep photographs on a high shelf away from areas where they may come in contact with water or fire. Do not store photographs near fireplaces, heaters, dryers, water pipes or in areas prone to flooding.
- A torn photograph can be repaired by placing acid-free archival tape on the back. Do not put tape on the front of the photograph. Only use acid-free archival tape because the other types of tape will yellow over time and stain.
- A damaged photograph can be repaired by scanning it and using image editing software such as Adobe Photoshop. In some cases you may need to enlist the services of a professional who specializes in photo restoration. I have used the services of Drew Klausner at pixlfixl to restore several photos and have been very pleased with the results.
- Display. Do not display original photographs (especially old ones). Exposure to light can damage the photograph and will cause it to deteriorate. It is best to frame a copy of a photograph instead of the original.
- Digitize. Scan photographs and store on a CD or flash drive. Store the CD or flash drive in a different location from the photographs.
- Copy. Make extra print copies of photographs. Be sure to print on top-quality acid-free, archival paper. Make a photocopy of any original writing on the photograph and keep it attached to the photograph copy. Keep the copies in a different location than the originals and share with family members.
I was recently contacted by a young lady who had read my Genealogy Tips in Memory of My Mother blog post. She had recognized her grandmother in a picture of the Howard University 1946 May Queen and Court. The lady wanted to know if I had any other Howard University memorabilia from that time period.
School records and memorabilia are a great resource for family history research. The young lady’s email caused me to think of several places she could look for information about her grandmother’s college days. Below is a list of resources and repositories for finding information about your ancestors during their school days:
- Family Papers. Ask other family members if they have any schools records or memorabilia. My mother preserved a lot of her school records and memorabilia. She had her report cards from elementary and high school, as well as her college transcript. She had college graduation programs not only from the year she graduated but several years before and after she graduated. She also had a photo album that contained many pictures of college buddies on campus.
- School Board. The school board is a good resource for information on your ancestors during there time in grade school through high school. School records such as enrollment forms, attendance rosters, grade reports, disciplinary actions are often part of the administrative files maintained by the school board. These records can provide insight into the name and addresses of parents or guardians, birth dates and even the name and location of previous schools attended. Notes written by the teacher in the attendance roster recording the reason for the student’s absence can provide information on a death or illness in the family or relocation to another area. School boards also maintain a collection of yearbooks which are also a great source of information.
- Local Newspaper. Local newspapers often print list of students who made the honor roll, participated in student conferences or recently graduated. They also write articles on student achievements such as winning an award at the local science fair or a sporting event.
- University Library. Most Universities keep a copy dissertations and theses written by students. If your ancestors received a Master’s or PhD, check the university library catalog to see if there is a copy of their dissertation or thesis. Depending on how long ago the document was written it may be located in off-site storage. However, if you submit a request the library will retrieve the document for you.
- University Archive. Many schools maintain files on all of their alumni. The files may provide insight into their activities while a student at the university and after they graduated.
- Alumni Relations Office. Most alumni relations offices publish magazines or newsletters that contain articles on the accomplishments or passing of alumni. Check with the alumni office of any schools where your ancestor attended to see if they maintain an archive of these publications
- Admissions Office. Even if the person never graduated from the school, the school may have information. One of my ancestors died before he completed college. I wrote to the school and received a wealth of information about him including his application, letters from students who knewn him and a letter his mother wrote to the school after his death.
- School Newspaper or Magazine. Your ancestor may have written an article for the paper or contributed in one way or another.
- Alumni Associations for Organization. If your ancestor participated in a sorority, fraternity or some other national organization, check with the alumni chapter in the area where they attended school as well as lived to see if the organization has any information on them.
- Local Library. Libraries often maintain an archive of memorabilia from schools in the community. Check with the local library in the communities where your ancestors attended school to see if they have copies of news articles, yearbooks and other memorabilia and ephemera for the school your ancestors attended.
I often joke that my ancestors must have been hiding when the census taker knocked on their door because some of them seem to disappear from one census to the next. Here are a few tips for locating your ancestors in the census when they seemed to have disappeared.
- Use Soundex Search. The spelling of a surname sometimes changes with the passage of time. Using a soundex search will help you locate names that sound alike but are spelled differently. Don’t only relay on the soundex search because some surnames that sound alike have different soundex codes and therefore, would not be picked up by a soundex search.
- Use Wildcard Search. A wild card search allows you to search for a name when you are not sure of the spelling by using use special symbols (called wildcards). The specific wildcard rules and symbols vary by census index; however most (including Ancestry.com) use asterisk (*) to represent multiple letters and the question mark (?) to represent one letter. One of the surnames I am researching is “Woodfork”. However, the spelling on the name varies greatly: “Woolfolk”, “Woodfolk”, “Woodford” etc. The common letters in all of these spellings are “woo” and “fo”; therefore, whenever I search for an ancestor with this surname I always search for “woo*fo*”.
- Search for nickname.People do not always appear in the census with their birth name. The marriage certificate for one of my Shakespeare ancestors shows the brides name as “Sarah A. Ferguson”. In most of the censuses she is listed as “Sarah”; however, she is listed in the 1920 census as “Sallie”. “Sallie” and “Sally” are common nicknames for Sarah. There are many websites that list common nicknames for popular first names.
- Search for Middles Names. Many people are known by their middle name, not their first name. Searching for my maternal ancestors was a major chore. My mother had done a good job of writing down the family history she remembered. I also had additional information that had been collected from some of my other elderly relatives. However, I was having a tough time reconciling the information I found in the census with the information that was provided by family members. For example, when I reviewed the information collected from my family there was a “Leander Herbert”, “Parren Hebert” and his son Henry. However, when I located my 2nd Great-Grandparents in the census they did not have any children with those names, but they did have a “John Herbert” and a “Thomas Herbert”. It took me awhile until I figured out that almost everyone in the family used their middle name. “Leander Herbert” was “John Leander Herbert”. “Parren Hebert” was “Thomas Parren Hebert” and his son Henry was “Thomas Henry Herbert”.
- Search for abbreviations. Sometimes names are abbreviated in the census. My 2nd great grandfather “William Woolfolk” is listed in the 1870 census as “Wm Woolfolk”. Other common abbreviations I have encountered in the census are Jno (John), Chas (Charles) and Jas (James). You can find website that contain lists of abbreviations for many common names
- Search for family members. Sometimes you may need to search for a spouse, sibling, or child to locate a family member. I could not find my 3rd great grandfather, “Sancho Shakespeare”, in the 1880 census, so I decided to search for his wife, “Lucinda Shakespeare” and was able to locate the family. “Sancho” had been written as “Sanker”
- Search for surname only. If the surname is not common you can search without a first name. There are not that many people with the “Shakespeare” surname in Caroline County, Virginia in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. In fact, there appears to be only one family in the census and they all are my ancestors. I could not find my 3rd great grandfather “Sancho Shakespeare” and his family in the 1870 census. I decided to search for the “Shakespeare” surname, without a first name. One of the names I located was “George Shakespeare”. Other members of the household were Sarah, Lucinda, John, Martha and Fannie. The surname for those family members was “Shakeleford”. This family was my ancestors. “Sarah Shakespeare” was really “Sancho Shakespeare” my 3rd great grandfather, Lucinda was his wife, John and Martha were their children and Fannie was their granddaughter. “George Shakespeare” was their grandson who I was not familiar with because I knew him as “George Rollins” and “George Lewis”.
- Search for first name. If a person has an uncommon first name it may be possible to locate him/her without searching for a surname and using other information instead. When helping a friend research her family history, I searched without luck for a female who lived in James River Buckingham, County Virginia with the name “Willie Lethea Morris”. I was able to locate her in the 1930 census using her married name but could not find her using her maiden name. Based on the information from the 1930 census, I estimated she was born circa 1890. I then did a search for the first name “Willie”, born “1890 +/- 5 years”, and living in James River, Buckingham, County, Virginia and located her in the 1900 census where she is listed as “Willie L Morrison” (“Morris” had been transcribed as “Morrison”), the 1910 census where she is listed as “Willie Arthur Morris” (“Arletha” had been incorrectly transcribed as “Arthur”). I was even able to locate her in the 1920 census where her married name was misspelled.
- Search for Initials. On several occasions I have encountered a page in the census where almost everyone’s name was written with the initials and the surname. When using the approach be sure to search for first name initial, middle name initial and surname, as well as, first name initial and surname.
- Search for neighbors. In the past people lived in the same location for many years, sometimes all their life. Searching for a neighbor is a good way to locate your ancestors. Once you find the neighbor check two pages before and two pages after the neighbor and look for your ancestor.
- Just Browse. Sometimes when all else fails it may be necessary to go to the enumeration district where the person last lived and browse the census page by page.
Ancestry.com provides users with the capability to submit corrections. I strongly encourage researchers to use this feature to submit corrections once you find an elusive ancestor. Your correction will be added to the indexes and other users will be ale to see your correction.
When researching your family history, it is a good idea to revisit resources and repositories that you have used in the past. New information may have been added since your last visit or you may have gained additional knowledge that will make you see the information in a new light. Such was the case with my paternal great grandfather, Overton Woodfork.
From my research, I knew that Overton’s parents were William and Louisa Woolfolk and his mother’s maiden name was Shakespeare. I also knew from my research with the census (via ancestry.com) and the DC City Directories (using microfilm and the actual directories) that Overton had lived in Caroline County, Virginia during the 1870’s and early 1880’s; Washington DC during the late 1890’s and the 1900’s; and returned to Caroline County, Virginia during the 1930’s where he died in 1933. There were time periods, where he seemed to disappear and I did not know where else to look for him since, to my knowledge, he had only lived in Caroline County, Virginia and Washington, DC.
I had recently learned that one of my Shakespeare ancestors, Martha Shakespeare Lewis, and her husband, Arthur, had moved from Caroline County, Virginia to the Walnut Hills area of Cincinnati, Ohio in the 1890’s where they lived until she died in 1915 and he died in 1935. I also knew that some of my Shakespeare ancestors had moved from Caroline County, Virginia to Baltimore, Maryland.
Periodically, I search ancestry.com for my ancestors to see if I can locate any new information. A few months ago, I decided to search for my paternal great grandfather and was surprised to see the search results contained an ‘Overton Woodfork’ in several Cincinnati, Ohio City Directories. Since Overton Woodfork is not a common name, I had a suspicion that it might be my great grandfather. The 1886 entry in the Cincinnati City Directory really caught my eye because in the section for the address it said “bds Arthur Lewis’ Walnut Hills”. Another search result was for an entry in 1887 Cincinnati City Directory contained “rooms 20 Curtis Walnut Hills”. After checking my research notes form Martha Shakespeare Lewis, I confirmed that she and her husband also lived at this address. Therefore, I am almost certain that these entries for ‘Overton Woodfork’ are my great grandfather.
A little while later I searched for Overton Woodfork again on ancestry.com and this time the search results also contained entries from the Baltimore City directory. After making this discovery, I decided to browse each Cincinnati City Directory and Baltimore City Directory manually during the time periods that Overton did not live in Caroline County, Virginia or Washington, DC. I found Overton Woodfork in several of the directories that did not show up in the online search results either because his name had been transcribed incorrectly or some of the names on the page had not been indexed. I also visited the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore, Maryland to search the microfilm for the Baltimore City directories that were not online.
After completing this research, I now have a more complete timeline for Overton Woodfork. There are still a few years where I don’t know where he was living, so I still have more research to do to fill in the blanks.
In addition to illustrating the importance of revisiting resources and repositories, this experience demonstrates the importance of not solely relying on online search engines to perform research. It is also necessary to browse through the original documents to search for information. You may discover new information that will help you fill in the blanks on your family tree.
The 1940 Census became available to the public the first week of April 2012. Originally the ability to search by name was not available because the census was not indexed.
Ancestry.com has been adding indexes by state on a regular basis. Currently 25 states and the District of Columbia are indexed. (*) indicates the index was just added:
- Alabama (AL) *
- Arizona (AZ) *
- California (CA) *
- Colorado (CO)
- Delaware (DE)
- District of Columbia (DC)
- Georgia (GA) *
- Hawaii (HI) *
- Indiana (IN) *
- Kansas (KS) *
- Kentucky (KY) *
- Maine (ME)
- Michigan (MI) *
- Montana (MT) *
- Nebraska (NE) *
- Nevada (NV)
- New Hampshire (NH) *
- New York (NY)
- Ohio (OH)
- Oregon (OR) *
- Pennsylvania (PA)
- Tennessee (TN)
- Vermont (VT)
- Virginia (VA)
- Washington (WA) *
- Wisconsin (WI) *
In an earlier post , I talked about my genealogy buddy Robyn and how I would sometimes get genealogy envy when she discussed her ancestor’s many accomplishments. Robyn recently wrote a great post on Joseph Harbour, one of her ancestors with a criminal past. Since I had written about the many accomplishments of Robyn’s ancestors, I thought I would share this story to remind everyone that almost every family has some ancestors with a shady past. When we are researching and preserving our family history we must document the good and the bad. One thing I love about Robyn is she always has an interesting story to tell.
Robyn also wrote a great post on Alabama Convict Records which gives great tips on using convict records to locate ancestors who seem to have disappeared for a few years.
Writing your memoir is a great way to preserve family history. Many people think their life is too mundane to share. You don’t have to have lived a miserable childhood, suffered some tragic fate or hobnobbed with the rich and famous to write your memoir. Everyone has a story to tell. Telling your story is a great way to preserve your legacy and show others how you came to be the person you are today. In addition others will learn valuable life lessons from your experiences.
It does not have to be a Pulitzer Prize novel like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes or a great family saga like Alex Haley’s Roots that is published for the world to see. Just write down your recollections of people, places and events in your life and share it with your family and friends.
My mother wrote her memoir in which she described her life growing up and living in Washington, DC from the 1920′s forward. She wrote it out in long-hand on notebook paper. We typed the information, supplemented it with pictures and other memorabilia and had it copied and bound at the local copy store. My mother’s memoir is truly a family treasure that can be passed on to future generations.
In addition to preserving family history, writing your memoir is also a great way to preserve local history. Florence Coleman Bryant wrote her memoir titled Memoirs of Country Girl which contains her recollections of growing up in a farming community in Caroline County, Virginia during the Depression. I used the book as a resource when researching Union High School in Caroline County, Virginia in preparation for writing a book. Ms. Bryant’s memories of Caroline County and Union High were a value asset to preserving the history of the county and school.
Here are a few tips for writing your memoir:
- Pick an area of focus. It is not necessary tell your life story in chronological order starting at birth. You can write about a particular time period in your life, a particular event, or a person who influenced you. Your memoir can be a collection of unrelated stories about your life.
- Just write. Your first objective is to get your memories on paper. You can either type or write them, whichever you find easiest. Make a list of memories as they occur to you. Don’t worry about the details, spelling, grammar, punctuation. You can make changes later. Just let your thoughts flow and write.
- Be Yourself. Write in the first person in your natural voice.
- Take Your Time. Don’t’ try to write everything at once. Write for awhile, put it down and come back to it later. Some people find it useful to write every day for at a certain time in a special place. Others write whenever a thought comes to them. Keep a pen and paper or digital recorder with you at all times so you can record your memories when they occur.
- Be truthful but tactful. You want to be truthful but it is not necessary to write a tell-all novel that spills the family secrets or divulges all your personal business. Some information may be too personal or painful to share.
- Be gracious. Refrain from make disparaging remarks about others. Be aware that the statements you make will impact their life. Be sure you are able to support what you say.
- Use photographs and memorabilia to jog your memory. Look through photo albums, scrapbooks and memorabilia and write down what you remember.
- Use periodicals to jog your memory. Browse magazines and newspapers and make a list of national, state and local events. Write down your memories of these events and the impact they had on your life.
- Listen to music. Listen to old songs and write your memories as they come to you.
- Fill in the details. After your finish the draft add some background to put your story in the proper context. Searching the internet is a good place to find information. Search for events, people and places you mentioned in your story. Do research to confirm your recollection of historical facts or well-known events is accurate. For each story you have written, ask yourself: What was the occasion? Who was involved? When did the event occur? Where did it take place? How was my life impacted by the event?
One of my early childhood memories is practicing writing my name so that I could get my own library card. I wanted to be a big girl like my siblings and check out my own library books instead of having my mother check them out for me. Once a week my mother would take my siblings and me to the local library where we would check out shopping bags full of books, magazines and records. For big research projects, my mother would take us to the main library downtown where we had access to a larger selection of materials.
The library system has grown a lot since my childhood days. It is now possible to obtain a library card for a variety of library systems. In addition to providing access to items in the library, the library card also provides access to a wealth of online resources.
Here are a few tips for accessing resources outside of your community library.
- Community College – The community college in my county allows residents who don’t attend the college to obtain a Community Patron library card. Check with the community college library in your community to see if they have a similar program.
- Reciprocal Library Agreements -Some library systems have reciprocal agreements with the library systems in nearby communities which allow patrons with a library cards to obtain a free library card by showing a card from their library.
- Nonresident/Out-of-Region Access - Library cards are not always limited to residents of the community. Some libraries will also give library cards to people work, go to school or own property in the community. Other libraries will give a library card to nonresidents for a small fee. I do a lot of research in Caroline and Spotsylvania County, Virginia. These counties are serviced by the Central Rappahannock Regional Library (CRRL) system. Since I have no ties to the state or counties, I do not quality for a free library card. However, I am able to obtain a nonresident library card for an annual fee of $30.
- College Libraries – Many college libraries will grant library cards to alumni and staff. Additionally they may have Friends of the Library Program which will give library cards to people who make donations to the school. College libraries are excellent source for research because they provide access to theses, dissertations and other resources not available at your community library.
- Library of Congress – For those you who live near Washington, DC, the Library of Congress provides access to prints and photographs, historic newspapers, maps, manuscripts and film and a host of other materials. Most material must be used onsite, but the Library of Congress is an excellent place for research.
- Interlibrary Loan Program (ILL) and Worldcat - Most libraries have an interlibrary loan program (ILL) which allows the user of one library to borrow books from another library. Worldcat (http://www.worldcat.org) provides access to library collections around the world. I use Worldcat to locate books of interest and then request them through my local library’s interlibrary loan program. The books are sent to my local library branch where I can pick it up and return it when I am done.
If you follow the above suggestions you will have access to a wide variety of materials in libraries all over the country which will greatly enhance your research.
Summer is almost here. Families will be gathering for barbeques, cookouts and reunions. There will be many stories of days gone by and lots of photo albums and memorabilia to share. As you are visiting with family this summer, why not use it as an opportunity to preserve history. Not only will you learn family history, you may also learn that you have history makers in your midst.
Beryl Jackson is such a history maker. She shared her memories of being in the first group of students to desegregate the Caroline County School system when I interviewed her for a book I was writing on Union High School in Caroline County, Virginia. In 1965, Beryl and a few other students transferred from Union High (the high school for Blacks) to Caroline High ( the high school for Whites). Although her experience did not make national news and is not recorded in history books like the story of the Little Rock Nine, it did change the Caroline County School system forever.
Your family member’s memories have historical significance, not just for your family but for the community as well. Here are a few topics that are likely to come up during family discussions:
- Way of Life –What was the lifestyle of the people living in the community?
- Employment – How did people in the community earn a living? (ex. farming, working in steel mill)
- Migration – Did family members come to America from another country? Move from one area of the country to another? What was their experience?
- Clubs/Social Organizations – How did family members socialize with other members of the community?
- Institutions – Where did family member go to school or church? What impact did these institutions have on their lives?
- Community/Neighborhood –Communities change overtime. What was the community like when your family member lived there?
The next time you go to a family gathering be sure to take your digital recorder and/or video camera and preserve history.