Genealogy and Biography Writing

My family’s genealogy consumed me for more than five years.

What started as a simple question: just how are we related to Abraham Lincoln, blossomed into a passion.

At one point my husband asked how long I was going to be stuck on this subject?

“Only until we jump the ocean,” I explained. “I can’t read my Italian relatives’ handwriting now, I can’t imagine reading it 200 years ago.”

Oh, how little I knew.

While my mother was born in Sicily and thus I’m a first generation American, my father’s family reached all the way back to the dawning of colonists on the continent.

Who knew?

No one in my immediate family.

The quest for genealogy information

I visited genealogy libraries in Hawai’i (where I lived at the time–perfect for examining colonial Virginia history, ha!), San Francisco, Fort Wayne, Washington D. C. and the granddaddy of them all in Salt Lake City.

The DAR research libraries in Honolulu and Washington D. C. provided terrific information, along with the LDS Family History Library at Waipahu where I ordered and examined material on microfilm and microfiche.

Invaluable clues broke open the research at the DAR in DC, but only because I’d picked up one photo at the Allen County Library in Fort Wayne’s Genealogy Center.

I spent hours in Fort Wayne hunting and that one clue made all the difference.

I’ve written before of the breakthrough frenzy at the DAR that came in my last half-hour there.

Genealogy, biography, Mrs. Oswald Chambers, Family research libraries, what does genealogy have to do with writing a biography?

18 hours later, I exited a babbling idiot–but with information! By Ricardo630 (Wikimedia Commons)

Gleaning through mountains of material was the key.

I spent 18 hours over two days in the Salt Lake City LDS Family History Library consulting the indexes of every genealogy book in the counties where my lines lived.

My husband finally dragged me out, babbling, on the second day.

I drew the line on research there, and finished my book, Pioneer Stock. (Think we could be related? Check out my genealogy page here.)

What does American genealogy research have to do with writing the biography of an English woman, Mrs. Oswald Chambers?

Nothing.

Everything.

Halfway through those five years I asked myself why I was wasting so much time investigating people long dead.

It meant nothing to my real life of four kids, Navy guy husband, Hawaiian sunshine and greater family issues.

How did all that time in libraries glorify God?

Shouldn’t I have been volunteering for the church’s VBS program? (I did–recreation).

Maybe I couldn’t answer the question then, but I can now.

I learned many research techniques during that five year apprenticeship/writing experience.

Research techniques are applicable to both genealogy and biography.

Document, document!

You can meet distant relatives while working on genealogy.

Some of them are the unwitting key to questions about your own grandparents, etc.

Several distant cousins worked with me on specific questions.

One, Glenn Gohr–my fifth cousin twice removed we figured out–was an experienced genealogist even twenty years ago and is an archivist at an historical center.

Genealogy, biography, Mrs. Oswald Chambers, Family research libraries, what does genealogy have to do with writing a biography?We shared a lot of information together over the internet, debating who was related to whom and why we thought so.

One day he sent me a note: “You’re a fine writer, Michelle, but you need to document your research.”

I felt humiliated–as a former reporter, I should have known to do so.

I started that day.

When I finally self-published Pioneer Stock, it had more than 900 endnote citations.

I’m thankful for Glenn’s admonition because it was crucial when I wrote Mrs. Oswald Chambers.

A biography requires details and you need to let others know where your information and sometimes your conjectures come from.

Mrs. Oswald Chambers “only” has 250 endnote citations.

Because of the genealogy research, however, I felt completely comfortable with keeping track and using them.

I also learned other techniques I used extensively while writing Mrs. Oswald Chambers.

Triangulation, however, deserves a blog post all its own. (It’s complicated, but it will come!)

End result?

Abraham Lincoln’s lineage always will be murky.

Because the family name is Nancy Hanks, I may or may not be the fourteenth president’s second cousin four times removed.

But who’s counting?

Hunting for the possible connection taught me enough skills to discover information no one knew before about Biddy Chambers.

Plus, I wrote my own family history.

I didn’t waste five years at all.

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