I’ve scoured all sorts of records – and, eureka! I’ve found ancestor names, birthdates, occupations… Okay, cool. Good job, Leah. But now what? It’s like winning $20 in a scratch-off lottery ticket: a little unexpected but not far-fetched, and really exciting for as long as the money lasts. But I’m not playing the genealogy lotto for a short-stack of green bills. I want a giant, unwieldy check delivered to my home with balloons and TV cameras; gimme the GOOD stuff: Who were these people? What were their lives like? What were their values?
Figuring this stuff out is not nearly as hard as it sounds. It just takes a little extra research, a curious mind, and an ability to read between the lines. (Visits to the library help, too.) Here’s my family story:
Grace, my g-g-grandmother, came from a well-to-do Missouri family. Her father was a doctor, served the Union as a surgeon, owned land in multiple states, and was a literal millionaire. Grace married my g-g-grandfather, a telegraph operator. At the turn of the century, the two of them, with their five children, lived in a small Illinois town.
Despite the level of skill and expertise required to be a telegraph operator, the job didn’t pay well. In rural areas, telegraph operators often worked in conjunction with the railroads. (It’s no surprise that most of their neighbors worked for the railroad.) At that time, the railroad line was owned by St. Louis, Indianapolis and Eastern Railroad Company – operating at a deficit. I’d say that that money well was pretty, well, dry.
Supporting a family of seven on a small salary is no easy task. Grace was a housewife, three children were in school, and their youngest son was only 5. But their oldest son, my g-grandfather Earl, was 18 and employed as a stenographer. I don’t think it’s a big leap to assume that Earl was probably helping his dad support the family.
Fast forward. Earl is a father, and the strong work ethic demonstrated in his youth has served him well. Really well. He’s a businessman, has his own company. He’s giving his daughter (my Nana) the kind of life Grace had growing up.
But like Grace, Nana marries a talented man of humble means. And taking care of a family of six is no easy task. But her son, my father, is like his grandfather Earl, stepping up to the plate as an 18-year-old, helping to get those bills paid.
My family is no longer a list of names, birthdates, and occupations. They’ve become real people with real struggles and real strength of character. I come from a line of hard workers, and women who married for love.
Want to give your family the personality test? Come to the library and let us help you find books and articles that bring your ancestor’s story to life, answering questions like: Why would my ancestor emigrate from Ireland in the 1840s? How much money would a shoemaker from Philadelphia make in 1875? Why did my grandfather apply for the WWII draft as a foreign-born 45-year-old?
Attend our ongoing genealogy and local history programs, find census records through Heritage Quest, check out some genealogy books, research your family in context in our history and local history collections, or consult a librarian.
Are you ready to hit the genealogy jackpot?