Writing Family History: Look for the Whole Picture

by Memoir Mentor on October 4, 2010

When writing family history, it’s difficult to create a realistic picture of people long gone. Genealogy data reveals little about how people looked, moved, or talked, or what strengths and weaknesses shaped their lives. Then there’s family pride. Absent any evidence to the contrary, we tend to idealize our forebears. We want them to be exemplary rather than human. I suspect the image that exists in our mind’s eye bears little resemblance to how they actually were.

How can it be otherwise, especially when we’re writing about people who lived decades, even centuries, before we were born? In my recent efforts to write my Parrett family history, I’ve been grappling with how to capture the life of Joseph J. Parrett, a man removed from me by six generations. I have collected a fair amount of data about him, for he served in the War of 1812, appears in census records, and is mentioned a few times in various community histories, where he’s sometimes called “Tennessee Joe,” a moniker distinguishing him from relatives with the same name. He wasn’t a community leader, as far as I can tell. I mostly picture him as a hardworking farmer in the early days of Ohio statehood who with his wife, Rebecca, raised a large family (nine kids), in the custom of those times. All this makes him feel like a type rather than a man of flesh and bones. Those who have ancestors who wrote letters or kept diaries definitely have more of a window into the minds and hearts of their ancestors than I do.

I have one piece of personal information that individualizes my Joseph. Some years ago I received a letter from an elderly Parrett correspondent in Iowa who remembered a conversation he had with an elderly Parrett relative in Ohio some years earlier. The Ohio Parrett observed that “Old Tenn Joe Parrett would not work, except at night. All he liked to do was sit and comb his whiskers.”  Ouch! Did you feel that stab to my family pride?

My genealogy records tell me that the Ohio man who made this statement was born after Joseph Parrett died in 1859, which means he had to learn this information from someone else. So what I’m dealing with here is a third- or fourth-hand account of some anonymous person’s opinion. Who knows what circumstances and biases shaped that perception. It could have come from anyone, a young grandson, even a great-grandson, who only saw Joseph as an old man and had no concept of how his arduous life had sapped his vitality. That’s only one scenario among many explanations. And how has that observation been shaped and filtered by the memories and biases of the people sharing it over time? We have so many things to weigh when considering how to use a story like this in a family history.

I feel sorry for poor Joseph, frozen in time by this snapshot of himself. In my mind it conjures up images associated with words like cantankerous, eccentric, vain, self-centered, and lazy. I think of movie scenes set in the Appalachian backwoods where toothless old men without hope slump in rickety porch rockers, tobacco juice staining their beards and soiled shirts. All this is just crazy imagination, of course, but my family pride winces at the thought of it.

As a family historian who weighs all the evidence, I have to balance that snapshot with other things I know about him. He was a man who honorably served out his War of 1812 enlistment, his unit suffering from near starvation at one point, according to one account. In 1814 Joseph set out in a wagon for Ohio with his wife and infant son, purchasing and cultivating several several hundred acres of densely timbered land that he lived on for the rest of his life. A number of his children became teachers, served in local politics, and held positions in the Methodist church. He doesn’t sound like a lazy man, at least at this time in his life.

Here’s something else: I looked at Joseph Parrett’s probate file when I visited Ohio last May and found a doctor’s receipt for repeated visits to the Parrett farm in the last three months of Joseph’s life. During those visits, the doctor administered medicine, primarily whiskey (a common “remedy” for all ailments in those days), for pain associated with  Joseph’s kidney stones. From what I know of that condition, it can drain a person’s energy, maybe even send him to his rocking chair for days on end.

I’m not trying to rationalize or whitewash some negative character evidence to create a more idealized version of one of my forebears. Who knows, maybe he was a lazy lout after all, and his wife and kids did all the work. I’m primarily trying to point out the dangers of using one fact or one piece of evidence to create a whole picture. We need to gather a wide range of evidence to paint as fair and nuanced story of our ancestors as we can. This is is particularly difficult when we have little to go on, but we should strive to capture as much of the whole person and the whole story as we can, and acknowledge what’s truth and what’s speculation. Family historians are the repositories of family reputations. It’s a heavy charge.

If I were to die suddenly, I wonder what snapshot of me would linger through the generations. What would my grandchildren remember about their grandmother? They’ll have more to draw from than I have for Joseph, obviously, for they will have more records and photos available to them to shape their memory. But it’s likely something may stick in their minds that they’ll repeat to their children. Sometimes we tend to remember the aberration rather than the norm. Maybe my grand-daughter will remember the time I jumped in the swimming pool with my clothes on. Future generations hearing that story could deduce that their great-grandma was a quirky, spontaneous soul—something that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Or maybe my grandson will remember the time I lost my temper with him because he kept teasing our dog. We can’t control what people remember about us, but—and  I suspect you know where I’m going with this—writing our own stories will give our descendants a broader sense of who we are, not just a snapshot that gets passed down through the vagaries of people’s memories.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Patricia M. October 31, 2010 at 2:20 pm

So right, Dawn.
Sometimes it was enough to put “a roof over your head and food in your belly”.
I heard that a few times as a child. Our parents and ancestors often did not consider writing Memoirs as a way to communicate with the future. Seeing a child get through childhood was a challenge.
Sorry about that.

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