Storytelling with Historical Records

The Story Begins by Listening to Family History

“It was like they all left Connersville and wanted to forget it all.”

These words spoken by my great-great aunt Betts intrigued me. I couldn’t forget them. She was speaking about her mother and her siblings, the Garrity children. They’d all left Connersville, Indiana in 1905 when they were suddenly orphaned, and seemingly, never spoke of it again.

Betts’ mother, my great-great grandmother, Katherine Garrity Fox, had been born in Connersville in 1889. She and her siblings had come to Indianapolis when still young, this Betts knew, but she didn’t know why. And when I asked her, she didn’t know her own grandparents’ names either.

Searching the Records

"Miss Katherine Garrity"

"Miss Katherine Garrity"

Betts’ words stuck with me, and the fact that she didn’t know anything about her own grandparents, so I vowed I would find out. I dove into the records and discovered their names – John and Anna Walsh Garrity – and that they had both died and left all the Garrity children orphaned. I dove deeper and found out that Anna was an orphan herself – her Irish father had died in England, and her Irish mother had died when Anna was a teenager, two years before she married John. Now I could tell Betts their names, and why they left.

But her words still stayed with me. Was it the sickness, the poverty, the sorrow, the grief, that hurt the Garrity children so much that they never spoke of their parents ever again, or their family, or their time in the town of their birth?

There was a story there.

Katherine and Anna happen to be in my matrilineal line. Mary Ann Fox Mulry, Katherine’s daughter and Betts’ sister, is my great-grandmother, and her daughter Jackie was my grandmother, and her daughter is my mother, Laurie. What an amazing story it might be to write about that line of women, all the way back through Indianapolis to Connersville to England to Ireland, mother to mother to mother, and so on. So, I decided to write a novella based on my matrilineal line.

To write a story like that I’d need to rely heavily on records beyond oral history. My mother is still living and can tell me all about her mother and grandmother and family, but beyond that – Katherine, “Mom Fox” – well, she didn’t speak of her family, of course.  So, to tell their story, to uncover the mystery, I’d need to go to the records.

My Story Woven from Records

How can records inform a novella?

I start where the family oral and written history ends, and the unknown begins.

This is a story of motherhood, of childbirth, childrearing, and childhood, and womanhood. What can I find?

I can find out when my great-grandmother Mary Ann was born, to tell me the story of my great-great grandmother’s childbirth. I can look at her birth certificate. I discovered she was Katherine’s firstborn, born at 5am on March 8, 1918 - born at home during the flu epidemic on East New York Street in Indianapolis.

Now I can tell the story of Katherine giving birth. I can tell the story of nightlong labor, a doctor’s house call, a fear of the flu, a cold night, but all in the comforts of home. This is what this record can tell me.

Going further back, I can find out why the Garrity children left Connersville, and where they went. I find a death record for John Garrity in 1895, and I know he left Anna a widow with eight young children at home – and if I look closer at the children, I see that one of them is a newborn. Now I can imagine Anna’s life during that time. In the 1900 census, she is listed as a washerwoman with her children. Now I know she took in laundry to make ends meet to provide for her many children. But Anna died in 1905, and looking at her death certificate, I see that her secondary cause of death was “exhaustion”.

I sigh. It’s becoming personal now. I can see that Anna likely worked her young self to death trying to raise and provide for so many children all on her own. There’s a story there.

Anna’s obituary tells me that her children will go to Indianapolis to live with their aunt Mary Walsh, who I see by looking at the records, is Anna’s younger sister. I see in the records that she lives in downtown Indianapolis, and from family oral history I know she was a prim and proper person, as were some of the Garrity girls, but not Katherine. There’s more of a story there.

So many stories, all extracted from looking at records critically. If I weave oral and written family history together with the information I glean from the records, over time, I have a story that spans decades from mother to daughter and on and on right on down to me and my daughter. It’s a story of hope and sorrow, a story of love and loss, a story of motherhood and childhood. It’s told in the voices of each woman in my matrilineal line and is also a memoir of myself as a family historian, something that has brought great joy and love into my life as I have gotten to know my living family, lost close family members, and as I have also discovered the stories of my ancestors.

Mary Ann Fox Mulry with her family 

Mary Ann Fox Mulry with her family 

 

How to Write a Story from Records

There are so many stories to be found hidden amongst old historical records. Here are tips for writing or imagining stories through information on records.

1.       Visualize the information in the record.

  What was your ancestor’s occupation? What did that look like? Do some research if you need to. For example, what did a sheet metal worker or a bricklayer do exactly? What was a housewife’s life like at a certain time and place?

2.       Analyze each bit of information in relation to other information on the record.

   For example, I can see that John died in December 1895, and Dorothy, his daughter, was also born in 1895. Putting these two together, I know that Anna likely had a nursing babe when her husband was sick and when he died and when she buried him.

3.       Put records’ information together with family oral and written history.

I remember Aunt Betts telling us that all three of them were born at home. Now I can look at their birth certificates and confirm that, and see where they lived and what time they were born, and other doctors’ notes that give me a fuller story.

4.       Follow the story over several generations.

       I know more about Katherine’s early childhood because I now know that her mother was an orphan and a widow, and I know that her grandmother was also a young widow.

5.       Search the newspapers.

       The newspapers can give you a bird’s eye view of a story. I know that Anna’s mother Winifred died in October 1877 because of a church death record, but the newspaper told me that she left two orphan daughters and a host of friends to mourn her death. Elsewhere in the newspaper, I find that the two daughters, Anna and Mary, went under the guardianship of a neighbor, who was likely a relative.

6.       Create a timeline for the family, and put it all together.

       Patterns and connections will appear when you create a timeline for a family. You will be able to see your ancestors’ lives in context.

7.       Write the story!

       New questions – and answers – will arise as you write, and you’ll be able to go searching for the answers in the records or among your family members, which will enable you to write a richer story, and it’ll all come to together.

Don’t worry that you have to “get it all right”. I will probably never know the true story of why they “wanted to leave Connersville and forget it all”, but by searching through old records and talking to as many older family members as possible, I can make an educated guess in my story. We have to trust ourselves and our knowledge and the rest will come. We honor our ancestors when we discover and tell their stories.

What questions do you want to answer in your family stories? How will you go about using records and family history to answer them? Our Writing Family History for Kids workbook has tips for everyone - subscribe here to receive your free copy and begin learning how to better write your family history stories.

For more on writing about family history, see this post

Happy storytelling, friends!