In previous blogs I’ve discussed some of the first steps you need to follow to transform genealogy data (names, dates, and places) into a family history that breathes life into those people, places, and events and tells an interesting story. This is not an easy project, but if you’re interested in family history, you likely have pride in your heritage and want your children and grandchildren to understand and value their roots as you do. Most people feel little kinship with names on pedigree charts, but they can relate to a story about these people that puts them in the times in which they lived.
I recently finished reading The Widow’s War, by Sally Gunning, a Cape Cod writer who crafted a poignant and riveting historical novel that involves some of her ancestors. I found her story particularly interesting because it focused on the limited legal and property rights of women in Colonial America. I have female ancestors who felt powerless and subjugated because of those laws. So did you. The main character, Lyddie Berry, loses her husband in a whaling accident off the Massachusetts coast. She wants to remain in the house they owned together and she has widows’ rights to live in one-third of the house. Her son-in-law inherited the house, however, because only men can own property in those days. He wants to sell the house and move Lyddie into his own home. She objects…and the story begins.
I found the book interesting because of the detailed descriptions of the everyday life of women in that era. Gunning has done her research and shows us how Lyddie wrings a chicken’s neck and turns it into a chicken pie, milks the cow and makes cheese that she sells to earn some money, tends a dying Indian neighbor in a village described so vividly I felt like I was walking its streets. Along the way, we learn about the power of the local church and gossipy neighbors to marginalize people who don’t toe the mark. The book gave me ideas I can use in my family history about my own Colonial era families.
Gunning is a pro, obviously. We can learn from what she and other good writers have to teach us. Most of us know little about the personal lives of our early ancestors. But we can do the research and discover what a typical day may have been like for them, as Gunning did. Social history material abounds on the Internet. Start with Google and type in a subject that interests you. Refine your search from there. I also find the Everyday Life books helpful. They describe clothing, cooking preparations, labor, medicine, transportation, and much more for a variety of different eras. Most libraries stock these books.
After you’ve gathered some material, put your ancestor in the story. Most of you are likely writing a family history rather than a novel, so you may want to write something like, “Elizabeth Webb’s life was probably like that of other women of her time. She rose early in the morning, before sunrise, before the rest of the family awakened, and put logs on the fire to warm their one-room, windowless home. Once the fire began crackling, she’d heft the heavy wooden bucket and go in search of water–from a well, if the family had one, or to a nearby stream….” As you write, your ancestors will begin to take up their lives again. Try it; you’ll see.
- Click on “Writing FAMILY HISTORY” in the category list in the right column to access other posts similar to this topic.
- Everyday Life in Early America by David Hawke
- Colonial Williamsburg—This is the official site, and it contains all kinds of information describing life in Colonial America.
- The Writers Guide to Everyday Life in Colonial America, 1607-1783, by Dale Taylor