Beginning Family History Researchers — Lean on Esoteric Clues

If you are a budding family historian, then family get-togethers are a great opportunity to listen for stories to pursue as a part of your genealogical research. Listening is key, because you have to be attentive to what is said, as well as what isn’t said.  In fact, what “isn’t said” tends to be a place to mine for deeper clues and answers.  I refer to the unsaid as “esoteric clues”, a menagerie of topics that have a particular and personal interest only to the researcher.  If you are a parent, this discussion is designed to help you think simultaneously about your own family history questions, and how you might facilitate your child’s curiosity about their ancestors in an age-appropriate way.

In my own experience, what’s of interest to me may not be of concern to other members in the family. The result is that many stories about our ancestors are told in a particular way that can both embellish and protect the memory of a particular ancestor.  I’m more interested in the gray matter, the elements that are invisible, and less interested in what’s on the surface or in simply connecting biological relatives.  I am interested in capturing stories that have been previously untold. In this pursuit, I often bump into embellished re-memories which can diminish and protect in ways that misinform actual events. My research goal is to find a collection of fragments (even disparate ones) that lead me to uncover stories that have been silenced. 

The missing pieces that lure me into a research project are those esoteric clues I have referenced above. These are bits, parts and pieces (See Figure 1) embedded in family gossip; stories that sound like tall tales (too strange to be true), family secrets, and memories of certain events that stir a range of emotion among family members. 

Figure 1: Embedded Parts and Pieces

Memories   Weddings Birthday Events Graduation Trip Family Reunion  Gatherings Photos TragediesFamily Secrets   Born out of wedlock Tragedies Sickness/Disease Failures Addiction Broken Relationships InfidelityTall Tales   My ancestor X was a millionaire My ancestor was married 30 times My ancestor ran away and joined the circusFamily Gossip   Indiscretions Mistakes Surprises Disappointments Profession/Work

One thing about esoteric clues is that they tend to show up in surprising ways.  For adults doing family research, esoteric clues allow you to process a wide range of historical events that have shaped society without going in any kind of chronological order.  I’ve created a worksheet called Using Esoteric Data and Clues to Dig Deeper into Your Family History, designed to help researchers think through their own stories and esoteric clues.

To me, it’s actually more interesting and exciting to zigzag across time periods, because it extends the enjoyment of the research journey as each clue unravels. For example, you may discover a family photo without names, but by contacting various members of the family, names and events can be re-remembered and re-constructed using memory. Newspaper articles, published histories, census and family bible records allow you to reconstruct certain moments in time.  Reaching out to family members may also produce information about the context of the photo and the time period in which the image was taken.  This additional data allows the researcher to investigate the place of the photo, and events of interest that may have occurred at the same time.  The kind of clothing worn by persons in the photo also gives clues to “when” the image was taken. 

For very young researchers, assembling family photos of themselves and relatives is a wonderful place to start.  A family treasure can be captured through an artistic visual project using art supplies or digital tools like Canva.  Beyond photos, your family might have keepsakes that have been passed down from one generation to the next.  You may discover your ancestors had a broad spectrum of interests, skills and hobbies.  Artifacts and memorabilia unknown to you might be scattered throughout your home, stored away and spread out across relatives.  

A trove of resources exists for all levels of family researchers, making it difficult to make blanket suggestions. A few years ago, novelist and multicultural educator Christine Sleeter (2014) reviewed three books that were the most popular on Amazon for children. I think these books represent a rich intersection of interests including scrapbooking, planning of a family reunion, and conducting interviews with family members. The exploration of the significance of surname meanings along with the excavation of immigration history, passports, bible records, census and other archival records can also add rich texture to the family history . Scholastic (2017) shared apps and web-based links for parents to guide children with family history research.

This year make a resolution to practice deep listening.  What stories do you hear often? What interests you and what would you like to know more about? Gather as many family artifacts as you can assemble and create an inventory of everything you collect.  Includes family bible records, funeral programs, letters, photographs, birth and death certificates to help you plot a family tree by beginning in the present and moving backwards. 

Here are some resources to get you thinking and planning:

Burnett, C. (2017, December 25). 5 cool apps & websites to Research Family History with your kids. Scholastic. Retrieved December 23, 2021, from https://www.scholastic.com/parents/school-success/learning-toolkit-blog/5-cool-apps-websites-to-research-family-history-your-kids.html 

Cushner, K. (2006). Human diversity in action: Developing multicultural competencies for the classroom. McGraw-Hill. 

Fulton, D. V. S. (2006). Speaking power black feminist orality in women’s narratives of slavery. State University of New York Press. 

Miller, R. L. (2000). Researching life stories and family histories. SAGE. 

Sleeter, C. (2014, June 11). Family history books for kids. Home. Retrieved December 23, 2021, from

https://www.christinesleeter.org/family-history-books-for-kids

Woodtor, D. P. (2016). Finding a place called home: A guide to African-American genealogy and historical identity. Digitized by the Genealogical Society of Utah. 

Census Installment  #2

Next time we will discuss how to use the United States federal census to collect decennial data for your family history research. It is important to note that the United States federal census does not enumerate Black people until 1870, unless they were free people before the Civil War.  Only freed people were enumerated on the census, and some states like Iowa had mid-decennial censuses conducted by the state. This means Black people would be enumerated in 1865, 1875 and proceeding mid-census years.  

Enslaved humans were enumerated as property by a range of ages and gender from 1810-1840, with a total number of enslaved per household.  In 1850 and 1860, the slave schedules were separated from the general population census. In these years, each enslaved person was explicitly enumerated on a separate line by color i.e., race — meaning Black or mulatto (mixed raced) – along with age and gender.

By: Traci Wilson-Kleekamp

This is our History, Black History, we must know where we came from, so we can know where we are going. Thank you for reading. See you on the next post.

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