Working with Family Documents and Other Primary Sources

If you are interested in your family’s history and are fortunate enough like me to have family letters, photographs and other documents available, here is some advice gleaned from my own experience about how to mine them for the interesting information about your family that they contain.

  1. Read Everything

And I mean everything.  I am in the process of writing Coming to Amerika which is based on family documents spanning over one hundred years. Just recently in looking over old photos I found one of my great uncle John in his 60’s wearing a uniform. On the back of the photo was the notation “Columbian Guard.” Obviously, he had not been in the Army of Columbia! I knew, however, that as a young man he had been to the World’s Columbian Exposition—the Chicago World’s Fair—in 1893 as I had a booklet he had collected at the time. Further research revealed that the law enforcement authorities at the time felt they needed to beef up security and so hired from around the country about 2000 young men to help keep the peace and deal with pickpockets and other such offenders. They were called the Columbian Guard.

I checked to be sure that the uniform great uncle John was wearing in the photograph matched the uniforms in the other photographs of Columbian Guards on the internet. It did. So great uncle John not only attended the World’s Fair in 1893, he was part of it—a good story to include in Coming to Amerika.

  1. If You Have Documents in a Foreign Language, Get Them Translated!

Such documents are mute unless people today can read them. It may be that you are fluent in the language in which they are written. If not, there are translation services available and a professor or graduate student in a foreign language at a local college might be a good resource. In my case, although I have studied quite a few foreign languages, including German, I could not read the letters written in Old German script. Before his death my father had had some of the letters translated, but there were many more. My brother and I researched translation services, finding it difficult to locate someone who could read the script. Then through perseverance on his part, my brother located a German professor in a small college in South Dakota who in fact taught the old German script. She and her institution were willing to have her translate the remaining documents for a relatively small fee and the donation of some of the original materials for use by students in her classroom. Translations done, she is now serving as a consultant for Coming to Amerika. Without her the book would not have come alive.

  1. Put the Documents in a Historical Context

Just from the content of the documents themselves, it is not always clear just what a reference means or how typical a particular circumstance is for the time when a document was written. So now you must dig. I am a historian by training and nature and have written a great deal about United States history, but I find myself learning new and surprising things as I try to place the documents in context. For example, a number of the letters speak of going to Pike’s Peak. As I researched this I learned there was a brief gold rush in the Denver area in 1858-1860. In fact, this was how Denver got its start.

My great-great grandmother in 1850’s Germany was deeply in debt.  She had only 150 Gulden to pay them off. I could find no solid information about the value of a Gulden so I looked for amounts for comparisons. It later cost her 300 Gulden to travel from Germany to the United States, funds raised by selling possessions and receiving money from a son who had already emigrated.  So 150 Gulden was not much.

  1. Go Through Your Letters and Documents Again and Again

This is important because what might have had little meaning when you first read the material may now be a significant piece of the puzzle. In my case, as I was riffling through some materials I came across, for the second or third time, a business card for an inn in New York City. With the information I had now gleaned I realized it was for the inn my newly arrived relatives stayed at when they first disembarked.

  1. Verify, Verify, Verify

Just because a document is a primary source does not make it accurate. It was written by a human being with a certain amount of knowledge, which might have been limited, and a certain perspective, which could be quite biased. So be sure to check statements out with other available sources. In my case, in addition to writing Coming to Amerika, I am currently researching a biography of Montgomery Ward. I encountered his brief memoir in the files of the Chicago History Museum in which he asserts that his name came from the name of a general who fought in the French and Indian War. Just a little research showed that there was no such general.

  1. Not Everything is on the Internet

There is of course much information on the Internet today.  Ancestry.com and familysearch.org as well as other sites have much family data as does fold3.com for those wanting to search military records. Many important historical books have been digitized and made available, often for free, through GooglePlay and other sites.

It is a mistake, however, to limit research to just the Internet. In gathering information about Montgomery Ward I have followed his path from Chatham, Massachusetts, where he was born, to Niles, Michigan, where he lived as a youth, and finally to Chicago.  All along the way there have been resources available that are not on the Internet. Local historical societies, run often by committed volunteers, as well as public libraries are amazing founts of information. The public library in Niles has an extraordinary genealogical section with information on Ward which I am not finding at the much larger and fancier Chicago History Museum.

 

Going off the Internet grid was most important for my book Examined Lives, which will be coming out this fall.  It is a no-holds-barred look at mental illness, narrated around the lives of my mother and me. I had family letters but I ferreted out much more by locating medical records and sources for information on Walter Freeman, the man who gave my mother a lobotomy and who famously botched the lobotomy of Rosemary Kenney. I was fortunate in having a major research library at hand at the University of Chicago, from which I graduated with a B.A. and M.A. in history. They had copies of materials written by Freeman which had been destroyed by many other institutions as well as the only copy of a work by another neurologist who was Freeman’s inspiration.

Special Collections at the George Washington University where Freeman had taught, archives his donated papers, which include an unpublished autobiography, which I paid to have digitized for myself and future scholars.

I hope that these pointers will make your own family research more fruitful and thus in the end more exciting and amazing!  Happy digging!