Sunday, January 4, 2015

Of Maintenance Records
and Recent Marriages

Why is it the littlest clue can provide the biggest picture, when it comes to telling the stories of our ancestors?

This past week—well, at least the part between Christmas and New Year’s Day—was supposed to be that quiet respite when I set aside all other assignments and just focused on the housekeeping aspect of setting up for the oncoming year. I did do that, to a certain extent. But even extending that time through the New Year’s weekend didn’t seem to provide enough time, this year.

Yes, I promise I’ll return on Monday to our story of Charles Edward Broyles and his escapades in Colorado, so far from what used to be his home. On the eve of that planned return to our regular schedule, though, I’m realizing just how much annual maintenance a life can require.

An unexpected thing started happening this week, when I took my recent DNA testing task seriously: I ended up staring at the details of some of our family's most long-standing genealogies—at least, here in this country. And that reminded me how long it’s been since I last worked on, for instance, my mother-in-law’s Flowers line—in this country since the mid 1700s. Or my own Broyles line, stretching back at least as far. I know I have several other lines—there’s that collateral instance popping up again, just as Amy Johnson Crow is suggesting—that, if I devoted some serious attention to them, would also lead me back to the 1700s here, if not to the 1600s as well.

That’s just the work that’s yet to be done. What about the work that needs a regular check-up? After all, it doesn’t hurt to go back and review our research—especially if we’ve been at it for any length of time.

Friday night, thanks to reviewing a match on my husband’s DNA test, I found myself working on a collateral line to his Flowers family—Ambrose—and realized it had been at least fifteen years since I last worked on that line. It’s high time to revisit that work and see what else can be added. And likely corrected, as well!

So, how does one insure that no surname is left behind in a review of past research? Develop a maintenance schedule? After all, if we calendar in our car’s oil changes or home furnace inspections, wouldn’t it make sense to schedule a sweep through the major surnames in our family trees?

I’m not that organized, though. I’m more likely to handle tasks on a need-to-know basis. Like: plan a trip to Ireland, review all the Irish ancestors in the genealogy database. That, however, means that if my pragmatic programming calls for a sweep through all my DNA test result matches, I’ve got a lot of reviewing in my not-too-distant future for a substantial number of family lines.

The one trouble with looking through all that long-forgotten data is that ancestors from so long ago seem to be not much more than names, dates and places. They show up on paper like shadowy figures. Unless you run across a particularly emphatic entry like this line from the 1855 will of John Henry Flowers in Perry County, Ohio—“It is my will that my daughter Barbara Slevins heirs is to have nothing”—there isn’t much of a clue for a researcher to extrapolate the true essence of an ancestor’s day-to-day life.

Of course, you know life back then couldn’t be that different than life today. Even if all the census record said for an ancestor was that he was a farmer, you know life held more than the daily drudgery of routine for even the plodding farmer. There had to be instances of difficulties, arguments, grudges, hurt feelings, miffed sensibilities, unfulfilled expectations in even the life of a nineteenth century farmer.

But how are we to know what those were? Especially if no one has bothered to tell us. We can only extrapolate from what we know about life today—admittedly, a vastly different lifestyle than back then in the 1850s—and blend that with those little comments we do find that make us perk up, pay attention and ask questions. Like, “Why did her heirs receive nothing?”

Yesterday, my husband and I attended a wedding. It was a beautiful ceremony, of course. But what justice would I do it to tell you how gorgeous the bride’s gown was, or what was served for dinner, or how cleverly the decorations were arranged? Even though, yes, if any details are passed down from one generation to the next, it would likely include a list of such descriptions.

What I’d want to know the most, though, is likely the exact essence that infused this wedding ceremony with so much meaning. This was the marriage of a woman whom we watched grow up. A friend of our daughter, she has been a part of our lives for almost the entirety of her own. We know her parents well—and, in fact, her extended family.

To say that I could almost hear, from across the room, the quivering of the lip as her dad gave his heartfelt toast to the new couple is to capture that essence I’m after, when I seek stories of our ancestors. It’s the context that bestows that meaning—knowing all the hopes, fears, struggles, victories a person has gone through, just to lead him or her up to this point. When it comes to exploring just what type of person our ancestors were, it’s details like this which allow those historic figures to step out from behind the mask of their vital statistics and become the living, breathing people they once were.

While going back and reviewing the statistics of long-forgotten ancestors’ database entries is necessary, you can be sure this routine maintenance procedure will only serve as prelude to a fuller exploration of the big picture of who these people once were. After all, names, dates and places can’t very well tell a story. But details can.


  1. When I was a teen, I loved the Sunday paper because it had pictures and full descriptions of all the weddings - what the bride's dress was made of, what color gowns the bridesmaids wore, what flowers everyone carried, who sang and what. There was no record of quivering lips though. Today our paper charges by the column line so most wedding reports are bare bones, just-the-facts-ma'am about names and places, that's it. I'm not sure where future genealogists will find the essence of our lives.

    1. Wow, Wendy, we certainly both come at this research from different perspectives. When I was a kid, besides the comics, my go-to spot in the newspapers was the obituaries. Maybe it was the genealogist coming out in me, even then: I looked for who was the oldest, and who was the youngest.

      And yes, you are right: no quiverling lip in the newspaper, wedding or funeral. For that, you just had to be there.

  2. From that little nugget, "they shall inherit nothing," one can conjure up a number of "hypothesis" - from them being disowned for some reason to them being so well off, they didn't need anything.

    This is the part of research that frustrates me - you get that little hint, but can find no more!

    1. Oh, but if you can find anything more than that first little hint, you've hit the Mother Lode that provides The Rest of The Story.

  3. I just scanned a photo of a Flowers tonight...Forrest Flowers of the Tucker Family. I will present it on Thursday so you can see it.
    All the little columns in the newspapers up here told all about the wedding...I have located quite a few, than and some real flowery obits:)

    1. If it's a Flowers, then I am looking forward to seeing it, Connie. I try to keep up on the extended Flowers family from Perry County, Ohio, so if this is any sort of relationship, maybe I can figure out the connection.


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