Friday, May 18, 2012

Documents which E-X-P-A-N-D our understanding of family history

When I first started researching my family history, my mentor (Elise Bernier-Feeley, local history and genealogy librarian at Forbes Library), started me out with searching the Census records for my parents and working my way back generation by generation. Then we pulled out regional and world gazetters, books containing maps and descriptions of the cities and towns where our ancestors lived.

It took me a while to assemble all these statistics. And then, I graduated to church records, city vital records and newspapers.

From there I progressed to land deeds and wills. . . and then, military records, i.e. service records and pension files.

Every now and then I re-approach an old "problem"...something I want to know more about that the dry facts available at the time cannot sufficiently answer. That's when I sit back and start brainstorming. I might read part of a novel or an historical memoir, perhaps watch part of an old film on TCM. I start to approach the "problem" as though it were a scene in a movie, telling the story as far as I am able...and when I am no longer able to give the specific points of back story needed, such as describing what the courtroom or the judge looked like, then I start searching for those specific details.

One great film I am always reminded of is the great narrative in the Orson Welles production of Jane Eyre.


Of course the film was based upon the book by Charlotte Bronte, and so reverting to the book to narrate the film is an effective tool. But what happens when you're trying to narrate a story for a book...what do you draw upon for details?

I started looking at the documents I had gathered. I noted the names and relations of each person mentioned in a will, land deed, or pension file. I started collecting their documents to see how the group interacted. But then I was drawn to the one name that appeared at the end of each of these documents...J.G. Stanly, Clerk of Courts.

Who was J.G. Stanly? And then I started looking at the names of the judges...who were these men? Where did they live? What influence did they carry? And what was their attitude toward Free Negroes and apprentices?

In the days to come, I will begin transcribing some of these documents I have gathered recently in order to effectively narrate the story of young Isaac Carter.


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