I’ve previously written about putting our ancestors’ lives in context so that they become more meaningful, especially when we’re writing a family history or a biography of a particular ancestor. The importance of context came home to me earlier this year when I read a book which focussed on events in a particular period. It caused me to think (yet again) about how to write up my research.
For instance, can you remember where you were, who you were with, and what you were doing, when significant events happened on a local, national or even global scale in your own lifetime and the impact they had on your life. As a baby boomer, I clearly remember the Beatles emerging on the pop scene in the 1960s and I can still sing along to many of their songs. The Apollo 11 moon landing in July 1969 was, depending upon your time zone, either on my birthday, the day before, or the day after. Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech on 28 August 1963 still sends shivers down my spine. President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on 22 November 1963 in Dallas shocked the world. From these events you can see that the 1960s was a significant period of time for me, as I moved through my teenage years, left home for college and eventually ended up living and working in London – a far cry from my semi-rural roots in the English Midlands. Pinning events in our lives to more widely reported occasions helps us create anchors not only for writing our own life story but also a family history.
Bill Bryson’s book, One Summer: America, 1927
, describes a huge number of momentous events that happened in just a few months in the middle of 1927, giving the background as well as the aftermath and subsequent impact on the future development of America. These included the competition to be the first person to fly non-stop from America to Paris, which was eventually achieved by Charles Lindbergh; the peak of Al Capone’s reign of terror in Chicago; the phenomenal success of baseballer Babe Ruth; the invention of television; the decisions that ultimately brought about the Great Depression.
Bryson’s books are so rich in detail that I find it preferable to read them in small chunks. What set me thinking, though, was whether my ancestors, if they lived in New York in June 1927, trekked out to the airfield to see Charles Lindbergh take to the air? Would they be wondering if he would be successful and eventually return or would he be lost forever like many of his fellow aviators who attempted the crossing. If they lived in England or elsewhere in America, were they among the rapturous crowds who welcomed him home after his epic flight? You could create a timeline of your ancestors’ locations and see if they coincided with Lindbergh’s tours.
Back to Bryson’s book, I was impressed by the number of notable events that happened in a short period of time in one year and the subsequent global impact of some of them. As the lives of most of our 19th century ancestors were probably fairly circumscribed by the rhythm of agricultural or industrial processes, it is possible that events such as wars, or the coming of the railways or the discovery of gold, could have thrown their lives into turmoil. Perhaps this explains many of their actions, such as leaving rural areas to work in the industrial centres, or migrating half-way across the world to start a new life.
I have another Bryson book on my bookshelf, At home. A short history of private life. The blurb on the back cover says
“The history of household life isn’t just a history of beds and sofas and kitchen stoves, as I had vaguely supposed it would be, but of scurvy and guano and the Eiffel Tower and bedbugs and body-snatching and just about everything else that has ever happened. Houses aren’t refuges from history. They are where history ends up.”
In the book he takes a journey around his own house, an old rectory, wandering from room to room considering how the ordinary things in life came to be. Each chapter deals with a particular room and discusses the things in it, how they came into existence and when.
|This picture of the original bark hut home
of Mr and Mrs Tucker is from State Library
of Queensland, 2172947
An old rectory in rural England is fertile ground for such investigation, but what if you had ancestors who arrived in the early years in Australia. How did they build their rough bark huts in the bush; what did they do for cooking, water and sanitation? Many land grants were dependent upon erecting a dwelling, fencing the land, and producing crops, which proved to be too big a task for some migrants.
So, rather than just saying where your ancestors lived, do some research on what the place would have been like in the 1800s. Also research the natural disasters that occurred while they were there, such as floods or bush fires, crop failures or pest invasions. See if you can find early newspaper reports or diaries of those who lived in the area. They all help you to build up a picture of what life would have been like.
As you can see, I enjoy reading non-fiction and both of the books mentioned above came to me courtesy of my daughter. They were found on the non-fiction shelves in retail bookshops, which are so often crowded out by massed copies of the latest fiction blockbuster. So, don’t only rely on Google or Wikipedia for all your background information, take the time to visit your local bookshop or library and browse the non-fiction shelves for interesting reads; these can not only add to your understanding of your ancestors’ lives, but also generate ideas on how to write their story.
Until next time.