2015 APH Conference: Historical Research 101

Genealogists and personal historians have a lot to learn from each other. The first thing a personal historian should realize is that genealogy isn’t just about family data. It’s also about finding clues to stories hidden in the historical record.

For instance, trolling through the census might uncover a hidden story. Why was Henry listed as the elder brother in the 1910 census, when William was shown as older in 1920? Who could that lodger be, with the same last name as the family? Isn’t it interesting that the maid’s surname shows up as a middle name in the family later on—oh, wait, maybe she married Uncle George and became Aunt Liz!

Birth and death records might uncover a previously unknown relative. That’s how I learned that my grandfather had a little sister who died of an infection because antibiotics weren’t available. Marriage records can be interesting too. Was Aunt Martha really born “too soon,” as your mother always claimed?

An old map might show that the in-laws lived next door to each other, or that two sets of relatives combined their land into what you think of today as the family homestead. In a personal history interview, a person may mention things that no longer exist, such as barns, churches, schools, creeks, and farm buildings. Those things might appear on old maps, however. In my own case (and I’m not that old!), I grew up in a rural area that has been absorbed into suburbia. Maps from my childhood look very different from current ones. Those older maps contain markers for things I remember that are gone now.

For several years, I investigated an old murder case in my own family. Land maps that showed individual houses, census records that gave me names and house numbers, and newspapers on microfilm with detailed accounts of the murder enabled me to reconstruct the sequence of events and envision how the participants had moved from one spot to another. The story took on a new reality as I drew a color-coded line on the map for each person.

One of the first personal history projects I completed was for a man who credited his Swedish grandparents with giving him the strong work ethic that led to his business success. He remembered very little about them, however. After extracting every possible clue from this man’s vague childhood memories, I started looking in the historical records. I learned about his grandparents’ arrival from Sweden and their life in Chicago’s “Swedetown,” his father’s birth and childhood, and the location of the family farm that my client only vaguely remembered. I uncovered land records that showed neighbors whose names he suddenly recognized and family documents that he didn’t know existed. By the time we were done, my client had a greatly expanded perspective on his work ethic!

A couple of years ago, I completed a history of a golf course for the club’s 40th anniversary. I started out by interviewing almost forty people. Then I used the clues provided by the interviews to do research in land ownership entries, old maps, census records, probate records, and printed township histories. That research gave me new sets of follow-up questions for my interviewees and, ultimately, led to a much deeper and more complete history.

As you can see from these examples, historical research can be an important partner to the listening skills that many of us use in our interviews with clients. When you interview your next client, keep your ears open for clues that might send you into the historical record for more details.

Linda Coffin leads two of the 23 workshops at the 2015 APH annual conference, Oct. 21–25, in Sacramento, California. Her workshop, #4-D, Historical Research 101, is on Saturday, Oct. 24. 

About this series: This is the eighth in a series of posts from presenters at the 2015 Association of Personal Historians conference, Cultivate & Thrive. Last week, workshop presenter Ann Ranson wrote about finding the marketer within. Next Wednesday, we will hear from Jamie Yuenger, who is leading two workshops: #1-B, Audio Recording Basics; and 3-E, Techniques for Video Interviewing.

~APH: The Life Story People~

One thought on “2015 APH Conference: Historical Research 101

  1. Right on, Linda!