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.
My last two posts contained self-publishing tips. I decided to take a break and publish a research tip. The next post will continue with the self-publishing tips.
I recently discovered information on three of my ancestors in the Confederate Citizens Files while performing research using fold3.com (formerly footnote.com). The Confederate States of America (aka the Confederacy) was a government established by the eleven southern states that seceded from the United States during the Civil War. The Confederate Citizens Files were created during 1861-1865 and mainly consist of papers relating to civilians who were members of the Confederate States of America. These files contains papers such as bills and vouchers from individuals for services and supplies provided to the Confederate Government and claims against the government for damages.
The document titled Perpetuating evidence of slave abduction and harboring by the enemy is of particular interest when seeking information on enslaved ancestors. In 1861, the Congress of the Confederate States of American passed “an act to perpetuate testimony in cases of slaves abduction or harbored by the enemy, and other property seized, wasted, or destroyed by them”. This act allowed slave owners to appear before a judge or appropriate representative and make an affidavit of the loss of their property. Other individuals could submit oral or written evidence in support of the person’s claim. After all the evidence was collected the judge or his representative would state in his certificate of authentication whether the evidence was credible. This act was not meant to imply that the Confederate States were liable for making compensation for any of the property.
I located several documents in the Confederate Citizens File of Jefferson Flippo that provided information on three of my ancestors. My 3rd great grandparents, Sancho (aka Sanker) and Lucinda Shakespeare and their children were enslaved by Elijah Wigglesworth in Spotsylvania County, Virginia. Elijah died in the 1840’s and the Shakespeare family was separated in 1846 when his estate was divided among his wife and children.
Three of Sancho and Lucinda’s children: Richmond, Nancy and Matilda were then enslaved by Elijah’s daughter Almira and then Jefferson Flippo of Caroline County, Virginia when Almira married him in 1854. I have found a lot of information on Matilda both during and after slavery and have located some of her living descendants. However, I have not found much information on Richmond and Nancy.
The perpetuating evidence document for Jefferson Flippo was filed on October 21, 1862. It contained a list of individuals who were enslaved by Jefferson Flippo and secured their freedom by leaving with the Union soldiers. As I scanned the list I noticed the names of three of my ancestors: Richmond (age 26), Nancy (age 20) and Susan (age 1). From early research I believe that Nancy had a daughter named Susan in April 1861 while she was enslaved by Jefferson Flippo. Based on their ages I believe Richmond, Nancy and Susan listed in this document may be my Shakespeare ancestors.
As I looked further through the document I found several statements by individuals that provided additional insight. There was a sworn statement signed October 7th 1862 from Jefferson Flippo where he stated he was the legal owner of the slaves, Richmond, William, Nancy and Susan [illegible] until about the 1st day of Jun 1862. His statement also indicates that Richmond and William left on or about the 1st day of Jun 1862 and Nancy and Susan left about the middle of July.
Another page of the document contains the oral evidence given by Nelson Beasley and John T. Goodwin, neighbors of Jefferson Flippo and provides further insight. In addition to corroborating the information provided by Jefferson Flippo, they also indicate my ancestors were last seen in Fredericksburg. The final page in the document contains the certification of legal ownership by Philip Samuels, Justice of the Peace.
I now have some insight into what happened to Richmond, Nancy her daughter Susan but I still do no know what became of them. I now have many more questions. What surname did they use after they obtained their freedom? Where did they go? The oral evidence states they were last seen in Fredericksburg. Did they remain there or move to another location? Did they ever reunite with their family? Many of my Shakespeare ancestors did reunite in Caroline County, Virginia after slavery. However, I have not found any information to indicate Richmond and Nancy joined the rest of the family.
My great grandmother Louisa (who is Nancy’s sister) had a daughter named Susan whose age is very close to Nancy’s daughter named Susan. Are Louisa’s daughter and Nancy’s daughter the same person or different people who happened to be born around the same time? If they are the same person, does that mean something happened to Nancy? If so, what happened to her? These are all questions I must answer as I continue my quest to locate my Shakespeare ancestors.
Confederate Citizens Files are an excellent resource for researching the family history of both slave holding families and the individuals they enslaved. Unfortunately, the names of slaves are not indexed; therefore, those searching for their enslaved ancestors will have to search for the name of the slave owner and read each document to locate their ancestors.
Division of the Negroes and Money belonging to the Estate of Elijah Wiglesworth and Lot No 6. Drawn by Almira W. Wiglesworth. Will Book R, 1843-1846 Part 2 Page 271 Repository: Spotsylvania Court House, Spotsylvania, Virginia.
“Confederate Papers Relating to Citizens or Business Firms, 1861-65,” digital images, Fold3.com (http://www.fold3.com : accessed 26 November 2011), record for Jefferson Flippo, Caroline County, Virginia, Papers of Jefferson Flippo for perpetuating evidence of slaves abducted and harbored by the enemy, filed October 21, 1862, National Archives Record Group 109, War Department Collection of Confederate Records.
I started researching my family history in Caroline County, Virginia in 2004. I was frustrated by the dearth of information on African Americans. As I talked to African Americans in the community I would hear interesting stories of their lives growing up in the county. As I listened to their stories, I would often think what interesting information it was and that someone should preserve it.
In 2009 I decided to become that someone and take an active role in preserving the history of the communities where my ancestors lived. My first project would be to preserve the history of Union High School – Caroline County’s only secondary school for Negroes during the era of segregation.
I knew nothing about the school and had never written a book; however, I decided to take on the challenge. Once I began to spread the word about the Union High History Project many people were eager to participate. The result of the project is a book titled Memories of Union High: An Oasis in Caroline County, Virginia, 1903-1969. The book available at amazon.com and my website.
In addition to writing a book, I have collected a large amount of Union High memorabilia and ephemera including hundreds of photographs, a complete set of yearbooks, commencement programs and school newspapers. I plan to donate these items to libraries and historical archives. Because of the collaborative efforts of numerous ordinary people, the history of Union High School has been preserved for posterity.
You many not want to take on the monumental task of writing a book. Here are some ways you can help preserve local history on a smaller scale:
- Donate items to libraries, historical archives and genealogy societies. When going through family members’ belongings, save old documents, papers, photographs, memorabilia and ephemera and donate them to a local library or archives. A lot of historical items are classified as junk and thrown away because the person who is cleaning out an elderly or deceased person’s home is not mindful of the significance of the items.
I urge people to donate original items on a regular basis and keep copies for their records. Using this method, you or your family members will not be faced with the daunting task of sorting through a large amount of information years later. You don’t have to organize the items just put them in a box and take them to the organization. Some organizations may even send staff to your house to retrieve the items if you have a large amount of information.
L. R. “Jack” Davis, the funeral director of Davis Funeral Home (which later became Storke Funeral Home) in Bowling Green, VA, was responsible for moving graves after the government purchased land in Caroline County, to establish the AP Hill military reservation. Mr. Davis kept very detailed records in a 250+ page document which provides information of the location of graves before and after the move.
Many years later, his daughter made copies of the document and distributed it to libraries and the Caroline County historical society. This document is an excellent resource for anyone performing genealogy research in Caroline County. Because of the generosity of Mr. Davis’ daughter, numerous family historians and genealogist have been able to obtain valuable information about their ancestors.
- Write articles for newsletters. As I research my family history I also collect information about the communities in which they lived and the organizations in which they were members. I have written several articles for the Caroline Historical Society newsletter in order to share this information.
- Create a website or blog. I acquired several documents from the Fort A.P. Hill Environmental Office that continued valuable information about the people who lived in the community prior to the establishment of the military reservation. I uploaded the documents to my website to make them more accessible. I have been contacted by people all over the world who were very grateful for this information being on the internet since it was not feasible for them to travel to Caroline County to perform research. Some information may be copyrighted so be sure to get permission from the owner before you post any information and documents on the internet.
- Give speeches and make presentations. I have made several presentations on the subject of researching, documenting and preserving local history. I share my experience from the Union High History Project and give tools and tips for preserving local history.
- Share research strategies and information with staff at libraries and historical archives. Performing genealogy research for African Americans can be a frustrating experience, especially when researching our ancestors who were enslaved. Because slaves were considered property, the traditional methods for performing genealogy research can not be followed.
I frequently perform research at the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center in Fredericksburg, Virginia. The staff is very friendly and helpful. On one occasion I struck up a conversation with several staff members who inquired about my research. I told them I was searching through documents about my ancestor’s deceased slave owner (Elijah Wigglesworth) to learn more about my ancestors. I explained how I had to research my ancestor’s slave owner family in addition to my own
family in order locate my ancestors. I showed them how my ancestors were listed in the Inventory and Appraisement of the slave owner’s estate, and how the document showing the distribution of his estate showed my great great grandparents family being separated when the slave owner’s estate was divide among his wife and children. I then explained how I had to search for slaves in wills, inventories, and other court documents for each of the new slave owners to trace my ancestors’ movement during the slavery.
I pointed out that since the names of the slaves were not provided on the summary for documents in the collection I had to spend hours reading through documents in hopes of finding information on my ancestors. They agreed this was not an easy task since many times the documents were handwritten with poor or fancy penmanship, faded and very difficult to read.
Once the CRHC understood the research strategy they began including the slave names on the summary for documents in the collection that is published on the CRHC website. I find most staff at libraries and archives are very helpful and open to suggestions. I recommend that you share your research strategies and ideas whenever you have a suggestion for improvement.
- Participate in activities to preserve the history of the communities you are researching. In 2007, the Fort A.P. Hill Environmental Division initiated the AP Hill Oral History Project to preserve the history of the communities that existed before military reservation was established. I was one of several individuals hired to interview people who had lived in the community. The end result of the project was a book titled Wealthy At Heart: Oral History of Life Before AP Hill.
Although I live over 100 miles from Caroline County, I was still able to contribute to the project by interviewing former residents who lived near me. All interviewers were required to take an oral history training class. Therefore, not only did I help preserve the history of the community where my ancestors lived, I also learned techniques for performing oral history research that I still use today.
- Support genealogy and historical societies. Most genealogy and historical societies rely heavily on volunteers and donations. I urge you to volunteer at the genealogy and historical societies where you perform research, become a member and make financial donations.
Preserving local history is not just the responsibility of professional historians. It must start with the ordinary people who live, work and have an interest in the community. I urge you to follow the above steps to help preserve the history of the communities where you and your ancestors lived.
My mother is the person who piqued my interest family and local history. As a child I loved looking through her photo albums and memorabilia. I can remember looking at her 4th grade report card where the teacher wrote “Needs watching” and thinking “Oh, Mama was bad in school!!!” As a child, I got a kick out of knowing that my mother sometimes got in trouble too.
One of my favorite pictures was of Howard University’s 19th Annual May Festival from May of 1946. My mother was an attendant in the queen’s court and to me she and the other ladies looked like princesses.
My mother would also share her memories of growing up in Washington, DC. As we traveled around the city she would point out landmarks (or where landmarks used to be) and share tidbits of information.
When my mother passed away I wrote an article containing genealogy tips in her memory in my Woodfork Genealogy newsletter. Today is the 3rd anniversary of her death and so I am posting the newsletter to my blog in her memory.
Genealogy Tips in Memory of My Mother
My mother, Dorothy L. Woodfork, passed away on Sunday, November 16th. She had been in a nursing home for four years and had numerous health problems. I watched as her health continued to deteriorate with each passing day. Her passing was not a sad occasion for me because she is finally free and at peace.
With her passing, the number of elders on the maternal side of my family tree has been reduced. My mother was 82 and one of the oldest in her family. Fortunately, she had done an excellent job of preserving her family history. In honor of my mother’s memory, this Woodfork Genealogy Newsletter shares some of the steps she took to preserve our family history.
Document What You Know
My mother had written down all of the family members she could remember in a notebook. After my grandmother’s funeral, the family members had gathered at her house for the repast. My mother passed around the notebook and asked everyone to document their family. This notebook has been a great asset to my genealogy research and I treasure it today.
In 1997, at the age of 71, my mother wrote her memoir. She wrote it out in long-hand on notebook paper. In it she described her life growing up in Washington, DC from the 1920’s forward. She gave it to my daughter to type. Everyone got busy with life and the document was put on the back burner. In 2004, I started cleaning out her house after she was moved to the nursing home. I remembered the document and resumed work on it again. By this time, my mother’s memory had started to fade because she had dementia, so completing the document was a race against time.
My mother and I worked on the document together through the fall and winter. I had a hard time reading some of her handwriting (she had Parkinson’s disease which made her handwriting small and shaky) and she had a hard time remembering what she had written. But between the two of us, we were able to figure out much of what she had written. I supplemented the information with pictures and other memorabilia she had saved. The result was a document that not only gave great insight into my mother’s life, but also the history of Washington, DC. I made copies of the document and gave one to each of her children and grandchildren as a Christmas present from her in 2004. This would be her last Christmas present to them. On Christmas Day, I brought her from the nursing home to my house for Christmas dinner. She looked on anxiously as my daughters unwrapped their gift and whispered to me, “Do you think they like it?” I assured her they did. My mother’s memoir is truly a family treasure that can be passed on to future generations.
Preserve Family Memorabilia
My mother saved EVERYTHING. She believed that everything could be used again “one day”. When I was cleaning out her out house I found all sorts of stuff. There was a four foot tube full of plastic grocery bags. As I pulled the bags from the tube, I kept thinking that there must be something else in this tube, but it was not. There was a huge box of cardboard boxes of every shape and size you could imagine. There was also a huge container of twine and string. You name it and she probably had saved it.
In addition to all these items, my mother had preserved many family treasures: her report cards from elementary and high school, as well as her college transcript; wedding and funeral programs from every event she had every attended; obituaries that she and my grandmother had saved; birth, marriage and death certificates; every personnel action paper she had been given when she worked for the government. She had photo albums for many, many years, including photo albums that belonged to her father. There were newspaper clippings and notes that she had written that gave insight into her thoughts. The list goes on and on. She had carefully labeled all of the documents and neatly organized them in boxes. My mother’s house was a genealogy gold mine.
I am glad I started cleaning out her house before she passed. The process took me over a year. Since there was no rush, I was able to carefully go through all her belongings (and there were a lot of them) and preserve the necessary items. A lot of family history is lost when people who are not sensitive to the importance of preserving the family history clean out an elderly person’s home. Many genealogy gems are thrown away as “junk” because the person is not mindful of the significance of the documents.
In conclusion, I suggest that you talk to your family members and urge them to preserve their memories. This can be done in many ways, they can write a memoir; you can interview them and preserve the information on audio or video tape. Also, go through their possessions with them and help them organize and preserve family memorabilia. Label all photos and determine the significance of artifacts they have saved. I urge you to take these steps today.
Marion Woodfork Simmons
Woodfork Genealogy LLC