Taking Back What Was Once Lost

Ideas for Writing Your Family History

I talked about the importance of writing up your family history, awhile ago. Here are a few ideas for jump starting the writing of your family history and some topics to add meat to the bones of just boring old names and dates. My friend Andrea sent me a terrific quote a few weeks ago that is very appropriate:

“Better to write something now, than everything never.”

Here goes my list:

History of that city, or rural area
Example: The city of Tifton, GA (and the county) was named for Captain Henry Tift, who built large sawmills to harvest the lumber that would be central to this community. My great-great grandfather John Smith was born in Tifton. Many rural areas were named for large slaveowners.

Geography-what was the landscape like?
Example: Many of my ancestors from Hardin County lived along the Tennessee River, so that was a major influence on people’s lives. At the turn of the century, steamboat travel was frequent as were, according to the local paper, drownings of local citizens.

Migration patterns: where did most of the people that settled here come from? Where did many go to?
Examples: Most of the people in early Tennessee were a part of the westward migration from Virginia and North Carolina. This matches exactly the path of the slaveowner of my Tennessee ancestor, Malinda Holt. Also, I have mapped the migration of African-Americans from this county to Northern industries in the 1940s.

 Items from U.S. national history, State history, and/or county history
Example: My friend Marion’s family is from Caroline County, VA, and I think the fact that the Lovings story happened there is very interesting (the couple that won a Supreme Court ruling against laws forbidding interracial marriages). Hardin County, TN was the site of a large Civil War battle and in many ways that informed the experiences of many slaves who ran away and joined the war effort. Tennessee had more black volunteers than any other state.

Use slave narratives & autobiographies from that area to document the slave experience, even if its not your ancestor
Example: For my ancestors from Montgomery County, MD, I include excerpts from the autobiography of Josiah Henson who was enslaved there. For Hardin County, TN, I use the WPA slave narrative of Edward Bradley, who was enslaved there.

Laws relating to slaves and  freedmen
Example: After the Civil War, Maryland’s Eastern Shore utilized the apprenticing laws to basically re-enslave the children of their former slaves. The Freedmen’s Bureau had to fight to get their children back.  I discuss this in my write-up of my ancestors from Somerset County, MD.

 Illnesses and deaths
Example: There was a smallpox epidemic in 1873 in Jacksonville, FL, where my dad’s family lived, which forced many people to temporarily flee the city. Also, the 1918 flu pandemic touched just about every community. Use mortality census records for this topic as well.

Prominent People (both black and white)
Example: Harry Hooks amassed a fortune as a freed black shoemaker in Hardin County, TN before the Civil War, even enabling him to purchase his wife & children. Also, many prominent whites in the county, like William Cherry, were Unionists during the Civil War, which created an interesting dynamic there versus other Southern cities.

Major African-American churches, schools & businesses
Example: My grandfather owned two successful pharmacies in the booming 1940s business district of Jacksonville, Florida, which in part explains why this family never migrated North along with so many others. I find this community he was a part of simply fascinating, and I have documented other black businesses that existed alongside his.

This is by no means complete, but perhaps its given you some ideas to get started. For those who have started, can you tell me other topics that you have added to your family histories?


  1. March 22, 2012    

    Excellent ideas! Many of these have been rattling around in my brain while I awaited some time to jot them down. Thank you for putting them in writing and inspiring me anew. I think I’ll do some writing this weekend. :)

    • msualumni's Gravatar msualumni
      March 22, 2012    

      Wonderful! Thanks for your positive feedback;)

  2. Gregory Gillis's Gravatar Gregory Gillis
    December 12, 2013    

    Msualumni, I am so glad I found you. Reading your post is like attending a genealogy class. It also is helpful that we both have ancestors from Hardin County TN, Porter, Ward, Kendell & Gillis. I am still gathering info for my story, “foot prints of the ancestors”. I have to decide whether tell the story of my search for my father’s line, the Hardin Folk or tell the story of my mother ancestors, the Stone Family of Itawamba County, MS. Both stories are compelling. Hmmm, maybe both stories?

    • msualumni's Gravatar msualumni
      January 11, 2014    

      He Greg, thank you for saying that–I feel like my goal with this blog is to share my research in a way that teaches & helps others uncovering their own families. I am glad that it is working;) There’s so much to learn, I feel like I will never be finished;)


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About Me

I blog, teach, write and lecture about family history research and it's just as rewarding today as it was when I began 18 years ago. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my past and I've taken back--reclaimed- my kin and some of that lost memory.  

Post History

What I Talk About

Locations and Surnames

Hardin, Chester and Lawrence Counties, TN
Holt, Barnes, Harbour, Bradley Springer and Fendricks
Lawrence County, AL
Springer and Fendricks
Montgomery County, MD
Prather, Simpson
Somerset County, MD
Waters, Fountain, Curtis
Duval and Madison County, FL
Smith, Harris, Garner

Favorite Family History Quotes

"The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past."
-William Faulkner

"Call it a clan, call it a network, all it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one"
- Jane Howard

"Friends are God's apologies for relations."
-Hugh Kingsmill

"No matter what you've done for yourself or for humanity, if you can't look back on having given love and attention to your own family, what have you really accomplished?"
-Elbert Hubbard

"Families are like fudge; mostly sweet with a few nuts."

"If you can't get rid of the skeleton in your closet, you might as well make it dance!"

"Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city;)"
-George Burns

"Where does the family start? It starts with a young man falling in love with a girl. No superior alternative has yet been found."
-Winston Churchill

"The great gift of family life is to be intimately acquainted with people you might never ever introduce yourself to had life not done it for you."
-Kendall Hailey

"If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all the generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people."
-Thich Nhat Hanh