Organizing Your Family History? Consider this Model

by Memoir Mentor on November 14, 2009

If you’re looking for different ways to organize and write a family history about ancestors long gone, here’s a review of an interesting book that may give you some ideas about how to balance historical facts and family story.

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CNBC news anchor Bill Griffeth received an email from a cousin inquiring whether he had any genealogy information he could contribute to the family tree she was compiling. Griffeth sent her a few pages he had acquired from an aunt.  Some months later, his cousin sent him the family tree she assembled. “It was a Broadway production!” Griffeth recalls. He was stunned to find his heritage traced back 400 years. All those new names and places intrigued him, but what really snagged his curiosity was discovering  his eight-times great-grandmother was a victim of the Salem witch hunts and was executed for witchcraft in 1692.

BGGriffeth wanted to know more, more about his ill-fated Salem forebear, and more about the other people who appeared on his family tree. His curiosity sent him on a research adventure that occupied the next several years, involving a 10,000-mile journey visiting churches, cemeteries and centuries-old houses, talking to anyone who knew anything about his relatives and the events that shaped their lives. Along the way, he took hundreds of photographs and recorded his findings in five large spiral-bound notebooks.

He shaped his information into a captivating story, a 276-page family history published by Random House in 2007 called By Faith Alone. The book’s title, borrowed from a book written by Martin Luther centuries ago, is key to its focus, for Griffeth has written a story that is part family history and part history of Protestantism’s roots in Europe and America. Griffeth writes in his introduction that the book is more than a family history of his lineage; it’s also the family story of any American who descends from European Protestants who immigrated to America. 

I found this to be true. As one who comes from Protestant heritage, I found Griffeth’s story illuminating, and my copy of the book is a muddle of underlined passages, margin notes, and colorful little sticky flags.

The book hooked me for another reason. As a family history writing teacher, I’m intrigued with the various ways one can tell a family story. Griffeth selects five families and tells the story of their connection to Protestantism. That’s his focus, and it helps him shape a tightly controlled narrative. Sometimes writers try to cover too much territory in a family history, exhausting and confusing their readers with too many people and too many stories to follow.

That being said, Griffeth focuses on far more than his five families. In the course of his research, he visited the New England and European towns where his families lived. He provides brief histories of those places, and lets his readers tag along when he traipses through ancient cemeteries, hikes to the top of a bell tower, sits in on Sunday sermons, and strolls along Rotterdam’s cobblestone streets. He re-creates conversations with amiable parsons and chatty local historians he visits along the way. In this way, the book feels like part travel journal.

Occasionally, Griffeth tries to imagine his forebears in those places. For example, when he visits a colonial-era house in Topsfield, Massachusetts, he writes:  

[I] walked into a rustic-looking room with creaky, uneven floorboards and a very long dining room table with place settings for ten or twelve. There was a faint odor of old wood and smoke.

I tried to picture the Towne family gathered around a table like this for a meal. It they followed the customs of the time, father William would have sat at the head, eating off a pewter plate and drinking from a pewter stein while everyone else used plates and cups. Everyone would have used knives and spoons to eat with. Forks were introduced in the late seventeenth century. (p. 147)

If you want a brief, informative, and interesting history of Puritanism, Methodism, and Lutheranism, you’ll find it here. You’ll also learn a lot about the Salem witch trials. Griffeth doesn’t provide footnotes, but he says he consulted dozens of books and websites, and his bibliography covers five pages. He also includes a notes section, where he discusses the sources he consulted for text in each chapter.

Griffeth’s story of family, faith, and Protestantism’s formative years is told with the lively communication skills of a person who has spent a quarter-century talking to television audiences. You will learn a substantial amount in this book, and enjoy the journey.

By Faith Alone is available at Amazon.com and bookstores nationwide.

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