Stories- A Family Legacy, Part 1

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Edith Roberts McMurray with Son, about 1924.
Edith Roberts McMurray with Son, about 1924.

Family historians have a saying:

Genealogy without sources is just ‘mythology.’

We really should go a step further and say:

Genealogy without stories is just… well, BORING!

A recent New York Times article, “This Life. The Stories That Bind Us,” discusses developing a “strong family narrative.” The article (and book) is based on research by the Emory University psychologist Marshall Duke and his colleague Robyn Fivush. Their studies showed that children who had a strong sense of their family history had a higher sense of control of their life and greater self esteem. They also found these children were more resilient when faced with challenges.  This research hit home with me- at tough times in my life, my grandmother would tell me, “You come from strong pioneer stock- you can do anything you set your mind to.” Knowing those pioneer stories, and knowing the family support I had, helped me get through those tough times and use it as a lesson in my own life, and helped some of those times become a story for our own family.

When I started doing genealogy back in the 1960s (I really was a teen then, so not quite THAT old now), pedigree charts, family group sheets, and Ahnantafel and Register reports full of names and dates and places were what genealogy was all about. What really hooked me, though, was a trip to the county library where I found a book that actually told a story about my ancestors. I had family bible, obituary, and other information that my grandmother helped me find, but they were just cold, hard facts (mostly). When I saw the Benjamin name in a book I was browsing in the library stacks, however, my heart skipped a beat. I didn’t think it could possibly be my ancestors in a library book. Then I saw the name Brown, and because of the place and dates, knew it had to be my ancestors! The book was a reference book, so I could not check it out. I couldn’t stop reading, even though I knew my mother would be sitting out in the car waiting to pick me up. (See, I really wasn’t that old- couldn’t drive yet.) The story was about an Indian massacre of the Brown and Benjamin families in Loyalsock, Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, in May of 1778. Many family members were killed, others taken captive and later released. (More in an upcoming post.) I copied the information by hand- copiers were still new-fangled  machines back then and not readily available- and rushed breathlessly to the car. My mother was not happy she was kept waiting, but thrilled when I told her what I had found about my father’s family. She was somewhat disappointed that it was not her family, and felt that since her ancestors were probably poor immigrants from Ireland and Germany, we would not find much about them. Little did she know what wonderful stories were to come about her family- one of her “poor immigrant” ancestors was actually a physician, John H. O’Brien (1808-1887). Dr. O’Brien came to America shortly after receiving his medical degree at the University of  Dublin, Ireland, around 1830, in the midst of a cholera epidemic in Pennsylvania. He survived and married Jane Neel (1823-1895) who came from a family of early pioneers in this country. (More about them in another post too.)

Social History

Telling the stories of the common people is a part of ‘social history.’ Scholarly historians have long looked down on genealogy as a mythology of name seekers who want to be related to someone famous, but are finally realizing that the everyday life of everyday people has as much importance as famous generals, battles, and political figures. (I think even more important.) This movement began with books such as Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812, and continues with the hundreds of books more recently published by both scholarly and family historians. Some of the books are biographies, but others are scholarly studies on events or places. These books can help us place family in the context of the times. Tip: Check the index to see if your family is listed. Indexes do not always pick up every individual, however, so skim through the book and you may find a treasure. Even if your family member is not listed, other information in the book may apply to your family. I had ancestors in northern New England in the late 1600s-early 1700s, so another Ulrich book, Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750, had much information to help me gain a sense of what their daily lives would have been like.

 To be continued…

Notes, Sources, and References:

1) New York Times article “This Life. The Stories That Bind Us” published online 15 Mar 2013 at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/17/fashion/the-family-stories-that-bind-us-this-life.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2. “Bruce Feiler’s recently published book, “The Secrets of Happy Families: How to Improve Your Morning, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smart, Go Out and Play, and Much More.”

2) Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812  (Knopf, New York, 1990)

3) Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750  (Knopf, New York, 1980.)