Family History Models (Part 2)

tree

photo: bananaana 04, creative commons license

How you decide to tell your family story depends on your goals, the amount of time you have to spend, and what you’re comfortable doing. I’m a mystery writer, and I approach family history as if it were a mystery story—conflicting clues, unreliable information, secrets—but nevertheless enabling some sort of conclusion.

As last Friday’s general tips for organizing and reporting your genealogical findings emphasized, there is no one “right way” to do this. Three ways to narrow the task of presenting your data were described yesterday. Here are two more elaborate, but very different, options.

Broad in Information, Simple in Execution

My goal in exploring my family’s story has been to understand better the context of my ancestors’ lives, so my family history includes a lot of information about the places and times they lived in. In this, I’ve had the great benefit of contributions from other family members and especially the partnership with a first cousin who lives many states away.

Most of our research has been on the Edwards family. There’s lots of information online about the Edwardses, much of it bogus. Here’s why, if you’re interested (large amounts of money are involved).

I haven’t taken the plunge of putting our family story online, though there would be many advantages of doing so. To date, it’s still a Word document—225 pages long, with 350 footnotes, photographs, charts, maps, and numerous appendixes. Coping with such a large and, in places, unwieldy document, I’ve learned one overriding lesson: don’t let your reader get lost!

People can grasp graphical “family tree” information quicker than text. A whole family tree, which can include hundreds of names, is probably best created online in one of the sites developed for that purpose. However, using descendant software (some of which is free and open source; see this discussion) to display a relevant portion of the tree keeps readers oriented.

map, New Haven

New Haven, Conn., 1641

Maps and timelines help your readers—and you, too!— stay oriented. For example, I found an interactive map of old London on which I can approximate the location of an ancestor’s shop in 1550. Maps can reveal relationships. The 1641 map of New Haven, Conn., shows the householders’ names, including our ancestor’s and that of their neighbor, a ship’s captain active in the Chesapeake Bay. Thanks to him, the next generation of our family ended up in Tidewater Maryland.

Graphics are helpful too. Charts, maps, illustrations, bulleted lists—all those elements break up your text and enhance readability. Of course if you have family photos, that’s great, but feel free to be creative. Some of the pictures in our Civil War chapter are historical photos of particular battle-sites. Look for images that are not copyright protected so that you are free to “publish” your work to the Web. (Google Images > Tools > Usage Rights > labeled for reuse)

Narrow-to-Broad in Information, Elaborate in Execution 

Finally, there’s a true high-end way to go, with a self-published book. Find lots of information on those choices, including some pricing information, in this guide.

Ancestry.com has a publishing partnership with MyCanvas, for example, where you do most of the writing work. Another example is a company like Bind These Words, which combines family interviews with photographs and graphic elements. The cost of such a project depends on the time involved and number of photos/graphics. (I have not worked with either of them.)

These are examples to explore. While working with a commercial publisher is expensive, it might be appropriate for some defined piece of your project or to commemorate a special wedding anniversary or other family milestone.

Family History Models (Part 1)

Queen Victoria's Family Tree

Queen Victoria’s Family Tree

Once you begin working on your family genealogy, there’s an infinite way to organize and present it. You can keep all of it on Ancestry.com or other websites, of course, but that doesn’t necessarily give you the flexibility of sending copies to family members who aren’t online, taking copies to family reunions, or having a few pages with you on a scouting trip to a history center or cemetery. Taking your laptop or tablet along isn’t always desirable.

Last Friday’s post covered general tips, today’s begins describing the wide range of ways to organize and report your genealogical findings, from the simple to the elaborate. Today and tomorrow, I’ll describe five of them.

Many kinds of reports can be created within the better software options.

“The Begats”

Some people are only interested in what I call “the begats”—who were the parents, the grandparents, the great-grandparents and so on. In addition to names, a genealogy organized this way often includes: dates of birth and death, date of marriage and name of bride/groom, and, possibly burial place. (The cemetery information is valuable, because many cemetery records are now online, for individual cemeteries or collectively, and they’re another research avenue.) Your begats may be in tree form, with boxes like an organization chart or it may be text.

When You Don’t Know Much

Sometimes, the choice about presentation style is dictated by the fact that you just don’t know very much. That’s the situation with my father’s parents, who immigrated separately to the United States from Hungary before about 1910. Research on the Ellis Island website brought up several people who might be them. Ship manifests, which provide key genealogical information, including age, home town, and place/person they were traveling to, helped me narrow my search.

The family history I prepared includes some background on the home towns of the two immigrants I believe are most likely my grandparents (about which my father’s generation knew almost nothing). Whether the information I found is correct in every particular or not, reading it you get some insight into the black box of their immigration story. You can get a feel for this kind of reporting with the stories of my grandmother, Maria Krausz, and grandfather, Ferencz Hegyi.

When You Have A Narrow Interest

Sometimes, you have a particularly narrow interest that suggests a focus for a family report. My seven-year-old grandson asked whether any of our family fought in the Civil War. I took the Civil War chapter of the family history I’ve written, revised the text to make it more suitable for a young person and added historical photographs and artworks.

The finished piece (25 pages) includes transcriptions of letters from our ancestors home. Since these soldiers they indicated where they were writing from, I summarized information about their units and the battles they participated in. I also created a Civil War family tree, focusing on the combatants. Grey boxes for our Confederate ancestors, blue boxes for the Union, and red lines for soldiers who died in the war. Seven so far.

Writing a complete family history is a formidable task, even for a writer like me, and much more so for non-writers. Taking a piece of it—in this case the Civil War, or the Immigrant Generation, or “Our Family in the Depression”—is for some people a manageable way to start.

WEDNESDAY: Family History Models (Part 2): The More Elaborate Options

Presenting Your Family History

Calvin J. Edwards Sr. Family

My great-grandparents and some of their children

As Miguel Helft reported last January in Forbes, genealogy is big business. Ancestry.com, the world’s largest genealogical research website has more than 2.5 million subscribers, who can gain access to Ancestry’s repository of more than 16 billion historical records and 70 million family trees. Now also in the DNA analysis business, 1.4 million AncestryDNA kits were sold in the last quarter of 2016, and Ancestry had more than three million members in its DNA database by the end of last year.

People are finding, recording, and storing much information about their families’ history. They are copying names and dates from old bibles, getting access to online information (and misinformation), studying old census records and Ellis Island’s trove of ship manifests, resurrecting yellowed photos from attic trunks. Their desks are cluttered with post-its and scribbling-in notebooks. What to do with it all?

This week I spoke to a small group of local genealogists—some new to this passion, some experienced—about options for presenting family history when the online templates from genealogy websites aren’t sufficient. You sometimes need a paper version for elderly relatives who aren’t online. You want a keepsake. You want to take it with you when you go to a research library.

Some basics:

  • There is no one “right” way to present a family history. What will work best for you depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.
  • Be comfortable with “iterations.” Probably no matter how much research you’ve done, you’ll find new relatives, run across new supporting information, have new insights, get unexpected input from a long-lost relative. That’s a good thing, really, it allows your document to live and breathe.
  • So don’t worry about making it too “pretty.” That may make you reluctant to make changes!
  • You’ll thank yourself a thousand times over if you obsessively keep track of sources—that is, precisely where you obtained a particular piece of information—as you go along. The current draft of my main family history is 222 pages long and has more than 350 footnotes.
  • Eventually you will need some kind of filing system. My genealogy information fills two large plastic bins, plus a box of books. I have files organized by: state or county, with information about the places my ancestors lived; a particular family or generation; census information in a single folder, because I refer to it so often; maps; “Not Our Family” – dead ends; and so on.

TUESDAY: Family History Models

Feats of True Grit

suitcase, Asian

photo adapted from Roger Wagner, creative commons license

In this political season, when so much airtime has been expelled on the issue of immigration and the negative characterization of immigrants, I’m reminded of what a rich vein of stories the immigration experience has provided us and continues to do so.

Immigration Stories in Literature

Shawna Yang Ryan has written a beautiful meditation on recent immigration. Her mother immigrated from Taiwan when she married Ryan’s father and worked for a time as an “Avon lady”—a desperate choice that daily forced her to confront strangers at their own front doors and in their language, to face rejection. “To displace one’s self in adulthood, to uproot, to leave behind ways of speaking, moving, being that are second nature is a feat of true grit,” Ryan says.

The immigrant’s persistent sense of dislocation and not-belonging has nourished many great stories. We think of Cólm Toibín’s Brooklyn. We think of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, of Sandra Cisneros and her culture-straddling kin, never feeling fully at home anywhere, of Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You. We may even think of The Godfather and his literary family.

And In Your Own Back Yard

These stories, separate and unique, yet all similar and at a fundamental level, shared, are the sometimes uneasy bedrock of America, “a rich array of experiences: loss, longing, duality, triumph and contradiction,” as revealed by the immigration stories of Latinos who work for National Public radio.

Members of my mother’s family came to America as early as 1634, but on my father’s side, I know little. I’ve researched and developed a speculative jigsaw puzzle of these grandparents’ separate experiences. Hungary was all my dad knew, and the rough time period, 1900-1910.

The treaty of Trianon at the end of World War I changed their origin story forever. My grandfather, to the best I can determine, came from a part of Hungary that is now Romania (Transylvania, to be exact), and my grandmother, about whom I know even less, from a Hungarian region ceded to Czechoslovakia, now the Slovak Republic.

Share your family’s immigration experience at MyImmigrationStory.com, whose message is a nice counterpoint to the political debate: “Statistics do not tell the story of immigration. People do.”

My Bit for Genealogy

typewriter, writing

photo: Steve Depolo, creative commons license

What makes a set of records helpful to people researching their families? Having it digitized for search. And, how does that happen? Not easily. We forget that up until about the 1960s many public records were hand-written.  Before the typewriter was invented (1860), all records were written completely by hand. As a mystery writer, I find these historic documents—and their tantalizing glimpses of the-story-behind-the-story—fascinating!

Believe it or not, early county clerks were not selected based on the legibility of their handwriting. Add to that possible errors and idiosyncrasies in spelling, particularly of names, where parental creativity sometimes trumps convention (note the sly RNC reference; Freud at work). These make deciphering documents a challenge requiring Sherlock Holmes’s extra-large magnifier.

A 72-hour Challenge

To get some help with the massive task of digitizing, FamilySearch.com sponsored a three-day event last weekend, in which volunteers from around the world examined original records and entered data into pre-designed forms. In fact, some 116,475 people indexed over 10 million records in those three days!

I entered data extracted from hundreds of handwritten Kentucky marriage records from the 1930s and 1940s, as well as some from the 1880s—before the clerks used forms. Also English probate records for loads of people, last name Cox. Also 1920 census pages for Montreal.

Here’s what I learned:

  • Mothers of couples married in the 1930s and 40s in Kentucky were very likely to be named Eula, Lula, Effie, Bessie, or Elsie. There were many Hatties and Hesters, Mabels, Myrtles, and a Flossie (not married to a Freddie, which will disappoint you if you grew up reading The Bobbsey Twins series). Great ideas for naming characters born in that period.
  • I liked the sense of humor of the parents who named their son Pearley Bates. There was a second man named Pearl, too. And a woman.
  • This data entry volunteer was left to wonder why some marriage records had written at the top “Please Do Not Publish.”
  • On one day, Ray O. Schomberg divested himself of two daughters, ages 17 and 19, to men of the U.S. Air Force from exciting California and not-so-exciting Ohio.
  • Many couples came from Ohio to be married in the border counties of Kentucky. If memory serves, there was no waiting period from license to ceremony in Kentucky. Some of these were church marriages nevertheless, some by Justices of the Peace, and some in “police court.” Eyebrows raised.
  • Most couples were of legal age to marry without parental consent (established how?) —21 in those days.
  • A few brides were only 16 and one was 15—the groom another Air Force man, age 24—and the clerk of court noted that the witnesses were “John Smith (the bride’s father) and James Smith” (holding the shotgun, probably). Without question her father would be there, and the shotgun too, if not in fact, in the groom’s imagination.
  • In the 1880 records, many men signed their marriage licenses with an x (“his mark”); by 1950, I saw only one record where the groom could not write his name.
  • The English probate records documented the other end of the continuum of family relationships. One told how Arnold Cox, dentist, left his estate of £54 to Maude Cox, spinster (his sister?). To spend your life as a village dentist and die with only £54 to show for it seems more than a little sad.
  • I was intrigued by the number of Coxes from northern England who left bequests to Archie Cox, chemist. In England a chemist is a pharmacist, and I just wondered whether our Archie might have helped some of his ancient and ailing relatives along, just a bit.

This project provided the chance to indulge in speculation about the lives of previous generations, as revealed through their documentary trail. And I was glad to know that if any of the descendants of the perhaps a thousand people whose stories I helped record are interested in those lives, I’ve made their job a little easier.

Family Search.com is a free alternative to Ancestry.com. Both are maintained by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and each has strengths and weaknesses. I’ve found considerable information about family members using both.

P.S. — See that photo by Steve Depolo? If he has family from Kentucky, their marriage records may be online now. I happen to know!

I’d “Mutch Rather See Them”

Civil War, battlefield, cannon

Stones River National Battlefield (photo: wikipedia)

I spent Veterans’ Day yesterday deciphering four letters my great-great uncles wrote in 1863 and 1864 when serving in the U.S. Civil War. Men from my family served on both sides of that war, and the Tennessee ancestors on my grandfather’s side epitomize that truism about the border states, “it was brother against brother.” Those living in Wilson County, east of Nashville, fought for the South, while those who’d moved further west, to Carroll County, were Union men.

The war did not treat kindly the land of Wilson County and the Hurricane Creek area where my family lived. Just ten miles down the road in early 1863 raged the Battle of Stones River (also called the Battle of Murfreesboro). On the Union side, Gen. William Rosecrans led some 43,000 men of the Army of the Cumberland, while Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg brought 38,000 men from the Army of Tennessee. Although “tactically indecisive,” it was one of the war’s bloodiest battles, with an estimated 23,500 men killed or injured.

More than 80,000 men moving through an agricultural area does not leave much behind for the settlers. As a returning soldier wrote, “When I reached my grandfather’s farm, I saw something of what the home folks were enduring while we were away in the army: barns all gone, fine trees cut down in the front lot, stock all gone, everything in disarray.” Food and currency were scarce, and supplies were gone. “For two years there was no coffee, no sugar, no shoes.” The cotton crop of 1866 was meager, and an epidemic of cholera raged that summer, hitting Wilson County hard, only to be followed by smallpox in the fall. Thus the painted slogan “GTT” began appearing on the doors of people’s abandoned homes and farms—Gone To Texas.

Some family on my grandmother Smith’s side already lived in Texas and their sons were recruited into the Confederate forces. It is their letters I was working on, with the beautifully florid handwriting and many misspellings adding to their charm. These boys—John Ricerd (J.R.), about age 20, and George, 23—were two of eight sons of William and Elizabeth Smith, and they are intimately concerned about the fate of their younger brothers:

  • “Tell W. R. Smith if the war continues till he becomes 18 years old, tell him to go in Texas service, not to comb(come) out here. I hope though he will not have to Join the army.” (from J.R. Smith)
  • “William, you will try to beat me a(t) writing a letter the time, for you are going to School for some time as will be when this letter reaches to hand. You will apply your Self Closely and try to make a Smart man.” (from George Smith)
  • “I reckon I will never see home until this unholy war comes to a close and none but my Heavenly father knows when that will be.” (from George Smith)
  • “I want to here from you and Franklin and all the rest of my little Brothers. But mutch rather see them.” (from J.R. Smith)

You also get a sense of the conditions and concerns that plagued them as they fought in Arkansas and Louisiana in the Trans-Mississippi and Red River campaigns.

  • “I am anxious to here from Brother William. I expec that he has been in the fight. If so I hope that he came threw safe.” (from J.R. Smith)
  • “Father, I have been as wet as I could be for 2 days and a night and travailed (traveled) all one day. You will excuse my bad writing and my Short letter for I have travailed all day and am tired.” (from George Smith)
  • “The reson I don’t get letters regular is we have been running from place to place. The boys is all brokedown and need rest.” (from J.R. Smith)

America has had so many veterans of so many wars, and while the foes and armaments have changed, the human experience remains.

Putting the Genes in Genealogy

Double helix

Double helix (from: Mehmet Pinarci, creative commons license)

Science has come to the aid—at least potentially—of people searching for their ancestors and far-flung family members. Genealogists now can draw on the insights provided by genetic testing resources, the two most prominent of which are 23andMe and Ancestry.com, when exploring their family tree. All that’s needed is to order a kit from these organizations, spit into the test tube they send, mail it back, and in six to eight weeks you’ll receive an email with a private link to the results: your own, unique genome described and codified.

Of course, some cash has to change hands too. 23andMe charges $199 for its testing, and Ancestry.com charges $99. There’s an important reason for that price differential. Ancestry’s only interest is in the genealogical significance of your genetic information. 23andMe—which I used for my genetic test several years ago—didn’t start out to do family ancestry testing at all. When I joined, the focus was on health and research. The health component comes in with helping you understand the implications of your genetic risks for various diseases and conditions.

The research focus was what interested me. You may know that new drugs and treatments ordinarily must be tested in time-consuming, expensive clinical trials. When it comes to designing a trial for a disease with a genetic component, researchers may need to know whether a new drug, has different effects in people with different genetic profiles. If so, they must find a large number of people with those specific profiles in order to run their tests. Finding these people can take literally years. Often, they never identify enough suitable people and, after great effort and expense, the trial must be abandoned. A core idea of 23andMe was that having a preexisting database containing people’s genetic profiles would help researchers find people with specific genetic characteristics more quickly. A proof of concept was achieved in the area of Parkinson’s disease. In addition, through questionnaires, they find out much more about people with specific genetic profiles, too. That’s why I joined 23andMe, because I thought that database sounded like such an invaluable resource.

Other organizations also offer genetic testing, but Ancestry.com and 23andMe both have made a substantial commitment to developing useful genealogical tools and have the size advantage of more than a million members each. You don’t want to be like the first person to buy a FAX machine. “Cute, but what do you do with it?” You want as many potential connections as possible.

My DNA relatives from 23andMe include four people identified by genetics as my second cousins. Three of them are strangers to me, but they come from the parts of the country that certain family members are from, and their profiles mention specific family surnames. The fourth person is my second cousin who lives in Denver, whom I know well. That known relationship shows the system is working! 23andMe makes it easy to contact the others, and I’m hoping one of them can help clear up a mystery involving our specific shared ancestors. (Since I wrote this, I’ve confirmed one of these strangers is a second cousin, once removed. Now I can dig into a little Alabama family history with him.)

What you most hope for in making these contacts is that one of them is a determined genealogist too. A couple of years ago a stranger from Washington State contacted me via 23andMe, and we did indeed turn out to be distant cousins. He introduced me to other cousins in his line who’d done some family research. It’s been both fun and enlightening to share information and questions—and some answers—with them.

The Rouge Shadow

I see my grandfather in the background in Diego Rivera’s North Wall mural at the Detroit Institute of Art, (here’s a link; these famous works aren’t free for reproduction), dwarfed by the scale of the machinery and the enterprise around him. For decades, he worked at the legendary Ford Rouge plant, where Great Lakes freighters brought sand (for glassmaking), iron ore, and coal to the mile-long factory, and, every 49 seconds, out rolled an automobile.

Ford Rouge plant, Dearborn

Ford Rouge plant, Dearborn, Michigan (photo: wikimedia)

Today, a tour of an auto plant suggests a relatively clean job. Robots do the heavy lifting, with just-in-time sourcing of parts. In the 1920s to 1940s, when my grandfather worked there, the Rouge was the country’s only auto factory with its own steel mill, and clouds of sulphurous smoke and grit filled the air. It had a tire-making plant, a glass furnace, plants for making transmissions and radiators, its own railroad, and even a paper mill. As I understand it, one of my uncles was in charge of keeping the steel mill’s fires stoked, which explains why he always had to work Christmas Day.

My grandfather was born in 1888, and I could not find his immigration record until I realized the Hungarian spelling of Frank is Ferencz. Even then I had to search using all the spellings of the family’s last name my various uncles used: Hadde, Hedge, Hegyi, and Heddi. By the process of elimination, my best candidate is Ferencz Hegyi, who immigrated from Fiatfalva, Hungary, in 1906 and arriving at Ellis Island aboard the S.S. Kaiser Wilhelm II. (Alfred Stieglitz’s photo “The Steerage,”—called “one of the greatest photographs of all time,” was taken aboard that ship.)

 

Fiatfalva, Hungary

“Looking over Fiatfalva” by Rimager, Flickr

Fiatfalva is now in Harghita County, Romania, at the eastern end of the Transylvania plateau, with the closest large town Sighişoara, where Vlad the Impaler (Count Dracula) was born. Although settlement in the area dates back to prehistoric and Bronze Age times, the first mention of the name of the village is found in 15th c. documents. Fiatfalva now has only a couple of streets and about a thousand residents, including a significant Roma population. The Romanian name for the town is Filiaş. An outdoor museum in Bucharest, Romania, displays representative buildings from all parts of Romania. The gate pictured below is typical of dwellings in the Harghita region.

 

Transylvania, Bucharest, Fiatfalva, house gate

(photo: author)

 

The ship’s manifest listed Ferencz’s destination as Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, in the far western part of the state. If he went there (and vague family rumors suggest he did), he was but a few miles from the presumed destination of Maria Krausz , who immigrated almost three years later. The ship’s manifest for Maria, whom I believe was my grandmother, indicates she was headed to “Allegheny, Pennsylvania” (Pittsburgh).

The 1910 Census (so far) is not much help pinpointing her whereabouts, but there is a record for Frank Hagyie, age 21, who was born in Hungary and immigrated in 1906. In 1910, he was single and living as a boarder in New Castle, Pennsylvania, and along with many other young men in the neighboring rooming houses, he worked in a tin mill. At that time, New Castle was the tin plate capital of the world and was linked to Pittsburgh, 50 miles away, by a trolley line.

The fact that these two people separately crossed the ocean and ended up so near each other, when immigrants were scattering all across the United States, is perhaps the strongest piece of evidence that I’m on the right investigative track!

Coming to Amerika

In a historical irony, both of my paternal grandparents listed their country of origin as Hungary when they immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s and continued to do so in census records up through 1940, yet both their towns of origin were lost to Hungary after World War I. The treaty of Trianon punished Hungary for siding with Germany in that war, and gave vast areas of its territory (see map) to surrounding countries. Hungary once comprised all the pink areas, but today is just the red-outlined middle portion of the map that includes Budapest.

Dissolution of Austria-Hungary

Dissolution of Austria-Hungary (source: en.wikipedia.org)

The town I believe with some confidence was the original home of my grandmother—Maria Krausz—is now part of Slovakia. What on the map is labeled “Czechoslovakia” was split in 1993 into the prosperous Czech Republic and the proud but impecunious Slovakia (on the map, the pink part of “Czechoslovakia”). Similarly, the small town in Transylvania that I believe my grandfather—Ferencz Hegyi—emigrated from is now part of Romania. This remarkable territorial loss helps explain the running street battles between the Hungarian and Romanian boys in the Dearborn, Michigan, immigrant neighborhood where my father and his brothers and sisters grew up in the 1920s.

The history of middle Europe is long and complex and generally unknown to Americans, unless they’ve made a special study of it. I learned a tiny portion when we took our 2013 Danube cruise from Budapest to Bucharest, as I did some pre-cruise reading. I hadn’t known, remembered, or thought about the many years in which that part of the world was under Ottoman rule. Centuries before that, the Roman empire had a significant presence there (some remnants of which are still visible). That influence explains why the Romanian language is more similar to Italian than to the Slavic languages (at least in appearance; the pronunciation is different), and the fact that the Hungarian Parliament conducted its business in Latin until the mid-1800s, so I was told.

One tantalizing possibility is that the Mongolian hordes that repeatedly crossed middle Europe from the East, doing what invading hordes do—raping and pillaging—left a legacy for my family, too. Estimates are that one in every 200 males on earth is related to Genghis Khan. In part that’s because Khan’s forces killed off most of the men where they rampaged, which meant his own genetic heritage had less competition from the existing population. Khan, his son, and his grandsons had dozens of legitimate—and who knows how many illegitimate—sons who spread his genetic code far and wide.

In 1241, Mongol forces conquered medieval Hungary at the Battle of Mohi. An idea regarding how this distant episode might relate to our family—if it does—was unexpectedly sparked by an experience I had in the dentist’s chair. The endodontist required a large number of visits to finish my root canal (don’t ask), and finally said, “No wonder it’s taking so long! You have an extra root on this tooth. I hardly ever see that, except among my Chinese patients.” Thanks, Great Khan.

Gizella, Queen of Hungary

(photo: author)

History also explains the tantalizing bit of information from aunts Gizella and Clara that their mother was actually German, which was always a little confusing. It turns out that the immigration of German-speaking peoples into Hungary was widespread and began in approximately 1000, when German knights came into the country in the company of Giselle of Bavaria (Gizella in Hungarian), the German-born Queen of Hungary’s first king, Stephen I. (Boldog Gizella, in the stained glass panel means “Blessed Giselle”). Hungary by the 1800s had numerous German settlements, which is how Maria could be both Hungarian and German.

According to the manifest of the ship Amerika, which by a process of elimination I believe included my grandmother among its passengers, Maria traveled to the United States from Dobšiná (German: Dobschau) Hungary (photo below). Dobšiná is located in the Carpathian Mountains, “to the south of the beautiful Stratená valley,” near the Hnilec (Slana) River, and enclosed on all sides by mountains.The historic postcard below is of a hotel built near the town’s famous Ice Cave.

In the town’s heyday, local tilt hammers produced high-quality steel, and so it was no accident that during the anti-Habsburg uprisings of the 18th century, it was Dobšiná that supplied swords, cannonballs, and rifle barrels to the rebel armies of Ferenc Rákóczi II. When peace was established between the Habsburgs and the rebels, army workshops in the town had to be torn down. With the lengthy history of steel-making in her home town, Mary’s ultimate residence in the shadow of the Ford Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan, and the patina of fine steel grit on every surface must have felt very familiar.

Dobsina Slovakia Ice Cave hotel

(source: wikimedia.org)

History is Personal

Edwards, Wilson County

Edwards graveyard, Wilson County, Tenn. (photo: author)

A trip to the New York Public Library’s Milstein Division this week with three friends was a chance to catch up on the progress we’re making with our family genealogies. Each of us has made surprising discoveries—a grandfather who, as a baby, was left at the doorstep of a foundling hospital; Tennessee Civil War veterans who lived the agonizing struggle of “brother against brother”; the ancestor who lived next door to the real-life House of the Seven Gables in Salem, Massachusetts, and was a member of the Salem Grand Jury two decades before the witch trials; the family grave markers revealing sons who died within days of each other in the 1918 influenza outbreak. I even know the names and a bit of the history of the ships that brought some of my ancestors to America in 1633 and the early 1900’s (Griffin, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Amerika).

All writers can find inspiration in history, says a recent blog on the Writer magazine website by Hillary Casavant. From my own experience, looking at lives reduced to a few lines transcribed from some 180-year-old deed book, or the estate inventory that includes not only “a cowe and hoggs,” but also salt, pepper, and a coffee pot makes you think about what was valuable in a person’s life generations ago. (As a measure of changing living standards, my household has four coffee-pots and three tea-pots. No cowe or hoggs, though.)

These shards of insight prompt the thought, “I’d like to know the story behind that.” Just such an impulse set a writing colleague on a path to research one of her ancestors, born in the late 1800’s—the first woman to serve as a probation officer in the London criminal courts. Information is scattered, and she has the challenge of writing a fictionalized history. Another writer friend is compiling a set of essays on her family’s history that is closer to a conventional memoir, but viewed through a psychological lens—a thoughtful analysis of how a father’s treatment of his sons echoes through the family generations later.

Writers use history in many different ways to “make it real.” From my recent reading, additional examples are Robert Harris’s An Officer and A Spy, a novelization of the infamous Dreyfus case, in which all the players are known, and the mystery The Cold, Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty, which uses the hunger strikes in Northern Ireland’s HM Prison Maze not only as a backdrop but weaves it into the actions and motivations of the fictional characters. Movies plow this ground endlessly. I really enjoyed The Monuments Men, which, although it prompted inevitable historical quibbles, stayed closer to real experience than the more highly fictionalized The Train, the 1964 Burt Lancaster/Paul Scofield movie on the same theme, which I saw again on TV last night. (Illustrating how far from real life Hollywood must sometimes stray, Wikipedia reports that Lancaster injured his knee playing golf, and to explain his limp, the movie added a scene in which he is shot while crossing a pedestrian bridge. Also, the executions of a couple of characters occurred because the actors had other “contractual obligations.”)

Casavant provides links to websites that can provide historical inspiration, including the

lists of history facts in Mental Floss, a blog of noteworthy letters, and the Library of Congress’s 14.5 million photo and graphic archive. To her suggestions, I’d add that one’s own family history, the unique combinations of external events and internal dynamics that made them who they were, can also be a rich resource. In a sense, it’s a recasting of the much-abused advice to writers to “write what you know.” Or, as George Packer has said (his ancestors lived adjacent to mine on Hurricane Creek in Wilson County, Tennessee, BTW), “History, any history, confers meaning on a life.”