Putting the “Story” Back in Family History
Whether you want to build your family history with as many names and dates as possible, or choose to instead focus on discovering the stories and details of your ancestors’ lives, there’s no right or wrong goal. It’s about choosing what’s important to you.
Choosing How to Build Your Family History
As project managers, one of the questions we ask our clients is whether they want us to build their family trees as quickly as we can, only including biographical material if it is of unusual interest. A second option is to include limited biographical material, focusing our efforts on extending the family tree as far back as possible within the allotted research time. The last option is to spend time expounding upon biographical information, including material from documents beyond those used to prove genealogical linkages.
Why do we offer all three options? In our experience, everyone is interested in slightly different results.
Building a Broad Family Tree
One cousin of mine has spent years researching the family of our great-grandfather, dating back to the 1500s in Finland. He has filled five books with all of the descendants from the original five sons. When I brought photos to him of our family here in the States, he looked at me like I came from the moon. He was so focused on the names and dates that he never gave thought to how each of those names belonged to a real person. A year later, in the family magazine, he mentioned how he had never thought about the stories and photos and how his focus had started to shift to collect as much information as he could about each family member. If he had been focused on this all along, he might not have accomplished all he did to locate all of the names and dates that he has found.
Delving Into the Details
But for me, I have always loved the story. Who are these ancestors? Where did they live? How did they live? What occupations did they have? How did they interact with those around them?
I have always had a strong connection to the Marlborough apartments in Everett, Washington. During family vacations in Everett, we would drive past this stately old apartment complex where my grandmother had worked as a maid. Recently a Facebook post popped up on my newsfeed with photos of these grand old apartments, built in 1912. I’ve searched for them before, and this time when I searched there was a new webpage for a walking tour put on by the Historic Everett Society. There with the pictures of this apartment complex was a picture of my mother’s godmother, Mrs. Laura May Vollans, from 1922.
When I saw the photograph of Mrs. Vollans, my interest was piqued again. I have several pieces of her glassware that my grandmother inherited, which I faithfully wash every few months. I know that my grandmother worked for her for many years as a maid and that eventually she became the godmother to my mother and uncle. Somewhere during that time, they had become friends, not just employer and employee. She was spoken of often in our family, but she passed away long before I was born.
I started my search with the apartments themselves. I had located a website a few years back where I had found that the new owners were renting the apartments as short-term-stay corporate apartments. Several pictures of the apartments showed they were appointed with lovely antiques, but I knew from the city directories and census records that Mrs. Vollans and her husband lived in apartment J, and it was not part of the website.
But this time, when I looked, the photos were there! On my screen were pictures of unit J with its lovely hardwood floors and refurbished kitchen. The images give you a good idea of the layout of the apartment, and the owners took special care to add some of the charm. TIP:
These photos of an old radiator and doorknob spoke volumes to me. While these features, along with the beautiful floors, may have been restored, it is also very likely that they are original to the building. My own grandmother would have dusted and made these items to shine, time and time again.
The last thing this website gave me was a look at the domestic quarters in the basement. While I don’t know which one my grandmother lived in, I do know that she did live there, and my great-aunt had many fun remembrances from her childhood of going to visit her older sister there.
My quest then was to know more about this couple. I knew they had no children, and my grandmother had inherited many of their lovely things. I was always under the impression that my grandmother worked for just Mrs. Vollans, but I discovered with the help of Ancestry that her husband was alive for most, if not all, of the time my grandmother worked there, as well. I found death certificates and their headstone. I found city directories that detailed a 20-year timeframe that showed when they moved into the Marlborough apartments and where they moved from as well as the business that Mr. Vollans owned. But, to really get to know her, I moved on to the newspapers and found several articles detailing the social events she attended, the friends she had, the golf club she belonged to. I learned that “Mrs. Bert H. Vollans, formerly of Everett, has taken an apartment at the Lowell [in Seattle] on the 22 December 1928.” From her obituary, I learned she was born in Illinois and died at home in this apartment at the age of 90, and she was the Sunday school superintendent in the First Presbyterian Church of Everett.
One of the most interesting items I found, however, was an article about the first 10,000 license plates in the state of Washington that were mailed out on 12 December 1927. The state had 30,000 applications on hand, and the plates were being issued at the rate of 8,000 per day. It went on to talk about just a few who had the first 100 numbers. Laura M. Vollans of Everett received license number 28, and her husband, who had passed away just three weeks before, received number 20. This placed them higher than Senator W.G. Hartwell of Colville, who received number 42, but behind N.C. Richards of Yakima, who was the Republican national committeeman who received number 1. This, along with the photo of her standing alongside her car with a golf bag, shows me just what an independent woman she was.
What Are Your Family History Goals?
So, as you think about starting or continuing your research think about your research goals. What type of information are you most interested in learning? Are you interested in taking your family tree back as far and as wide as you can go with a tree full of names and dates? Or, are you looking to learn the story that goes along with your ancestor’s names? Do you want to learn as many details about your family members as possible, or maybe even about their neighbors and employers, to learn all you can about your family story? Both types of research serve their purpose, and there is no right or wrong answer. Choosing the latter will definitely take more time, but if it is something that is of importance to you, the rewards can be well worth that extra time!
The team at Legacy Tree Genealogists would love to help you with your family history, whether you’re interested in building a broad family tree as far back as possible, or delving into the details and stories of your ancestors’ lives. Contact us today to request a free quote!