When I began searching for information about my family’s history I had no intention of publishing a book. (Still true.) It was more about the thrill of the hunt -- tracking down familiar names, determining relationships, and finding critical dates wherever I could. It was always exciting to enter new data for people I knew about, and to find relatives I had never known existed. And along with the satisfaction of solving puzzles, I began to learn a bit more about how these kin must have lived, why they moved from one place to another, and what the political and social environments were like in their times and places.
In the process, of course, I amassed a huge collection of material, and with it came the realization it had to be arranged so that I knew what I had, and where to find each piece of it. That, as you know, is a never-ending project, much like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. ( And I’ve been writing about it here, off and on, for some time.)
But there is still more I’d like to do. Why have all these wonderful documents, letters, photos, and mementos, if they don’t make sense to anyone but me? And what will become of them when I am not here any more? They may be neatly filed in acid-free folders, each with its tidy list of contents, or lovingly placed in archivally-correct photo albums, but … do they tell a story? As the one responsible for gathering up all this, I certainly know the background myself. I can tell the viewer what each piece of paper means and how it relates to the overall picture. But without my explanation, that overall picture is blurred and incomplete.
The task, then, is to create an album, or series of albums, that hold the sigificant documents and most meaningful photographs, with the words that will tie them all together. Sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Well, as I soon found out, it is not.
Does one begin with onself and work back in time, the way we are advised to pursue our research? Or should the earliest known ancestor in a particular line be the starting point? Should “how I found it” be included (sometimes this is irresistible), or do we go for a simple description of who is related to whom, where they lived, and what we know of their lives? There are, of course, books and articles to help with these decisions, since a single set of family history albums is no different, in that sense, from something written for publication (though we are free of the business decisions, and our layout possibilities are not dictated by a printer).
So far I am planning to take the earliest-ancestor approach: beginning with a great-great grandparent in my father’s line. Frederick Howard apparently came from Pennsylvania to northeastern Kentucky sometime after 1793, the approximate year of his birth, and before 1811, when his name first appears in Bath County tax records. His marriage to a woman named Jaley Grant is also recorded there, as well as a court document showing his appointment to survey a particular road in the area. Frederick and Jaley had three children in this Kentucky county, including my great-grandfather, but in1829 the family moved up to central Indiana, where they settled in Montgomery County, not far from Crawfordsville.
The first hard choice comes when I must decide how to deal with the descendants of Frederick’s daughters. The whole family fascinates me, but naturally my focus is on the direct ancestral line. I need to lay out the connections with the son, Samuel Parker Howard, to his daughter, and then to her son, who is my father. But I also want to include what I’ve found about the others -- not only because their lives were important, too, but because I have some interesting documents relating to them. Among these are a clue-filled 1884 letter from my great-grandmother’s half-sister, an 1854 obituary relating the circumstances of the death of my great-grandmother’s first husband, and a photograph of a great-uncle's tombstone, typical of those provided the Civil War dead.
Have you, dear reader, attempted this sort of project? How did you go about it? What treasures do you have and how do you incorporate them in your work? I’d really like to hear from you.