Honoring the Mothers in our Family Trees

Anna's daughter Katherine, my great-great grandmother 

Anna's daughter Katherine, my great-great grandmother 

If you spend much time reading mommy blogs, hanging out with moms, or you’re a mom yourself, you quickly learn just how easily moms can grow weary. And as women have over time increasingly been able to express themselves publicly, this is becoming more and more evident. But if you look into history, you may think that the moms in our family tree were more “put together” than today’s moms are – than we are. I look at the biographies of some of my grandmothers in old county history books, and their selfless works and skills in mothering and caregiving are highly praised. In our mothers’ obituaries, their strength is praised, and sometimes they even mention out that these women suffered, but silently, and this silence is revered. One of these women stands out to me: my great-great-great grandmother, Anna Walsh Garrity.


I had a hard time tracking down Anna, and she still remains somewhat of a mystery to me. But I’ll never forget when I found her obituary, and what it said about her. Here is one line: "Despite her many trials and sorrows, she bravely cared for her little brood until the last. It has been said by loving friends, in eulogizing Mrs. Garrity, that no woman ever lived that was more void of faults, and that no woman ever bore her burden more resignedly than she.”

At first I stood in awe of her. But as I’ve done more research on Anna and pieced together her story, I started to feel a great sympathy for her. Anna was only about forty-five years old when she died. She had eight children at the time, and had been widowed for ten years. In the last census that was taken before she died, I found out she was a “laundress”, a particularly grueling job, especially when she was caring for so many children on her own. Her obituary also says she died from Bright’s disease, which she contracted while visiting her oldest daughter, who was married and living in Indianapolis. (Anna lived in Connersville, Indiana, an Irishwoman who had immigrated from England when she was just a young girl.) But when Indiana released its death records in 2016, I went straight for Anna’s so I could continue to add to the story of this mystery woman.

The main cause of death listed on Anna’s death certificate was exhaustion. Exhaustion. Oh, Anna, I thought. Maybe Anna never told her loving friends who said she bore her burden so resignedly, but she was exhausted. Maybe Anna never let on to her children just how exhausted she was. Maybe she couldn't. I knew Anna’s granddaughter well, and surprisingly, she knew nothing about her. She didn’t even know her name. Anna’s story of exhaustion never made it to her descendants. That is, until I took notice of her situation by piecing together bits of her story from records, and realized just how telling her cause of death was. Anna was a woman of hard work, dedication, commitment, but she was exhausted, and sadly, it cost her everything.

Share their Stories

When we look into the lives of our mothers in our family tree, I hope we see people and not just records. I hope we read in between the lines. I hope we realize they had a living, breathing story with hopes, dreams, and feelings. I hope we realize we come from the same stock as them. I hope that we learn lessons from them. I hope we can have sympathy for them, and understanding, that their stories inform ours. I hope we then tell the stories of our ancestors so we can begin to understand how similar people have always been. And I hope that when we’re exhausted, we realize we don’t have to do it alone. That we reach out and connect with others. That’s something I’ve learned from my ancestor Anna. Anna may have truly cared for her little brood until the last, but I wish she had lived longer. I wish she had lived long enough to be a grandmother, to see her little brood grow up. I wish she had been able to live her life and share her story herself. But since she couldn’t, her family historian descendant is going to honor her memory and share it for her. I hope you do the same for your ancestors. Their lives live on in us. Their lives live on in our children.

Tombstone Tuesday: Visiting Cemeteries with Kids

Not too long ago, we pulled into a cemetery where a number of our ancestors are buried. As we rounded a bend, suddenly I heard my daughter take a deep breath in the back. I turned around and found her holding her breath. What? I thought. Where had she learned that?

“What are you doing?” I asked her. Turns out her cousin had told her she needed to hold her breath while she was in a cemetery. “Nope. You’ll be holding your breath for a long time, then. Plus, you’re a genealogist’s daughter. You’re gonna have to get used to being in cemeteries.”

I grew up in cemeteries. I even got married in one. (Seriously. Well, the banquet hall where we got married is also a funeral home in a cemetery.) I remember when I was young going with my dad to help “lock up” the mausoleums at a cemetery he took care of when I was a young child. When he took charge of another cemetery later on, our basement was full of old maps and files for that cemetery dating back to the 1830s. So when I started genealogy at age 16, going to cemeteries was already natural for me. Another reason it so surprised me that my daughter was holding her breath was I remember when she was about 3, we passed a little cemetery in the car and she yelled out, “Look! It’s mommy’s place!” She’d been in cemeteries before, lots of them.

Visiting Cemeteries with Kids

My daughter Ellie with her 4th great-grandparents, John & Mary Ellen Mulry at Holy Cross Cemetery, Indianapolis, Indiana

My daughter Ellie with her 4th great-grandparents, John & Mary Ellen Mulry at Holy Cross Cemetery, Indianapolis, Indiana

For a lot of kids, visiting a cemetery is not so ordinary. It can be strange, scary, unknown, or it could be connected only with sad memories. But it doesn't have to be. We can teach our kids the importance of cemeteries in our family history and local history. Because cemeteries are an important part of our communities. My dad told me one time that someone was complaining to him that our society needs to transition away from burying our dead in cemeteries, because “what we really need is more greenspace.” But, from his experience, he looked at her and said, “That’s what cemeteries are. Greenspace.”

A lovely view at Crown Hill Cemetery, Indianapolis, Indiana 

A lovely view at Crown Hill Cemetery, Indianapolis, Indiana 

Many cemeteries maintain a park-like experience. People take jogs and bike rides in them, many over the years have taken picnics there. They provide a place for wildlife, for solitude, for reflection. We can take our kids on walks in cemeteries and see what we can find.

And not only that, cemeteries connect us with our past. Each burial spot is a small place designated to one person, and it’s a place for us to go and remember, to honor and respect. It’s a place for families, past and present. Visiting a cemetery may be a sad and emotional experience, but also a special one, full of history and memories. 

Passing our Heritage Down to our Children

My dad giving my kids a little tour of a cemetery in Kokomo, Indiana

My dad giving my kids a little tour of a cemetery in Kokomo, Indiana

In our fast-changing world, cemeteries remain very much the same over the decades. The roads around them, once country lanes, are now being built up into super highways. Buildings spring up around them, buildings are torn down. The outside world never stops changing. But inside the cemetery gates, time stands still. Our ancestors came here to bury their loved ones, standing in the same spots we stand, to remember and reflect. And that heritage needs to be passed down to our children. Let’s bring our children to these places of history, of family history, and teach them to honor and respect them. Let’s find a stone and learn about the person buried there, often long forgotten. Let’s find an old ancestor and place a flower on their grave. Too often cemeteries are vandalized, stones are destroyed or defaced. They’re much too important to let that happen. So let’s bring up a generation to honor those gone before us, and the places where they lie. Foster in our children a sense of respect by allowing them to spend time in cemeteries, to explore them, to ask questions, and teach them about the lives of the people buried there. Help them understand they are the ones who paved the way for us. And teach them to preserve the history they left behind for us – instead of holding their breath!

Want to learn more about sharing your family history with your kids? Subscribe for our free workbooks & printables, all about family history for kids! 

P.S. Read about the time I took our kids and niece and nephew to Crown Hill Cemetery here (and they didn't hold their breath once!). 

Little Kids & Their Grandparents

When you were little, what stood out to you about your grandparents? Little kids often stand in awe of their grandmas and grandpas, and many times it’s the little things that kids notice. Their unique style of clothing, a special candy jar, something they like to bake, the way they smell… kids pick up on these things.

Katie & baby Kristin with Grandma Jackie 

Katie & baby Kristin with Grandma Jackie 

My Grandma Jackie died when I was seven, and I remember her in a seven-year-old’s way. I remember her taking me to get my nails done. I remember her waking me up when I would spend the night to show me the raccoons on her porch. I remember her wearing a funny hat as she rode in front of us in a convertible and how silly she looked. I remember little things that a child would have noticed about her grandma.


I collected five books about little kids and their grandparents, and I’ve noticed this same theme – little kids notice the little things – the sensory details, the little ways they interact with them, they pick up on their mannerisms, they interpret their world in little ways, and that includes their grandmas and grandpas.

So unlike normal book reviews, I want to highlight the ways in which the kids in these books view their grandparents… in the little ways.

Nonna’s Porch by Rita Gray

Nonna loves to sit on her porch. It’s quiet until her grandchildren come to visit, but they notice what’s going on around them, too. They notice the sound of shucking corn, the snap of the garden peas, the quiet sounds around her porch. And they notice the steady beating of her heart and the creaking of the rocking chair as she rocks them to sleep.

Grandma Lives in a Perfume Village by Fang Suzhen

Little Xiao Le knows his grandma is not well, but he loves to spend time with her, showing her his truck, and petting her cat Shadow. He notices the picture of his grandfather and mother next to Grandma’s bed. He remembers the wood sorrel game they would play, and tea time with Grandma and his mother. The smells of her home are a perfume village to Xiao Le, and after she dies, heaven gains a perfume village as well.

Abuelita Full of Life * Llena de Vida

Abuelita came to live with José and his family when she was already old. Abuelita has a garden where José loves to eat corn. She fries chilies that make everyone sneeze. José notices Abuelita has long gray braids, she is wrinkled, her skin is soft to kiss, and her hugs are strong, though her voice trembles and she walks slowly. But José notices that Abuelita está llena de vida… Abuelita is full of life.

When I was Young in the Mountains by Cynthia Rylant

When this little girl was young in the mountains, she remembers Grandfather coming home covered in black coal dust. She remembers Grandmother serving corn bread, pinto beans, and fried okra. She remembers her grandmother crying at her cousin’s baptism. She remembers Grandfather sharpening her pencils with a pocket knife and shelling beans with Grandmother. She remembers the little things when she was young in the mountains.

Nanna Upstairs & Nanna Downstairs by Tomie dePaola

Little Tommy had two Nannas – his grandmother and his great-grandmother. He called them both Nanna, but since his great-grandmother is always in bed upstairs, she was Nanna Upstairs, and since grandma was always in the kitchen, she was Nanna Downstairs. He remembers talking and eating candy with Nanna Upstairs. He remembers Nanna Downstairs tucking him in for a nap. He remembers both Nannas combing their long hair. He remembers them both well, and he remembers how much he loved them.  

Katie & Kristin with Papaw Lutz 

Katie & Kristin with Papaw Lutz 

Each of these books is precious, and show beautiful relationships of little kids and their grandparents from families all over the world. So I thought I would ask my own kids to tell me about their own grandparents, and sure enough, it was the little things they noticed.

My daughter Ellie is eight, and what stands out to her is how her Grandma always takes her to Cookie Cutters to get her hair cut, and how her Nanny always would joke about Ellie always being hungry at her house when she used to pick her up after Kindergarten. My three-year-old son Micah notices that his grandpa always comes through the back door when he gets home. Ellie told me that her great-grandfather Papaw Lutz always “says lots of jokes, he’s funny”, and that her great-grandmother Gigi Potter is sweet. She remembers Gigi and Papa’s playroom at their old house with the robot dog that had wheel paws, and how fun it was.

Micah with his "Crapaw"

Micah with his "Crapaw"

My kids are little, and they notice the little things.

What do you remember about your grandparents? What do your kids notice about their grandparents? Take a little time to write these precious memories down. They may be little, but they are important, and they are meaningful.

Join us in preserving family memories - subscribe for our free printables and workbooks, all dedicated to family history for kids. 

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Friday Funny: Our Ancestors Had a Sense of Humor Too!

I don't know about you, but I come from a hilarious family. We're loud and it's usually from excessive amounts of laughter. It doesn't matter if we're playing games together, sharing a meal, even a nice holiday meal, or it's a normal day, our family gatherings are usually, well, a little crazy. 

Something was funny to me and my great-grandpa here! 

Something was funny to me and my great-grandpa here! 

It's been like that for decades. It's just something I'm used to, because I grew up with it. But this hilarity didn't just appear in the last few decades. I imagine we come from some funny people way back in the past, too. I imagine our ancestors had a sense of humor, too. And in some cases, I don't have to imagine: I know. How do I know? Family stories, of course! 

I'll share one of my favorite stories of an ancestor with a sense of humor. It's one of those that I really wish I could have been there to watch, and it also makes me wish I had known this woman: my great-great grandmother, Alma Bruns Lutz. 

Alma Bruns Lutz & Earl Lutz - 1929 

Alma Bruns Lutz & Earl Lutz - 1929 

The story goes, as told to me by my Papaw Lutz, that his Grandma Alma Lutz would always hang out her laundry on the line to dry as usual, but that her neighbor started choosing those particular times to come outside and burn her trash. So all of Grandma's clean clothing ended up smelling like burnt trash. Well, that couldn't continue. I suppose Grandma asked her neighbor nicely a couple times to please stop. That didn't happen.

Well, Grandma wasn't having it. 

So one day, Grandma decided enough was enough. The next time her neighbor came out to burn her trash while her clothes were on the line, she nicely invited her over to the fence to "chat."  Her neighbor came right over, but Grandma was standing there holding her garden hose, water running. As soon as the neighbor came to the fence, she pulled her over, and shoved the running hose right down the woman's blouse, and told her in no uncertain terms to stop burning her trash while her clothes are on the line! 

I hear Alma didn't have any more problems with this neighbor! 

I love stories like this, and so do my kids. Don't mess with their great-great-great grandmother! She was feisty! Stories like this are what really make ancestors come to life for kids, even if...especially if...it shows them they were more than pristine faces in the black-and-white photos or names on the family trees, but real live characters who had a sense of humor, opinions, relationships, and lives just like theirs. That their family life was probably a lot like their family life today. And maybe just as entertaining, too! 

What hilarious stories do you have in your family history? Share below! 

And if your kids want to learn more about their family history and their awesome ancestors, check out our Activities page, or subscribe for our free workbook introducing kids to the basics of family history and writing their ancestors' stories.

Happy storytelling! 

Star Wars as Family History

When I first saw the movie Rogue One, I felt like a childhood dream of mine had come true.

Having grown up on Star Wars, this movie really meant something to me. Trying to place it, I knew why almost immediately – I have connected with the story. It’s what I’m all about here, right? Stories! And there is something extra special about the Star Wars story. It started back in 1977, and has only gained more devotees ever since. It’s had people hooked from day one. The timeless characters draw you in. How many of us cheered when Han Solo boarded the Millennium Falcon in Episode VII, remembering the first time we saw him back in Episode IV? (“Chewie, we’re home.”) These characters build themselves into your own life, and we all love to see clips of them along the way – C-3PO and R2-D2 were briefly in Rogue One and I caught myself grinning unashamedly. I mean, it’s 2017, and the Star Wars story has been building on itself for four decades now. And it’s because we’re so connected with the story. We all geek out at the sound of the TIE fighters and the huge shots of those Star Destroyers, sure. But seriously, I hold that it’s the story that has us all hooked. It’s a whole galaxy of possibilities, but we follow the same story arcs throughout. Fan fiction has spun off like crazy because of these endless possibilities, too, as we all feel we have a part in this galaxy and these special stories.

The Stories of Star Wars

There’s something else about Star Wars that draws us into the story, and that’s the music. The music is like the narrator, the driving force behind it all. I remember when we saw Episode I in 1999, my mom cried when the music blared at the very beginning. I know she was all of a sudden back in 1977. John Williams has crafted this narrator brilliantly too – each character, even the Force itself, has a theme. I know in Episode VII when we first see Leia and hear Leia’s theme, I was transported back to elementary school myself, remembering how much I listened to the Star Wars soundtrack on cassette tape back then, remembering being made fun of in 5th grade for reading the giant Return of the Jedi novel at indoor recess, but not even caring because, Star Wars. The music ties it all together, weaving the story and introducing new characters and themes while keeping us tied to the old ones, connecting them in a way only music can do for a story we love.

Star Wars as Family History

My mother, brother, and I being big nerds standing in line at the theater to see Episode VII in December 2015 

My mother, brother, and I being big nerds standing in line at the theater to see Episode VII in December 2015 

But that’s the other thing I thought of while watching this movie, is the way that stories connect us to each other, and connect us to something special in ourselves. As the credits were rolling, an older woman walked past us in the aisle and smiled at us and said, “That was just as good as the first one back in the 70s.”  I knew that Star Wars must have meant something to her, and I wonder now who she saw the movie with in 1977. And I thought about what Star Wars has meant to my family. My grandpa was a projectionist at the first theater in Indianapolis to hold the rights to Episode IV for its first six weeks. Because of that, my mother and her family were able to preview the movie with all the reporters before it was even released and my mom has told me, “I probably saw it fifty times that summer, easy.”  She could get in for free thanks to my grandpa, and would go to the theater any time she could. Then when Empire Strikes Back came out, she was working at a movie theater herself, and that’s where she met my dad.

Star Wars as Family Tradition

My son Micah holding his new Jyn Erso toy he got for Christmas from his great-grandpa, who is in the background on the right 

My son Micah holding his new Jyn Erso toy he got for Christmas from his great-grandpa, who is in the background on the right 

And my mother passed it on to her kids. My brother was the first one I texted as I left the theater and hilariously he was at the theater about to see it for a second time in one weekend (he saw it at midnight). The stories are just ingrained in us, and I love having conversations with my brother about theories and characters and the music and all of it. It brings us together – a shared love for this epic story brings us together. And now it’s a story I get to now pass on to my kids, too – both my son and daughter love Star Wars, the characters, the music, the TIE fighters and light sabers and X-wings…and the love has been passed down to the fourth generation of my family – it’s become a very genuine family tradition.

Star Wars is something that connects our family, and I know it does the same thing for a lot of families, for a lot of people. It’s a story that many of us have grown up on, characters that have been there all along, music that we’ve listened to for years. We connect with it. That’s why as the credits were rolling, my daughter reached over and brushed my cheek, and said, “Mommy, you’re crying!?”

Well, yeah. Star Wars makes me cry. It’s more than just my favorite movie. It’s my favorite fictional story, and that means something to me. It really means something to a lot of people.

 May the Force be with you!

What about you? Do you have a special movie in your family? Share in the comments below!

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Why Sharing Family History with Kids Matters

Why family history?

Oh wow, what a big question. It’s a question I’ve asked myself so many times, and truly, the answer changes every time I ask it.


I suppose the question really is asking: why learn about humanity?

I am inspired by the Nobel Prize Banquet speech made by writer William Faulkner. He said, “The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”

So, why? Because as Faulkner said, learning about humanity lifts our heart. It reminds us of the courage, honor, hope, pride, compassion, pity, and sacrifice of those who have come before us. It helps us endure and prevail. The stories of humanity inspire and encourage, teach and uplift. It teaches us about the intricacies of ourselves, the things we are made of and the things we can become.

 But then why family history, too?

I first think of the reasons why I personally find it so important to pass on my family history to my children. Ultimately it is because I started so young myself. I first became interested in my family’s history at the age of sixteen, and here today at the age of 31, I am a parent of two still passing on my family history and devoting myself to teaching children everywhere to pursue their family history. But why have I stuck with it for so long? It boils down to very personal reasons. If I hadn’t taken the time to listen to my Grandma Mary when I was so young, there would have been so many stories that would have not been passed on, that would have been lost when she passed away. So many ancestors’ life stories would have been lost. But also, I would have never gotten to know my grandmother in the way I did – I would have never gotten to hear her childhood memories, her stories of her parents and grandparents, the life lessons she learned, the wisdom she had to pass on to me. If I hadn’t asked and taken the time to sit down with her at her kitchen table and listen, truly listen, to look through the old photos and the old Bible and letters, so much of our story would have been lost.

Why learn about family history? Because it’s our own stories. Family history is the slice of humanity that belongs to us. It’s made up of the people who made us who we are. Their stories intertwine with all of human history to bring us to the world, and now it’s our turn to write our own stories. And what’s more, once someone dies, they don’t stop mattering, do they? Their stories carry on in those who loved them, those who they loved, and even when their living memory passes away, their impact still reverberates throughout their descendants’ lives, and it’s up to us to carry it on. They still have wisdom to impart, they still have meaning to instill in our lives, those who they impacted by giving life.

Children need this inspiration, these lessons, they need these stories to teach them and help them persevere. They learn by example, they learn by story, and when there are stories that are a part of them, they can hold onto them and claim them as part of their own identity. They can point to their great-grandmother’s picture, the woman who struggled but endured, and say “I come from that. If she could do that, I can do this.”

Because, like I learned by listening to my grandma, if we don’t pass these stories on to our young people, our children, they may be lost. If we don’t teach them there are stories that are all their own, that make them who they are, they will be lost. We can’t let that happen. Because when children learn the stories that belong to them, they begin to learn what they are made of, what their family history means to them, and how it can help them endure and prevail.


Stories matter. Memories matter. People matter.

Family history matters.  

Thanks to Nicole Dyer of Family Locket for this Blog link up! Check out the other posts in this blog link up by other family historians answering this question: WHY share family history with kids? 

Travel Tuesday: Crown Hill Cemetery

Well, it’s been a couple weeks since I posted for Travel Tuesday, but that’s really because we haven’t been able to travel! Between sickness, moody weather, and busy schedules, getting out of town isn’t always possible. So I thought for today I would write a little about a trip we took in our home town.

Crown Hill National Cemetery

Although, when you go to this place, it is almost like entering another world. Crown Hill National Cemetery was established in the 1860s when its location was still on the “outskirts” of the little city of Indianapolis. Today it is located in the heart of the city, and from its highest point, the “crown hill” – you get a perfect view of the skyline of downtown Indianapolis.  

I grew up in cemeteries, and often visited Crown Hill. My dad has worked for a burial vault company since before I was born, as my grandfather did as well, and would often take my siblings and I along with him to nearby cemeteries. But Crown Hill was always a treat. Crown Hill is like a history museum and a nature preserve all rolled into one. So it’s no big surprise that my kids are growing up in cemeteries, as well, especially Crown Hill.

We actually went there because my nephew, who to my delight loves history, mentioned recently that he had never been there and would like to go. I perked up and looked at him and said, “I gotcha.” So last Sunday, my husband and I took our two kids, and our nephew and niece to Crown Hill.

James Whitcomb Riley

The first place we took them, and the place you need to go if you only have a short time to visit, is the “crown hill” of Crown Hill. James Whitcomb Riley, the “Hoosier poet” is buried at the top of the hill. If you’ve never been there before, there are signs pointing you straight to it. Once you get to the top, you’ve got to get out and walk around and take in the view. You can see the Indianapolis skyline perfectly and have a 360-degree view of the city, as it’s the highest point in the county. But first you must pay your respects to Mr. Riley, or the gobble-uns’ll getcha ef ya don’t want out. (Ever heard that poem? If you’re from Indiana, I hope you have! That’s from Riley’s most famous poem, Little Orphant Annie.) There’s a little statue of a girl reading a book next to his grave. Look close, you’ll know what it’s from when you read it now.

Local History

But there are 200,000 other graves in this cemetery and many, many remarkable people. We took the kids to see just a few of them. They explored the graves on the hill and then we hopped in the car and drove to our next stop.  I made sure as we passed one small grave that I pointed it out – Caroline Bruns – my great-great-great grandmother. I have a few other ancestors and relatives buried in Crown Hill but we didn’t get the chance to visit them, but I made sure they knew that much of our family history was represented in this cemetery!

We visited President Benjamin Harrison’s grave, one among many famous Hoosier politicians buried in the cemetery. Other politcians include Indiana governors Noah Noble and Oliver Morton, who was governor during the Civil War. He is buried among hundreds of Civil War soldiers, just outside the beautiful Gothic Chapel.

Civil War graves and the Gothic Chapel

Civil War graves and the Gothic Chapel

I wanted to take the kids to see the gravestone of Alexander Ralston. Ralston was the surveyor who platted early Indianapolis in 1821, and on his stone is a map of the original square mile of downtown Indianapolis. (Also – this is why you must consult FindaGrave when visiting cemeteries – apparently Ralston was also involved with Aaron Burr in his conspiracy to form an independent nation. You can find all sorts of interesting tidbits of information from FindaGrave, though be sure to double check as it’s not always a 100% reliable source.) While over at Ralston’s grave I wandered around and discovered the grave of John B. Dillon. I consider myself an amateur Indiana historian, but I had never heard of him – apparently he was “Indiana’s first historian” and wrote an early history of Indiana. Seriously – wandering around cemeteries is as educational as wandering around libraries!

John Dillinger!

By this time our nephew was about to bust because there was one more grave he really, really, really wanted to visit, and that was infamous bank robber John Dillinger. Thankfully, the Crown Hill website and helpful markers led us right to him. Our nephew was thrilled and took lots of pictures, and after we left we even drove by an old tavern on the Near Eastside that Dillinger used to frequent.

I love sharing my love for history with kids, especially those kids closest to me. Our visit turned out to be quite the history lesson, and we’ll definitely be back, because there is certainly more to see!

Have you ever gone on a cemetery field trip near you? What did you and your kids learn on your trip?  

Interested in learning more about Crown Hill? Check out this book from the Indiana Historical Society: Crown Hill: History, Spirit and Sanctuary

Let's keep Crown Hill beautiful for the generations to come. Follow Indiana Forest Alliance to support the work to save Crown Hill's old growth forest. 

Want to wander Indiana more? Check out our other Travel Tuesday posts here

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How to Use Music to Learn Family History

How to Use Music to Learn Famil History.jpg

My mother has always stayed in the movie theater until the very end of the credits. So I now do the same. To us, it’s just wrong to get up from the movie right away. You just don’t DO it! It’s just so natural to me that now I sit there incredulously as people scoot past me as I’m trying to digest the story I just watched and take in the music that helped tell that story.


The Stories in Movie Soundtracks

My mother instilled in my siblings and I a love for movie soundtracks. My first favorite soundtrack was The Last of the Mohicans, long before I was old enough to see it, but I knew listening to the song Fort Battle that it was telling some incredible story. My sister and I actually wore out cassette tapes of Disney soundtracks listening to them so much. And then when I became a big Star Wars fan, I would lay on the floor listening to the soundtrack on cassette tape and just take in the music, picturing the movie as I did. My husband now marvels that I can point out exactly what’s going on in a movie during a certain part of nearly every song I listen to. The song is tied to the story!

It’s truly amazing how much music is tied to storytelling. Movie soundtracks are my favorite kind of music because of how they’re connected to stories. There’s no other kind of music that can get me quite as excited as a movie soundtrack. The music mirrors the scenes, the emotions, what’s going on or what’s about to happen in the story. In a suspenseful movie, you can always tell what’s about to happen next if you just pay attention to the music. It helps tell the story – in actuality, it’s practically the narrator.

The Soundtracks of our Lives

African American man, seated, holding violin. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

African American man, seated, holding violin. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

If you think about it, our lives have soundtracks, too. Certain songs just “take us back” to times and places long gone. Music can bring us excitement, nostalgia, even sometimes pain. My mother and her siblings get so excited when music from the 1970s starts playing – my mom always says “I used to skate to this song!” And how many couples have “their song”? My parents have certain songs that are special to them that they listened to while dating. Most couples have their own song, usually the song they danced their first dance to at their wedding. My dad and I have a song – we danced our Father-Daughter dance at my wedding to Stevie Wonder’s song “Isn’t She Lovely” because that’s what my parents listened to a lot when I was a baby.

If we were into certain music during specific times of our lives, that music will instantly take us back to that time. That’s our soundtrack. It narrated that time of our life, and it’s stuck in our memories along with what was going on at the time. This is why music is a wonderful way to help our elders recall memories. Of course, we have to be sensitive, but it is something children can ask about.

Music Memory

Music is universal, it’s carried us through generations and across cultures. That’s how it connects us, and another reason why it would be such a great thing for kids to ask their elders about to learn about their lives and their family history. Here are some questions that could be asked:

-         What was your favorite music when you were a child? A teen?

-         What was your parents’ favorite music?

-         Did you have certain favorite songs you sang at church?

-         What was playing on the radio at such and such a time in your life?

-         What songs were played at your wedding?

-         Are there certain songs that remind you of different times in your life?

-         What is your favorite song and why?

-         Who is your favorite musician and why?

Bearded man playing violin and girl turning pages of music. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. 

Bearded man playing violin and girl turning pages of music. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. 

As these questions are answered, we can gain a clearer, more profound picture of someone’s life. Children can see the similarities and differences between music they like and music their grandparents like. They may find they share a favorite song. They may find they like a song their grandparent listened to while growing up. (Something else – YouTube will be your best friend here. Nearly any song you can think of will be on there. If your child doesn’t know a song your elder mentions, pull it up on YouTube and play it for them. Just listening to the song may bring out more memories and stories your elder had forgotten that were associated with this song.)

Stories and memories are the flesh to the bones that is genealogy. And music is an amazing way to bring those stories and memories out and give them life. It’s something your child can also take with them. If an older loved one dies, their favorite songs live on, and your child can hold to those. And then as they grow older, those songs become your child’s memory of that person, and the stories live on.

For more ways for your family history to live on through your kids, subscribe for our free e-book Writing Family History for Kids: A Workbook & Guide

Don't miss this post on creative writing inspired by family history either! 

Digging up Hidden History

I’ve always loved to look out the window when going for a drive. I love a good mountain view, and the creeks and rivers, the old houses, churches, and barns. I don’t want to miss any of it. If I’m looking down at my phone, I might miss that old cemetery on the side of the road, or an old barn, or an old brick farmhouse. I don’t want to miss that, because all of these places have stories.

There’s a Story Everywhere

The old church and historical marker at the Roberts Settlement in Hamilton County, Indiana 

The old church and historical marker at the Roberts Settlement in Hamilton County, Indiana 

On family vacations growing up I used to record every creek, river, and lake we’d cross, sometimes all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. Something about them fascinated me. Now I think it’s because of their tie to history. The rivers carried canoes, flatboats, riverboats, the network of rivers across the land connected the people from the East to the West. I was drawn to the old farmhouses that now sit on the side of the Interstate, and I’d wonder about the story of the family that lost their land to progress. Who were these people that lived here? Who are the people that are buried in that old cemetery we just passed?

We miss a lot if we dismiss these places, or if we’re not paying attention. History is all around us, even in places you would never suspect. There’s a story everywhere. Historical markers dot the country, and more are being added all the time. Often there is little or no remnant of the building, people, or event that the marker describes, but you can stand there and remember, or imagine. There is a new historical marker in Hamilton County, Indiana now that honors the old Roberts Settlement, a Black settlement where now that all remains of a once thriving community is an old church and a cemetery. But there are stories that survive too, in their descendants and community history. There are always stories and memories that survive, we just have to dig for them.

Family History in Seemingly Insignificant Places

I happened upon such a story one time, much by accident, that brought a forgotten place back to life. And the place now is a parking garage in downtown Indianapolis. I’d passed it countless times, I’ve even parked there, but to think that that place played an important role in my family history? Well, the thought would never have crossed my mind. But in reading a family history and combing through old city directories, I discovered that what used to sit on that location was the blacksmith shop run by my great-great-great grandfather, John Mulry.  

The infamous parking garage 

The infamous parking garage 

Who would have thought that a seemingly insignificant spot like that of a parking garage would have so much history behind it? It reminded me once again of the importance of digging for stories. Cities like Indianapolis have obvious historical sites like the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, and old cemeteries and houses, but there are small stories hidden in among family histories and county, city, and state histories that remind you that little things happened in places that don’t look like they carry history. Now every time I cross Fall Creek near the state fairgrounds I think of the boy that lived there when it was dense woods and he got lost walking a half mile to his home from the log schoolhouse. Now when I drive down 38th Street I think of the story of the black bear that ran down the street – probably the last bear in the city, but that that kind of wildlife used to run wild in this place. When I drive over the White River in Noblesville, I think of the Delaware villages that used to sit on its banks, that are now surrounded by neighborhoods and stores.

White River in Delaware County, Indiana 

White River in Delaware County, Indiana 

Digging up the History

History and stories are hidden beneath the surface – literally everywhere. Our world changes so fast, but every place has a story. Dig these stories up with your kids, especially those stories that relate to your family, like my parking garage. When you pass the old house that your great-grandpa grew up in, point it out to your kids, and take that opportunity to tell them stories about him. Encourage your kids’ imaginations about these places too. Point out that old farmhouse on the side of the Interstate, and wonder about that family. Wonder aloud about these places and imagine, and then see if you can’t dig up their stories. They’re out there.

The blacksmith shop turned parking garage taught me this lesson: our history is everywhere, but it’s up to us to find it.

Want to dig up your family history stories with your kids? Subscribe to our newsletter to receive your free e-book Writing Family History for Kids: A Workbook & Guide.

How my Family History Inspired my Historical Fiction Novels

I remember the day we went to Rogers Cemetery that January morning. The old gravestones, some shaped like trees, some with stone stacks of books leaning against them, were surrounded by the brown dormant grass. A hiking trail led past the cemetery and crossed a creek, just a trickle now. My husband’s ancestors were buried there, inside the state forest, on land they had settled on over a century before.

Something inspired me that day.

Something about the cemetery, the creek, made me think about those who were buried here, those who had stood here mourning their lost loved ones. I was standing where they stood so long ago. And I wondered, what if…what if I could travel back in time, through that creek. What if I could be where they were, when they were.

The thought stuck in my mind. Later that day we visited another cemetery – one where both my great-grandparents and some of my husband’s ancestors were buried, and a stone caught my eye, a stone with the name “Maddox” on it.

My Characters and My Ancestors

Maddox would become my character, the one who would travel for me, across that creek, back in time, exploring the time and land of her ancestors, meeting her ancestors, eventually living with her ancestors. Maddox would become me living vicariously through her, time-traveling, discovering what I only imagined I could discover in the lives of my ancestors.

Maddox, who I affectionately call Maddie, crossed a creek in a cemetery that was very much like the Rogers Cemetery, traveling from the year 2009 to the year 1839. It was a world I could only imagine, but if I was going to seriously write about it, I had to know as best I could what it was like. An ancestor of mine helped me. An ancestor of mine became my inspiration for Eleanor, Maddie’s great-grandmother, and she helped me with Eleanor’s setting. Almyra, my ancestor, herself from pioneer southern Indiana, told the tale of growing up in a land filled with berries and walnut trees, fields of wheat and corn, streams teeming with fish, log cabins, linsey-woolsey, quilting bees, and barn raisings. Eleanor was Almyra, the gentle, sweet, but feisty woman I imagined her to be through everything I read about her. Almyra became Eleanor.

Going over Home & Going over Jordan

Going over Home
By Katie Andrews Potter

And so my first historical fiction novel, Going over Home, was published in 2012, three and a half years after I first visited that cemetery in Yellowwood State Forest. I spent those three and a half years researching, reading family histories and county histories and Indiana histories and fiction books set in pioneer times, and writing, writing, writing, and imagining and rewriting. In 2015, Going over Jordan, the story of Maddie’s younger sister Ellie, was published. Going over Jordan tells the tale of Ellie’s life, herself also transferred from the 2000s to the 1830s, and her work on the Underground Railroad. While writing it, I visited the Levi Coffin home, the Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad in Indiana, I went to the Follow the North Star program at Conner Prairie Interactive History Park to experience as best I could what it was like to be a runaway slave traveling north on the Underground Railroad. I researched, I read, I experienced, and I wrote.


A Writer’s Life

A gravestone at the Rogers Cemetery 

A gravestone at the Rogers Cemetery 

But it all started with a visit to an ancestor’s grave, and a memoir of an ancestor, and a glance at a gravestone with a name that beckoned me. These things combined to inspire my writing, which became stories. When you’re inspired as a creative, you run with it, but you also cultivate it. And every part in my experience since that morning in January 2009 has combined to become a tale that will now span seven books of my historical fiction series, The Wayfaring Sisters  – a book for each sister in the family, their mother, and their great-grandmother. These women, these hardy pioneers, span time and history, they stretch me in ways I didn’t know I could stretch. Their stories tell old stories based on those who came before me, woven together with new stories born in my mind. When you’re a writer, your characters become your family, they become real. They are no longer simply “fictional” – they are your reality.

When your characters take on their own life and character and personality, you must devote yourself to them. You are compelled to tell their story. This is especially true when they are based on real people – real people that are a part of you, your ancestors, who made you who you are. You have a responsibility to tell the story, and tell it well. When their stories can inspire new stories, through you, the necessity of writing becomes all the more pressing.

Read about your ancestors’ lives. They have a story to tell. Discover what they are saying, because they can speak to you today. Your ancestors can inspire your writing, whether you tell their story or use their story to write a new story. But just write. There are stories to tell, so write.  

 If you are inspired to write based on the lives of your ancestors, see this post I wrote about ways to turn your family history into creative writing. These tips are for adults and well as young writers. But remember – just write! You can do this. :) 


P.S. Check out these reviews of Going over Home by Lit Mama Homeschool & Madam Ancestry

I may earn a small commission for my endorsement, recommendation, testimonial, and/or link to any products or services from this website. Your purchase helps support my work in providing you with the best resources for your children in their pursuit of history and genealogy. 

Disney, Storytelling, & Family History

I’m sitting here listening to a song in Gaelic and thinking about my ancestors that spoke this language long ago. Music takes you across the world and through time and is a universal language – it doesn’t matter if you can understand the words, often by the sound you can understand the meaning of the song. The song I’m listening to in particular is a lullaby, and happens to be from the Disney movie Brave, set in medieval Scotland.

Where do the Stories come from?

Merida from Disney's Brave

Merida from Disney's Brave

The other day, my kids and I drove an hour to visit their great-grandmother and blasted Disney music the entire drive, including music from Brave. Ellie, my 8-year-old daughter, asked me, “Was Disney the first to come up these ideas?” I wasn’t sure at first what she meant, but soon realized she was talking about the story ideas for the movies. “No,” I answered, “many Disney movies are based on fairy tales and legends.” We proceeded to list off as many Disney movies as we could and where the stories came from. It made me think about the history of these stories, how many are rooted deep in legend and myth, and how many are historical but have been changed to fit a Disney movie storyline. Our conversation faded and we continued to listen to our music, and the soundtrack from Brave faded into the songs from Moana but now I was thinking more about how we can learn history and even family history from Disney movies.

Storytelling – Disney style

Storytelling takes on so many different forms in Disney, as does the art, but generally there is a fanciful element to the stories and the movies do include the character of the original source and story. So many are rooted in myth, legend, or folk tale, and from this our kids can learn just how long people have been telling stories. Disney's Hercules can teach kids elements of ancient Greek mythology, while Brave, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White can give them a glimpse into medieval legends and storytelling, and even lifestyle, with a Disney twist, of course. Kids may not realize just how old the tale of Aladdin is but it may date back a thousand years in the Middle East… though of course our beloved blue Robin Williams genie is purely modern.

Moana and her Ancestors

Family is hugely important in Disney movies but I’ve never seen a Disney movie that had more focus on family history than last year’s Moana. (Warning: spoiler alert!)

DIsney's Moana

DIsney's Moana


Moana is set in the ancient South Pacific and includes elements of Polynesian religion and culture, including the importance of grandparents. Moana is close to her grandmother, and is guided by her in life and after her death. Moana is a young girl who is confined to her island but dreams of sailing out to sea and exploring the ocean. Her father fears for her and wants her to stay home, but her grandmother knows Moana is destined for more. She takes her to a secret cave where Moana discovers several old boats. If they never leave the island, why are there such large boats?

Bang the drum, Moana remembers her grandmother telling her. She bangs the drum, and the torches in the cave light. Then suddenly, she sees a vision – of her ancestors. The song “We Know the Way” plays as Moana watches her ancient ancestors, voyageurs, “sail the length of the sea on the ocean breeze.” They were voyageurs! This is why Moana is so drawn to the sea – because, as she later sings in "I am Moana (Song of the Ancestors)", “we are descended from voyageurs, who found their way across the world.” (Find more Moana lyrics here.)

If you’ve read this far, you probably have either seen Moana or aren’t worried about spoilers. I love that Moana is her own person, but that she also finds her identity in who her ancestors were. She sings in one song of her recently passed grandmother as she glides past her as a now-reincarnated sting ray, “see her light up the sky and the sea – she calls me!” and later of her ancestors, “they call me!” She finds herself, but she also knows who she is because of who her ancestors were. Moana is a beautiful story to teach kids about family history.

Moana and her Gramma Tala 

Moana and her Gramma Tala 

Disney and its Stories

Disney tells the stories of the world in a new and modern way, often hilarious, often tear-jerking, with classic music and beautiful animation. It’s an amazing way to bring folk tales, myths, legends, and history to life to kids and it’s no wonder it’s hooked so many children for generations, myself and my kids included. (My sister and I wore out cassette tapes of Disney soundtracks in the ‘90s, and not too long ago, I actually got pulled over for going too fast while blasting the soundtrack for Princess and the Frog – true story…)  

If you haven’t gotten a chance to see Moana with your kids yet, you need to see it. I’m here to tell you, if you’re a family historian, if you’re a Disney lover, if you have kids, or if you’re human….you need to see this movie. We tell the stories of our elders in a never-ending chain… we know the way!  

Want to read about another Disney movie and its connection to family history? Pop over to my friend Emily’s blog Growing Little Leaves to read about Mulan and her ancestors.

I may earn a small commission for my endorsement, recommendation, testimonial, and/or link to any products or services from this website. Your purchase helps support my work in providing you with the best resources for your children in their pursuit of history and genealogy. 

Travel Tuesday: The Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad

Happy Tuesday! This is the second in our Travel Tuesday blog series, and right now I am writing with a 3-year-old on my lap because he wants to be a part of everything Mommy does nowadays. A couple weeks ago he got to be a part of our last Indiana history field trip and gave us a running commentary the entire trip. (We knew every time there was a McDonald’s on the side of the road for instance.)  

Ellie in front of the Levi Coffin home 

Ellie in front of the Levi Coffin home 

But that’s all part of the experience of parenthood and fostering experiences for your kids, and even if he didn’t quite understand the importance of the place where we went, he got to be a part of it and experience it in his own little way. Our destination is somewhere I have been several times and every time I go I am struck by the magnitude of what happened there – the Levi Coffin home in Fountain City, Indiana – also known as “The Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad.”

We went with our neighbors, who have become our homeschool history field trip buddies. They have a 4th grade son, and our daughter is in 2nd grade, so they enjoy experiencing these places together, and I get to have another mom along for the ride!

The Levi Coffin home was a completely different experience this time around for me, as in the last few months they opened their new Interpretative Center. There is a small museum where you can learn about the Underground Railroad in Indiana, and about slavery in the South. The thing that stood out to me the most in that room was the statue of a slave mother and her child, and the poem that went along with it, The Slave Mother by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. It brought tears to my eyes as it was read aloud. History came alive, and the love of mothers everywhere for their children.

The Interpretative Center also has a short film about Levi Coffin, his wife Catherine, and the work they did on the Underground Railroad, with several quotes from his memoir, Reminiscences. I have read the book before, but the film helped bring it to life.

But the most powerful part of the trip is still touring the house. Stepping through the door where runaway slaves came through is an experience in itself, and you can only imagine what went on in the room just inside. The phrase “if walls could talk” kept repeating in my mind as we toured the home, which was built in 1839. Levi Coffin had been an abolitionist from a young age, and the house was built with hiding runaway slaves in mind. There is an indoor well off of the basement kitchen, so they could hide how much water they were fetching, which if it were outside would tell a spy how many people were in the house. There is also a bedroom with a hidden compartment behind it where they sometimes hid up to fifteen slaves. The kids crawled inside and looked around. We heard the story of the young slave girls who were hidden between mattresses in that bedroom who couldn’t stop giggling and had to be separated by Catherine. It reminded me these were real people with real stories who lived and traveled through this house.

Over 2,000 runaway slaves went through this house. Two thousand! And Levi Coffin said as far as he knew, not one of them was caught on their way to freedom in Canada. Touring this house is an incredible way to experience history and learn about a husband and wife who risked everything and resisted the unjust laws of the land to help people in need.

The Levi Coffin home is in Fountain City, Indiana, near Richmond and can be reached easily via I-70. It is well worth the visit, but if you live too far and still want to learn about Levi Coffin, there are several books you can purchase to read with your kids. If your kids are older, I would recommend Levi’s own words in his Reminiscences. If they are younger, there is a biography in narrative called President of the Underground Railroad: A Story about Levi Coffin.

Roman, Ellie, & Micah in front of the Levi Coffin home 

Roman, Ellie, & Micah in front of the Levi Coffin home 

I’ll end with words by Levi Coffin himself, a message that extends to today.

“The dictates of humanity came in opposition to the law of the land, and we ignored the law.”

If you’d like to read last week’s Travel Tuesday, about our trip to the Jackson County History Center in Brownstown, Indiana – click here.

Have a great day, everyone, and may we study our history to be inspired to make history today.

Here are the books I recommend for further reading: 

Travel Tuesday: Indiana History Field Trips

I’m starting off a blog series today for Geneabloggers’ daily prompt, Travel Tuesday, all about our family’s Indiana history field trips. As a homeschool mom, I have needed to work out both my parenting and an education philosophy for my children. One aspect of this philosophy has turned out to be simple: fostering experiences. I want my kids to experience the world around them. To see it with their own eyes, hear it with their own ears, dig in and get dirty and explore. Because of this, a big part of learning about their local history and family history is experiencing it through field trips. (Not only do they get to get their hands on history - experiencing it first hand helps them later write about it!) 

Pioneer Indiana

We’ve had some great field trips in the past month. My daughter has become fascinated with pioneers, especially since we are descended from many Indiana pioneers. (She gets it from her mama.) And since I am also researching pioneer Indiana for a couple books I am writing, we decided to visit a pioneer village.

Jackson County History Center

The log cabin at the Jackson County History Center  

The log cabin at the Jackson County History Center  

The old Sauers school house in Jackson County 

The old Sauers school house in Jackson County 

So early one morning a couple weeks ago we headed south from our home in Indianapolis to Brownstown, Indiana to visit the Jackson County History Center. The Center is a perfect destination for a history nerd. Not only does it have a little pioneer village, it also has history museums and a genealogy library. We got to tour one museum and see all sorts of southern Indiana history. My personal favorite part was a photo collage of all of the Jackson County one-room schoolhouses. I asked our tour guide if any of them were still standing, and he gave his directions to one and we tracked it down later that day.

Then we headed out to the John Ketcham Pioneer Village, named after the pioneer who founded Brownstown. We went inside a log cabin and a log schoolhouse, where our tour guide told us about his days in a one-room schoolhouse and all the things the little boys did in those days to get in trouble. (Our kids got a kick out of this!) He also showed us the oldest building in the village, an old trading post that had been built in the mid 1800s and was moved from a nearby river. On school tours, our tour guide dresses up as a trader. (We’ll be back for this with our homeschool co-op at some point hopefully!)

The old trading post 

The old trading post 

We ended our tour of the village by visiting the cemetery across the street, which by looking at the date on the sign, was founded before Indiana even became a state. I don’t know about you, but I love old cemeteries and I think it’s important to teach kids to value them too.

Jackson County History Center is a great place to take kids who are learning about Indiana history. We didn’t get to experience everything they have to offer, and because our kids were getting antsy and wanting to explore more, I didn’t get to stop in the genealogy library. But we’ll be back!

Next Week’s History Field Trip  

Check back for next week’s Travel Tuesday where I talk about our field trip to the “Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad” – the Levi Coffin home in Fountain City, Indiana. We went there with our neighbors, who are now our homeschool history field trip buddies!

Where have you gone on a history field trip lately? What do you do to foster experiences for your children? Share with us in the comments! 

P.S. I’m writing about our trips for Travel Tuesday to gear up for the release of my Guide to Pioneer Indiana Field Trips e-book this summer. Subscribe for updates, and our free e-book Writing Family History for Kids: A Workbook & Guide

4 Tips for Turning your Family History into Creative Writing

Are you teaching or raising a creative writer? Kids are creative by nature, but creativity needs to be cultivated in order to thrive. One way to encourage creative writing in young people is to introduce them to writing about their ancestors. I started my genealogy work when I was only 16, and I had been a creative writer since I knew how to form words on the page. On Christmas of the year I began researching my family history, two family members encouraged me to take what I’d learned from our family history and turn it into stories. A friend of mine had just given me a journal as a Christmas present and on December 26, I wrote the introduction to it, “For a year now I have been extremely interested in genealogy. Yesterday my grandmother Mary Andrews and my step-grandmother Susy Lutz urged me to gather information about my ancestors and fictionalize the rest of it. I’d get the historical facts right, find out as much as possible about the family and go from there. I could write about anything. How two people met and got married, an immigration, the birth of a child, a job, a holiday gathering, anything… This should be fun.”

Writing about ancestors is a great way to exercise kids’ creative writing muscles, and they have an endless resource in their family tree – and yes, I was right – it is fun! But what to write? Well, one of the best things you can do for your young writers is to teach them how to come up with new ideas, or expound on their budding ideas.

So, if you and your child are interested in writing about your ancestors but don’t know where to start, here is a list of strategies to help you explore your family tree for story ideas:


1.    Start with an obituary. Writing often starts with an outline, and an obituary can give you the closest thing to an outline of a person’s life. Many times, obituaries will give you character traits that you can use in your story, too. An obituary will give you an overview of a person’s life and tell you about their closest family and friends.

2.    Look at the time line of the person’s life in context to where they lived. This can give you a rough idea of their life experiences. Look at when and where they lived as a child. For example, were they born in the early 1850s in the American South? Then they saw the Civil War with their own eyes when a young child. Did they immigrate from Ireland in the 1840s? Then their family was leaving during the Irish Potato Famine. Make a timeline with your child of the person’s life on one side and historical events on the other and compare the two to see what your ancestor was experiencing at certain times in their lives.  

3.    Look a census record of your ancestor when they were a child. Who were they living with at the time, and what was everyone’s age? Did your ancestor have a lot of siblings close in age, or were they an only child? Where was everyone born? What are the occupations of the adults in the house? Who are their neighbors? Explore the answers to these questions with your child and what they can tell you about your ancestor’s early life. If you can, compare the census record with earlier or later censuses.

4.    Don’t forget to ask older relatives about family stories. Many times there are old records hidden in trunks or files that older relatives know about but haven’t brought out in years just because they haven’t been asked. These records could have little snippets of old family tales that are just begging to be turned into a short story. Or maybe your older relatives remember stories their grandparents told them when they were little that they can share. These can be turned into stories too.  

Need a place to write? These blank books are perfect for young authors! Like I said when I was young – this should be fun! 


For more on writing family history stories with your kids, subscribe for our free workbook Writing Family History for Kids: A Workbook & Guide. Then share your stories with us!

I may earn a small commission for my endorsement, recommendation, testimonial, and/or link to any products or services from this website. Your purchase helps support my work in providing you with the best resources for your children in their pursuit of history and genealogy. 

Family History and Sensory Memory

We were driving through the Near Westside of Indianapolis, past several Mexican grocery stores and restaurants on our way home one afternoon. My husband was driving and he suddenly turned his head to get a better look at one little restaurant. “I remember going there once,” he said. “It smelled like warm corn tortillas inside.”

Homemade tortillas Photo Credit: Stacy Spensley, Flickr http://bit.ly/2klYozI

Homemade tortillas Photo Credit: Stacy Spensley, Flickr http://bit.ly/2klYozI

Warm corn tortillas. “How long ago was this?” I asked him. “Oh, probably, fifteen years ago.” Fifteen years ago, yet the scent of warm corn tortillas still stuck in his mind when he caught a fleeting glimpse of the place he hadn’t been to in that long.

Our senses are what make up our memories. We experience the world through our five senses, and our five senses are what makes an impression on us to form memories, even obscure memories like the scent of warm corn tortillas.

I overheard my mother telling my husband at dinner not too long ago about how much time she and her siblings used to spend at the drive-in theater when they were young, and I remembered her telling me once that the sound of tires driving over gravel always brought back those memories. That sound was inextricably tied to those summer nights at the drive-in movies. 

I asked my dad once if he had ever met his great-uncle Ralph. He had, but he was so young that what stood out in his memory about that visit was it was the first time he had ever had iced coffee. He’d never known coffee could be iced before, and the smell and taste and novelty of iced coffee was what he remembered most. Even in his fifties, that sensory memory came right back.

Children are so in tune with their senses. They may not realize that the familiar smells and tastes and sounds they are growing up around will come back to them in the form of memories later in life and take them right back to certain times and places in their childhood. I remember going on a walk in our neighborhood with my then four-year-old daughter. Someone must have had a wood-burning stove nearby because the neighborhood smelled of wood smoke. My daughter caught the scent and piped up that it smelled like camping. We hadn’t been camping in months, but she smelled that wood smoke that night, and immediately associated it with her memories of camping.


The smell of a campfire can bring back so many memories 

The smell of a campfire can bring back so many memories 

Senses tie us to our past in ways we don’t even realize. I love the animated movie Anastasia, where it’s the scent of peppermint that ultimately brings back the memories that were lost for so long. No other prodding or questioning did it – just the simple scent of peppermint. Perhaps it’s the senses we need to tap into when we do our deepest family history research. What smells did you grow up around? What was your favorite meal that your mother cooked for you when you were young? What did she make for you when you were sick? What music was your favorite growing up? An old song not listened to for a long time can bring back a wave of memories. I’m no psychologist, but I can see that somehow music is built into our brain waves at certain times of our lives, that only those songs can resurrect certain memories in the most precise way. For instance, only when I listen to the song Leia’s Theme from the Star Wars soundtracks can I remember the way I felt on my first trip to the Smoky Mountains in 5th grade, and understand the depth of what the Appalachian Mountains have meant to me over the years. That song brings it all back and I feel the closest to what I felt then only when I listen to that song.

Memories are complex. They are the fullness of our lives, joys and sorrows and everything in between. When exploring our family’s collective memories, using the senses brings up so much depth and life to our history, but we must understand the complexity of humanity as we do our research, especially with our children. Sensitivity to the human soul we seek is always a necessity when we are researching our family. We’re more than just a pedigree, we’re living, breathing people with a past – a past that is worth remembering. When we remember that our relatives and our ancestors lived and moved and breathed and experienced the world around them with their five senses just the same as we do, we discover the beauty and intricacy of family history, and appreciate every one of them in the way they deserve to be appreciated.

To preserve your own family's memories with your children, subscribe to our newsletter to download your free copy of Writing Family History for Kids: A Workbook & Guide

Matrilineal Monday: A Genealogy Project for Kids

Katherine Garrity Fox - Ellie's 3rd great-grandmother in her matrilineal line 

Katherine Garrity Fox - Ellie's 3rd great-grandmother in her matrilineal line 

Where does your matrilineal line lead? If you follow all your mothers back, where does it take you? From mother to mother to mother, where do you trace them across time and across the world?

I’ve always found my matrilineal line fascinating. I was born in Indiana, and so was everyone in my matrilineal line all the way back to 1886. For the longest time, I could only guess at where this line would take me beyond Indiana, and finally a census record and a ship manifest confirmed it for me: Ireland. My matrilineal line was Irish. Hoosier, and Irish.

I wanted to do a project with my daughter to teach her about her matrilineal line, so I created one haphazardly on the computer and printed it out. We started with her and traced back from mother to mother, all through Indiana and into Ireland.

The project is a line of boxes, one for each generation in the matrilineal line. Basically, it’s a straight family tree, only listing the people in the direct matrilineal line. Kids start with themselves and move up the tree, filling in the information for each mother, and pasting photos or drawing pictures for each person in the box.

Ellie filled in her boxes until she reached our “brick wall” – Winifred, her 5th great-grandmother. Our project sparked several discussions. Ellie, my daughter, wanted to know if everyone in the line was from Indiana. We discussed that if that were the case, the line would be Native American, and it was not. So where does it go? Ellie wanted to know. She was eager to find out. Where does it go? My husband took her over to our world map on the wall, and with some clues she figured it out. Ireland!

Something else she noticed was that with each step up, the last name changed. Why was this? she wanted to know. This was a good time to bring up the concept of maiden names and married names, and how generally in our culture women take the surname of their husband.

This was also a great opportunity to introduce some old photos of the women in our family tree to Ellie. We talked about how the older photos are only in black and white, and when color photography was introduced. Ellie got to see what her beloved Grandma looked like in her senior photo, and photos all the way back to her great-great-great grandmother.

Ellie channeling her Hoosier ancestors 

Ellie channeling her Hoosier ancestors 

But Ellie had more questions. Why were there no more photos after her ancestor Katherine? Why couldn’t we go past Winifred? Why don’t we know Winifred’s maiden name? Why was Winifred’s daughter Anna born in England when they were from Ireland, and why did they come to Indiana? All of my answers to these questions were honestly, “I don’t know.” But I can guess. I can make an educated guess. We know that Winifred and Anna were very poor, and so we can guess as to why there are no photos of them, and why they kept moving. Why Indiana though? Maybe there were friends or family here. Maybe there was something special about the Irish Catholic community of Connersville, Indiana, where they ended up, that brought them there.

Long story short, this project is sure to spark some wonderful discussions about the patterns in family history, the stories of our ancestors, and the circumstances of their lives. Take this opportunity to take the time to share special stories and photos with your kids.

(I’ll warn you – Ellie got a little antsy with the project because the line was so long and her attention span is kind of short - so if your line goes way back and your kids are younger, find ways to break it up so they’re not jumping off their seats or trying to get into light saber fights in the middle of the project. Yes. This happened.)

To download the printable for this project, click here.

And don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter to receive your free copy of Writing Family History for Kids: A Workbook & Guide, and more! 

Climbing a Mountain: History with Kids

Ellie climbing the summit of Cascade Mountain 

Ellie climbing the summit of Cascade Mountain 

When I first started my graduate studies in History in July 2015, I thought of the journey ahead as hiking a mountain. I have always been a hiker, and I live for a view, especially the one at the top. The week before I began my first class, I had hiked a particularly challenging mountain in the Adirondack High Peaks. It was rocky, muddy, all uphill, and had only two views the entire way. But wow, was the view from the top incredible, and all worth the effort. So, when I began my class, I thought, this study of history was going to be like that – that someday, I’d get to the top, and the view would be all worth it.

As I’ve gone along, however, this perspective has shifted. There are views, beautiful, magnificent views, but there actually is no “top of the mountain” view. Not in history. It’s an uphill climb, to be sure. It’s hard work. But you never actually “arrive.” Not as long as time keeps marching on. History is ever changing, always evolving, and the views, the understanding and interpretation of history, changes and evolves as well. You climb the mountain, and every once in a while, you reach a break in the trees and look out, and the same view you saw down the mountain has changed. The landscape is still the same, but your view has changed. You’ve changed, and so has your outlook. 

The view from the summit of Cascade Mountain, Adirondack High Peaks, New York 

The view from the summit of Cascade Mountain, Adirondack High Peaks, New York 

Yes, the landscape is the same. But it looks different to you than it had a half mile down the mountain. And it looks different to someone looking out from another mountain at the same valley five miles away, or from the bottom of the valley, or from an airplane above. Your position is what affects it. Think of history as that landscape. Yes, something happened. It happened the way it happened. But to a historian in the 1870s studying slavery in the Old South, what happened looked a lot different than it does for a historian studying the same events in 2017. These two historians are looking at the same thing. But their position is different. Their upbringing, their culture, their education, their position in time relating to the event, are all entirely different. The study of history never “arrives.” In 2057 these events will still take on a new shape, there will be a new understanding, and new questions will be asked of it. This 2057 historian will look at these events, and he will even build off the 1870s and 2017 historians, and everyone in between, but his interpretation will be entirely different, building off everything that came before him and everything that he is.

Looking at the top of Cascade from the road! 

Looking at the top of Cascade from the road! 

Our kids will look at a certain person or event in history and ask “what happened?” And we can explain it to them to the best of our ability. But it’s important for them to understand that there are no “straight answers” in history. There is no “end all be all” answer to one question. The questions can change, and they should change, and they will change. Our understanding will evolve. It will climb the mountain, and we will see the same landscape from a different angle. We can’t travel back in time, but our inquiry can only grow. 

Children’s inquiry is infinite. They should ask questions. They’ll ask different questions than you did, than their teachers did, and that is the way it should be. We can be there to boost them up the mountain. We can help them find the trail, or take a new trail. But let them forge their own path. Time is marching on, and the future belongs to our children. The world is theirs for the discovery.

Let’s go climb a mountain! 

Leaving a Legacy: Connecting Past, Present, & Future

A legacy.

I was recently asked to speak on the topic of leaving a legacy for our Mothers of Preschoolers group, and though I’ve been a family historian for many years, I’ve been stumped at what exactly to say. Until my husband’s grandfather’s funeral this week.

People pay their respects at Grandpa Potter's visitation, January 22, 2017, as images of his life play in the background Photo Credit: Kimberly Saunders Randall  

People pay their respects at Grandpa Potter's visitation, January 22, 2017, as images of his life play in the background Photo Credit: Kimberly Saunders Randall  

I watched for hours as family and friends filed in and paid their respects to my husband’s grandmother and their five sons at the visitation. I spent time with extended family. I listened to the stories shared at his funeral service, sang Grandpa’s favorite hymns he himself had picked, listened to his favorite Scripture passages, and cried along with everyone else, because even though I’ve only been a part of this family for ten years, he was like a grandpa to me, too.

Not only did I get to hear those stories and visit with so many family members, we also got to visit together in the hospital and in the nursing home in the weeks leading up to his passing. We cried and joked, just like Grandpa, who throughout his funeral service was noted for his sense of humor. And when I hugged Grandma and told her, “He was like a grandpa to me, too…and you’re my grandma,” she hugged me back and said, “You’d better believe it!”

This is a legacy. When your family cries at your passing and your funeral because they miss you so much, because you meant so much to them, but they show each other so much love at the same time because you taught them how. Grandpa Potter, together with Grandma, taught the Potter family how to love one another. For his entire life, and through sixty-two years of marriage, they taught their family how to love.

Not too long ago I had a similar experience on my side of the family. In March, just ten days after her 95th birthday, my great-great aunt passed away in her sleep surrounded by family. Aunt Betts never married and never had any children, unlike Grandpa Potter, but she too left a legacy of love. She spent every holiday with our side of the family. She joked with us, too, she played cards with us, she watched sports with us, went on trips with us, and laughed with us. She didn’t have any biological children of her own, but her funeral too was filled with family and friends, people to whom she had left a legacy.

Aunt Betts with her great-great-great niece and nephew. 2015. 

Aunt Betts with her great-great-great niece and nephew. 2015. 

And as I sat at both funerals, I was grateful that I had spent time with the both of them. I was grateful that my children had spent time with both of them. I was grateful that my children will have memories years down the road of their great-grandfather on Daddy’s side and their great-great-great aunt on Mommy’s side. I was grateful that they reap the benefits of the legacies these two left them.

Cousins placing a rose on their great-grandfather's gravestone 

Cousins placing a rose on their great-grandfather's gravestone 

And it made me think, how much more intentional I want to be to instill in them the importance of family, and loving their family. How much more intentional I want to be in spending time with family, making time for family, listening to our family stories, and sharing our family stories. When you invest in your family, you invest in love, you invest in your legacy. We may have lost two of our family’s connections to the past, but both Grandpa Potter and Aunt Betts invested in the future. And because we spent time with them, because we listened to them and their stories, we have brought the past to the future. Because our youngest generations knew their elders, they bring their memory with them and get to pass it down. As my sister-in-law was hugging her grandmother at the funeral, I heard her tell her, “Remember him.”

We will. We will remember him, and we will pass his memory down. His legacy will live on. 

Grandma & Grandpa Potter with my children, two of their 13 great-grandchildren, 2015. 

Grandma & Grandpa Potter with my children, two of their 13 great-grandchildren, 2015. 

Welcome to Storybook Ancestor - Let's Tell our Stories!

Katie's grandpa & his sister - c. 1920 Photo Credit: Louise Andrews Dunlap 

Katie's grandpa & his sister - c. 1920 Photo Credit: Louise Andrews Dunlap 

Grandma told about the first time she heard about Pearl Harbor on the radio. She told about how during the Depression she and her friends shared precious copies of the Nancy Drew books because there were so few books to go around. Papaw told about his grandmother and her feisty sense of humor. He told about his other grandma and grandpa who lived on a farm and the tire swing in their yard that he loved. They told all these stories across a table covered with photos and you listened to every word. These stories have taken up a special place in your heart, and you want them to survive. Keeping stories alive about someone in your family that was a witness to history is so important to you. And in order for our family history to survive, we need to pass it on to the younger generations.

If you like classic television, you’ve surely seen The Andy Griffith Show. In one of my favorite episodes, Andy gets stuck in a bind with his son’s teacher over History homework. The teacher gets so frustrated with her students’ apparent lack of interest in their History studies that she is on the verge of quitting when Andy steps in and tells the boys that they don’t want to learn about all that “dull stuff” anyway –about “Indians, and Redcoats, and cannons, and guns and muskets and stuff.” The boys get all excited that Andy seems to agree with them, and then they pause, turn, and look at him quizzically. Then one pipes up: “What about Indians and Redcoats and cannons and muskets and guns and stuff?” Andy brushes it off, saying, “Oh, you know. Indians and Redcoats, and you know…history.” And with that, the boys are hooked.

Andy then engages the boys (and his deputy, Barney Fife) in a heart-pounding rendition of the tale of Paul Revere, and with every word, the boys’ eyes grow wider, their jaws drop further, and they are drawn more and more into the story. “He says the British is comin’, the British is comin’, get your guns, we’re gonna have us a revolution!”

Andy says, "The British is comin'!" Photo Credit: Archive.org

Andy says, "The British is comin'!" Photo Credit: Archive.org

Barney and the boys are enthralled with Andy's story. Photo Credit: Archive.org 

Barney and the boys are enthralled with Andy's story. Photo Credit: Archive.org 

When Andy is finished, they demand to know just where he got that story! Andy just replies, “Oh, your history book.” But the bait is already sunk. The boys have been won over. History had come alive for them through the power of storytelling, and they wanted to know more.


(If you want to see the entire episode, it’s called Andy Discovers America, you can find it here: <https://archive.org/details/Andy-Griffith-Show_Andy-Discovers-America> The excerpt I discussed starts at the 10:05 mark.)

Life is a series of stories. Our ancestors’ lives were a series of stories, stories that eventually led to our stories. Our lives have been a series of stories, and our stories led to our children’s stories, and so on… the story never ends, it only evolves. But these stories can be easily forgotten if we do nothing to preserve them, and they can only be preserved within the memories of our young ones. There were times your ancestors probably picked up their son or daughter on their knee and told them the story of the time they did this or that. Pa Ingalls in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House book series was an expert storyteller. Laura preserved those stories in her books, always just as exciting as when Pa told it to her, and now children all over the world have an intimate glimpse into the little stories of people who lived one or two hundred years ago, who, if they had not passed on their stories, would be lost to the mists of time.

Every child loves a story. They love to be told stories, they love to read them, to watch them, to tell them themselves. The story is the way to preserve our family history, that of our ancestors, ourselves, and our children, for our posterity, for humanity.

And that is what this blog is for – to capture these stories, the little stories, the stories that make up our lives. To teach our children the importance of listening, of learning, of passing on, the stories of their elders, and the stories of themselves – the stories that make up their family. This is a place to learn how – how to discover the stories, how to preserve them, and to share them with others. A safe place to share stories. Stay with us for ways to make it happen, and bring your children along. We’re excited to have you along for the journey.

Welcome to Storybook Ancestor—

Let’s tell our stories!