Putting your ancestors’ lives in context

HistoryLines can help you create a timeline for your ancestorsOne of the ways I want to explore my ancestors as I try to dig deeper into their lives (learning more about my ancestors, rather than learning about more ancestors) is to put their lives in social context. I’d like to learn more about how they lived and what life was like for them.

At RootsTech, I learned about a new service, HistoryLines, that helps me do just that. I think it’s pretty exciting. You enter in an ancestor name or link a Family Search tree or upload a GEDCOM and you’re presented with a timeline of information about what was going on around your ancestor at the time he or she lived.

The service is in Beta now, but I signed up as a Beta user (as can you) and have had a good time exploring it.

Here’s a video they debuted at RootsTech.

The timeline that HistoryLines produces includes historical events that may have had an impact on the ancestor’s life, as well as more personal information, like how childbirth might have been for the ancestor’s mother, and what education, hygiene, clothing, medicine and entertainment were like at the time. (That’s just the tip of the iceberg of available information.) There’s also an interactive map, so that you can see their migration patterns. You can edit the timeline, which allows you to quite easily create a meaningful story to share with others.

My ancestors are all from the U.S. and the U.S.-related information on HistoryLines is plentiful. They also have information from Germany and Denmark and data for Canada and France are in process. I’m sure they will be adding data from more countries.

Timelines can be a great organizing aid. Adding social to the context makes this a really fun, and potentially very meaningful, tool.

Little clues from personal correspondence

daveandbea50As I said I would, I waited until I was on the airplane to open the letter from my grandfather, Dave Adams, to his sweetheart, Beatrix Rasco, my grandmother, which my aunt had given me. (That’s the picture from their 50th wedding anniversary announcement at left.) While the letter is 36 pages long, my grandfather’s handwriting was large, and he left ample white space, so it took me no time at all to read it. (There were also several pages missing!)

My grandfather opens the letter by explaining that it is a confession of sorts. He wrote:

“…[B]ecause I have absolute faith in your love, and believe that you will try to understand me, and most of all, because I’m going to clear the path to our marriage at Christmas–or block it–I’m going to write the whole thing. If I could see you–and boy how I wanted to–I could explain the whole matter with a fine chance of getting across, for in my mind there is no guilt….I want to resassure you before I start that no girl is implicated. I fooled you, didn’t I, honey? But as far as I’m concerned, it’s much worse.”

You can imagine that I was chomping at the bit to find out what he was going to confess! But there weren’t any major revelations. (That would have been too easy, right?) Instead I got little clues about how grandfather lived as a child and young man, and some more insights into his parents’ estrangement. I learned that there wasn’t a big blow up or event that led to their separation. Rather, due to economic necessity, my great grandfather, Elmer Adams, lived where he worked and my great grandmother, Hattie, stayed in a more populated area (Olympia) and rented rooms in their house to earn income. Eventually, they decided to make the arrangement permanent and my grandfather was informed by his sister, and then his mother, that the couple would never again share a home.

It led me to think about how our social norms have changed over the last 85 years. Things we wouldn’t bat an eyelash at now (having parents who were separated, for instance) were a potential reason not to marry someone, apparently. My grandfather wrote in his letter that he asked his sister, Dora, if he should “let the fact that I have no united home keep me from marrying. Dora said ‘absolutely not.'”  His siblings gave him the courage to confess his family’s checkered history and ask for his sweetheart’s love and hand in marriage.

I did pick up a few facts that I hadn’t known:

  • My grandfather and his family lived in Portland, Oregon (where he was born on November 12, 1904), until he was four, when the family moved to Quinault Lake, on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. On today’s roads, that’s a 185-mile trip. In the letter, my grandfather mentions that 50 miles of that journey was traveled on the first road ever constructed to the lake (what a remote place that must have been!) and that he made the trip with a broken leg, tied in a box.
  • I didn’t learn why my grandfather’s family emigrated to Washington from Kentucky in the first decade of this century, but I did learn that they made a trip back to Kentucky when he was 10 for a visit that lasted a half year. That must have been a big adventure!
  • I learned that my great grandfather, Elmer, was an industrious man with a propensity for bad luck.  When the U.S. became involved in World War I, he started a spruce mill to create lumber for airplanes. It wasn’t an easy task–he had to build a road up a hillside to the mill site and it took a year before he turned out his first lumber. That happened about November 7, 1918, just days before the end of the war. My grandfather wrote in the letter, “The first day the mill made expenses, the Kaiser quit. I reckon it was because he heard I would be a year older the next day and would probably go warring after him.” With the war over, the demand for spruce evaporated. But the government made good on its promises and Elmer ended up being reimbursed for his loss. Next, Elmer started a logging business in the capital city, Olympia, but a gasoline shortage meant he couldn’t get his logs to the railroad. The letter details other ventures that resulted in a whole lot of hard work but not a whole lot of money.

I treasure this letter because it’s full of love, humor and honesty. I love that my grandmother read it and married him anyway (just a month later). They were married for 58 years, until Dave died in 1986. I worry that we’ve lost the art of letter writing to the expediency of email and, worse yet (from a permanence point of view) text messages. It makes me wonder if future generations will experience the thrill of this kind of discovery from their 21st-century ancestors!


An unexpected gift

davebealetterI’m still visiting my family and today, I stopped by to see my aunt (my father’s sister). She delighted me by giving me a photo of she and my father, taken in 1934, when they were 5 and 6 years old. Adorable. I’m very grateful for it.

Then she blew me away by pulling out a 36-page handwritten letter (though at least two pages are missing) from my grandfather to my grandmother, written about a month before they were married in 1927. My grandfather, David Adams, wanted to reveal his life’s story to his sweetheart in hopes that she would still want to marry him.

How tantalizing is that for a genealogy enthusiast? As I’ve written here, I’ve been frustrated in my efforts to know more about my grandparents. I didn’t know why my grandfather’s family moved from Kentucky to Washington in the first decade of the 20th century or why his parents were estranged. I’m hoping to learn the answers (at least from his perspective) in the letter. Maybe I’ll also learn why it is that these estranged parents were buried next to one another.

I’ve not yet read the letter. I have a long flight ahead of me on Saturday and I think I’m going to wait until I have that uninterrupted time to dig into it and see what mysteries are solved and what facts are revealed. I am so grateful to my aunt for sharing it with me and promised to scan it (guess what I’ll be buying!) and return the original to her, though she promised I’ll be able to keep the original one day.

I noticed that on the back of the last sheet, my grandfather wrote, “Destroy the manuscript, will you please?” I am so happy that my grandmother ignored that request!

When names become people

I wrote a month ago about finding my grandmother on the 1920 census and being surprised that at the age of 13 my grandmother was classified as a farmer. I noted that her brother, Wilson, also a farmer, was 7 and didn’t know how to read or write. I noticed that in the 1930 census, after they’d moved to Washington state, Wilson was in school and could read and write. That seemed like an achievement.

Just now I discovered that Wilson is William Wilson Rasco, aka my father’s Uncle Bill. I remember him when I was a child. He was loads of fun and would howl in pretend pain when my brothers and I would give him “Indian burns” (i.e. rub his wrist in a twisting motion that’s supposed to hurt.) I knew he was a minister, but he never seemed like one to me, because he was so much fun.

As part of my family history research, I came across an obituary for Uncle Bill, in the Seattle Times. He died in 1996 and was a very accomplished and prominent leader in the United Presbyterian Church in Washington, North Idaho and Alaska.

So thanks to the joys of family history research, this person has gone from the name of a seemingly illiterate boy farmer in Texas to an influential minister with a doctorate in divinity. And a man whose infrequent visits delighted me as a little girl.

Incidentally, the obituary contained this nugget:

A 1978 Seattle Times story noted that Rev. Rasco’s fate was sealed at a young age. His mother, wife of a Yakima County orchardist, almost died in childbirth and vowed to commit her son to the ministry.

Since I’m not directly descended from this William Rasco, I haven’t been researching him. But finding his obituary led me to a newspaper story that let me know my great grandmother almost died in child birth and that my great grandfather was an orchardist. Of course, I need to verify this information, but it’s just another tantalizing thing to look into.