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. and as well as other sites have much family data as does 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!






Finding the Kernel of Truth in Family Stories


The genesis of the idea for the book I am in the process of researching, A Soldier Called Henry Smith, was my own great-grandfather, Henry Jackson Smith.  Learning about his service in the Civil War sparked my interest in the gritty details of a common soldier’s life.  There are countless Henry Smiths, both Union and Confederate, who fought in this bitter conflict and I will be choosing ones to narrate that offer diverse and interesting perspectives on what it was like to be part of it. if you happen upon this blog and have a relative named Henry Smith who fought in the Civil War, I would love to hear from you.

Of course, Henry Jackson Smith will be among the soldiers featured.  In researching him I had two main conundrums.  One was the very, very common last name, only narrowed slightly by the first name (middle names were not generally used in Civil War records).  The second was family lore.  Interesting tidbits about ancestors enliven family history, but verifying whether George Washington really slept in an ancestor’s house on his way to Valley Forge is a difficult, if not often hopeless, quest.  In my case the story about my great-grandfather was that he didn’t want to talk to family members about his experiences in the war and there was lurking some shadow of prison camp internment, possibly at Andersonville, the notorious Confederate prison camp.



Through patient sifting through family and census records, I was able to follow his family’s migration west from Pennsylvania to Ohio and find that he had enlisted in the Ohio 96th Infantry Regiment, Company D in August of 1862 for three years.  He was 21 at the time, described as of sandy complexion with hazel eyes and red hair.  He stood 5 feet, 7 3/4 inches according to one report and 5 feet 9 ½ inches according to another.  He enrolled for duty before the federal government passed the conscription act that instituted the draft, so I assume he enlisted out of patriotism. He did receive a bounty of $25 (worth $2,268,84 in 2016) so that may have been an incentive as well.  With this information, I was able to read the regimental history and order his service records from the National Archives.  What I learned surprised me, but revealed there was a kernel of truth in the family story about him.

Henry Jackson Smith served until the end of the war, but he did not remain in the same military unit. His story begins with his regiment marching from Cincinnati across a pontoon bridge over the Ohio River into Kentucky in September, 1862.  By October he was sick but the muster rolls show he was with his regiment in November and December travelling from Louisville to Memphis.  The journey took place in deplorable conditions, even allowing for the hyperbole of the report in The History of Marion County Ohio:

[The Ninety-Sixth] then embarked for Memphis, Tenn., on the 19th of November, where they were encamped about a month.  While there they were reviewed by Gen. Sherman and ordered to embark on the steamer Hiawatha and proceed down the river with the forces under his command, the objective point being Vicksburg, Miss.  The men were blissfully ignorant of the severe service awaiting them, but were soon brought to a realization of circumstances that every participant must look back to with horror.  The whole regiment and its outfit of wagons, teams, etc. together with the Seventeenth Ohio Battery, with its guns, horses and mules were packed on this small craft.  Nearly every member of the battery was sick with the measles.  The horses and mules were placed on deck, their heads tied on either side, forming between them a narrow aisle.  Only partial rations of hard bread and roasted coffee could be had, the only resort [alternative] being flour and green coffee, which required cooking and roasting.   It may have been necessity, but certainly it was a bitter fatality.  The only facility for cooking was a small stove on the after deck, to reach which it was necessary to run the gauntlet of two hundred pairs of treacherous heels and the fifth of such a stable.  First, the coffee and meat were cooked and eaten, with hard bread, but the supply of the latter was soon exhausted, and the men were forced to mix flour with water and bake it on the same stove.  With the best effort possible, it was often 2 o’clock before all had their breakfast with the half-cooked material.  If this were not all that flesh and blood could endure, cold rain continually drenched all who were not under cover, and for want of room many were forced to remain on the hurricane deck, famished with hunger and tortured with sleeplessness.  All day and all night the little stove was occupied by men preparing unhealthy rations, the while they saved from immediate starvation, were not slow in connection with other causes, in developing diseases that were equally fatal to those who were exposed and those who were packed close in the ill-ventilated and over-crowded apartments.  Everywhere were sunken eyes, thin cheeks and tottering steps.  Surgeon Henderson, his assistants, labored incessantly to check disease and relieve the sufferings of the men, but typhoid, measles and erysipelas [an acute skin infection that produces red, swollen rashes accompanied by high fever, shaking, chills, fatigue, headache and vomiting] were masters, everything seemingly rendering them aid.  Death did a frightful work.

The 96th Infantry Regiment first landed at Millkin’s Bend, Louisiana where it marched to destroy Confederate railroad track and trestles and burn depots of cotton.  It proceeded to embark for “the river” and took part in a successful attack on Fort Hindman, which overlooked the Mississippi and was disrupting Union navigation.  At the time there were only 244 effective soldiers in the regiment.  Ten were killed and 25 wounded in the assault.  During its subsequent moves and skirmishes with Confederate troops, the regiment lost 76 men, mainly to disease. One skirmish saw the men marching through a swamp about 3 miles wide and fording a stream about 3 ½ feet deep.

Then came Vicksburg.  The Ohio 96th Infantry took part in the siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi from May 18, 1863 to July 4, 1863.  The city, high on a bluff, could not be taken by assault so the strategy was to starve the city into surrender.  Once it surrendered the Union had effective control of the Mississippi River.  There were skirmishes in which the 96th participated but no casualties were reported.

Four days after the surrender of Vicksburg, Henry Jackson Smith was sent north sick to the General Hospital at Fort Pickering, Tennessee, near Memphis.  He was to see no further action; he was diagnosed and treated for several months for chronic splenitis [having an enlarged, inflammed spleen as a result of infection, parasites or cysts].  Instead he was transferred in September to the Invalid Corp, later named the Veterans’ Reserve Corp, specifically to the VCR 22nd Regiment, Company G. The Veterans’ Reserve Corps was created in April of 1863 as a military reserve corps within the Union Army to help counter the depletion of the Union troops due to deaths, injuries and illnesses.  Rather than discharging soldiers who were only partially disabled or otherwise infirm but functioning, the Union Army transferred those considered by their commanding officers to be meritorious and deserving to the VRC to perform light duty, including escorting substitutes, recruits and prisoners to and from the front and guarding camps, railroads and defenses around Washington, D.C.  In March of 1864 Henry Jackson Smith was in fact at the Cliffburn Barracks in Washington, D.C. where he was on “detached service” at the Chain Bridge.  The Chain Bridge connected Washington, D.C. to Virginia and so was vital in defending the capital from Confederate attack.

The kernel of truth in the family story about Henry Jackson Smith lies in the other function of the Veterans’ Reserve Corps—guarding Union prison camps.  There were 17 Henry Smiths who were imprisoned at Andersonville.  None was he.  Rather in July and August 1864 he was detailed to Elmira, New York where a new Union prison camp was established.  By July it had 9,600 prisoners and soon became one of the worst of the Union prison camps, with a death rate of 24%; Andersonville had a death rate of about 29%.  Prisoners at what came to be known as “Hellmira” died from malnutrition, exposure to bitter cold temperatures and disease produced by poor sanitary conditions and medical care.  The camp only existed for one year.  Henry Jackson Smith’s encounter with prison camps did not end here.  In June, 1865 Special Orders were issues for him to take up duty at the prison hospital at the prison camp in Camp Chase, Ohio.  Mercifully the war ended a month later.

My great-grandfather’s unwillingness to share the horrors of what he experienced and observed with his family is understandable.  Family correspondence reveals that he regularly attended Grand Army of the Republic encampments [gatherings] in Kansas.  The GAR was a fraternal organization of Union veterans who banded together for comradeship and political advocacy for, among other things, Republican candidates, voting rights for black veterans, veteran pensions, and the establishment of Memorial Day. Surrounded by other veterans who had shared similar hardships, he perhaps found solace.