Thursday, October 12, 2017
Day Twelve: Value of the Back Story
There is absolutely no way to simply purge a file cabinet full of folders of genealogical material. I knew, in this Fall Cleanup project, that I would run into a roadblock somewhere.
I wasn't expecting it to come with the letter "A."
Sure enough, no sooner had I flipped through the first few papers in my file for the surname Ambrose than I uncovered some long-forgotten resources providing me the back story to some colonial ancestors. Many of these treasures were from pages posted online by other researchers—tucked away in user pages at the FamilyTreeMaker website, or the "freepages" at Rootsweb, or on a person's own website back in the 1990s—which shared much more than just pedigree charts.
Looking through the clippings I had saved, it was obvious that many of my fellow Ambrose researchers—indeed, of researchers in that era pursuing any of the same surnames as I was—were concerned with far more than the bare bones facts of name, dates and locations. They wanted to know the reasons why their ancestors did what they did. The wanted to understand the life surrounding those people and what motivated them to make the choices they did.
For the most part, that goal takes an understanding of history, but often, that history was local. I was grateful for anyone who had taken the time to understand what was happening in the area where my ancestors once lived, three hundred years ago and more. Whenever I found an article explaining a key aspect of life in the neighborhoods where my ancestors lived, I tried to print up a copy of the material and file it in the appropriate folder.
And now, look at me: going back over these now-forgotten notes from nearly twenty years ago with that déjà vu feeling—yet knowing I had read them before, and that I was right when I thought it was important.
The only problem is: how can I toss those papers now? Saving them will mean incorporating them into my current research system by scanning them as an e-document or transcribing the significant parts as notes in my research journal. These are not blips of details that can be shoved into the fields in a genealogical database management system. Articles of substance really do need a place of their own, if they are materials that need to be consulted over and over.
Some of the material explained the reasons behind situations much like the ones I wondered about when I was pursuing my Davis, Broyles and Tilson lines in the colonial Virginia wilderness last month. One article discussed the waves of migration westward—in the 1700s, before the American Revolution. Another reviewed the reasons why it was hard to track a specific surname in records of that era (a combination of multiple languages, liberties with phonetic spelling, and inability to double-check what was written due to illiteracy). One valuable article reviewed the main migration routes and chapels of the Catholics in Pennsylvania.
All of these articles were important to me, because they were the very topics that concerned the history of my mother-in-law's family, one of the families which, of course, I've been dedicated to researching over the years. Understanding the back story on these movements through time, across the continent, helped me see the fuller picture on just who those ancestors really were. The greater history also helped me zero in on the micro-history of my family, helping me to learn where the best resources might be for the specific documents I'd want to find to verify my family's story.
Along with emails providing the names of useful books on these topics—and the likely places where I could access that material back in 1999—the articles and letters I kept will likely take a lot more time to save, in my current digitized system, than merely deciding, yea or nay, whether to save them.
The material, itself, serves to provide an enriched version of my family's story. In my mother-in-law's story, it means appreciating the struggle of Catholic families escaping the war-torn turmoil of their European homes only to find themselves moving westward through the states of Maryland and then Pennsylvania, seeking a haven where they could, finally, put down roots and call a place home.
I had forgotten that many of the answers to those broad questions were all filed in a slim folder with the simple label "Ambrose" up on top.
Above: "Autumn Landscape in Rybiniszki," 1902 watercolor on paper by Polish artist Stanislaw Maslowski; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.