12 April 2011

Educational Sources for Historical Context

You still hear some genealogists bragging about the number of names in their database. It happens less frequently now than a few years ago. Good genealogists are more interested in learning the life story of ancestors than in adding more names to a database with nothing more than birth, marriage, and death dates.

Good genealogists are historians. We focus on history in the micro. Instead of studying history's big picture and bigwigs we want to know about the activities of the little man or woman. What was daily life like for a poor farm family in rural East Texas? What was the work day like for those in the East Texas lumber industry and sawmills? How did a young man meet and marry a young woman who lived more than fifty miles away in the days before he could jump in his Chevy pickup and be at her house in less than an hour?

Knowing more about history in the macro can help us answer those questions. But what if we weren't interested in history all those years ago when we were in school? You might be surprised how the information schoolteachers use today can add life to our family history. In addition to providing fun for students the lesson plans and school field trips might lead to just the information we need to spice up a family narrative. Here are a few examples of places to find that information to bring your family story to life.

Living history museums not only offer exhibits, many demonstrate activities with hands-on participation. In Nacogdoches, Texas, Millard's Crossing offers tours of many period buildings. In addition to seeing the buildings and furnishings, the tourist washes laundry on a scrub board and runs it through a hand-powered wringer before pinning it up on a clothesline, uses a push plow to create a furrow in the soil and plant seeds, shells (not shucks) corn, and writes with a quill pen. Just comparing the trip up the stairs in an 1840s cabin to the stairs in a modern home can bring insight into the daily life of the woman cleaning that cabin or caring for a sick child in the upstairs bedroom.

Books written for the public or children often have photos and give a good overview of a scholarly topic. The Early Settler Life Series: Early Loggers and the Sawmill by Peter Adams (Toronto and New York: Crabtree Publishing Co., 1992) shows how the men worked in the forests and sawmills, how the fallen trees were moved through the forest and down the river, the importance of the support staff that kept the loggers fed, and how both families and single men lived in the logging camps. Historic Communities: Tools and Gadgets by Bobbie Kalman (Toronto and New York: Crabtree Publishing Co., 1992) illustrates tools used by the farmer, his wife, the doctor, the miller, and even the toys the children played with.

Lesson plans written to help teachers can help family historians, too. Government and private projects make this information freely available online, often through universities and state archives. The Texas State Library and Archives Commission has a new online project, Texas in Transition: Railroads, Oil, and the Rise of Urban Texas. In addition to links to historical facts, there are links to great maps.

Need an 1874 map of Texas railroads to see how that young man traveled to meet his future wife? See "Texas New Yorker's Railroad Map of Texas," published 1874; Texas State Archives Map Number 0945, Texas State Library and Archives Commission, Austin; digital image, Texas State Archives Map Collection ( http://www.tsl.state.tx.us/exhibits/railroad/beginnings/map0945-display.html : accessed 12 April 2011).

Need an 1891 map of Dallas to determine the distance between the homes of two ancestors? How about this one linked from the section about the growth of Dallas: Theodore Schauseil, cartographer, "Revised Edition of Murphy and Bolanz Official Map of the City of Dallas and Suburbs/1891" (Publisher: J.P. Murphy and Charles Bolanz, Real Estate Brokers and Investment Bankers, Dallas, 1891); Texas State Archives Map Number 2346, Texas State Library and Archives Commission; Texas State Archives Map Collection ( http://www.tsl.state.tx.us/cgibin/aris/maps/maplookup.php?mapnum=2346 : accessed 12 April 2011).

These are only a few of the resources to help understand the lives of our ancestors. Be creative when looking for information. It isn't just the scholarly publications by learned historians that can give you what you need to write a great story.

© 2011, Debbie Parker Wayne, All Rights Reserved

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