Week 6: Feb. 8, 2014
Searching for Family – How it all began
How does anyone begin researching – what bug is there that really bites you – and why?
I first began researching my husband’s Italian family because I was in the middle hearing the stories – my mind was silently filing them all away. They were exciting stories and after hearing them for so many years I felt it was time to write them down. The matriarch of their family was my husband’s grandmother Minnie. She was the go-to person for stories as well as the family recipes. Whenever the holidays came, you’d hear “I’ll call mama for the recipe.” There was no actual written recipe, it was in Grandma Minnie’s mind – she remembered everything! I began to think about who will remember these recipes and family stories when she’s gone – and so I began that task.
Family stories yield much family history – you just have to open your ears and listen. Holidays found me asking many questions when everyone was around the table. And besides the stories, you gather the favorite and best recipes from the cooks in the family. If I knew Grandma Minnie was baking I found myself sitting across the table from her, watching intensely, scribbling a recipe and asking to measure the ingredients as she worked. I was determined to create some of her Easter holiday recipes for foods like Ham Pie, Rice Pie and Wheat Pie – foods I vowed never to eat when I first heard of them, but they quickly became favorites of mine.
Through the years I queried all the family members, writing down their immediate births, marriages and deaths. Most afternoons found me writing data on families, to later enter on the computer after discovering genealogy programs – making life much easier. The family often joked that I knew more about their family than they did – and I did.
I soon began to think about my family and wanted to know more on my Irish-Scottish roots but felt intimidated to even try as I had moved away from my home in Georgia. I finally took that step and it led me to first contact my grandfather’s living brothers and sister. I penned letters to them with a promise of a later phone call. What saddened me was all my grandparents were no longer living, as also my father. I would never have those conversations with them, hearing their first-hand information. My mother was my only immediate link and she was a great wealth of information on her family; she had even written out family names years ago for me. I saved it in a drawer, not interested at the time but quickly rifled through papers to now find it. Good thing I’ve always been a saver, knowing there will always be a time you’ll need and want it.
After many letters and phone calls to my great uncles and aunt, I learned the names of their parents, grandparents and a town in Georgia called Dahlonega; many of the names they first gave me were not spelled correctly and that took time to decipher the true names, but it was a good start. The more I talked to them, the more they remembered. The town of Dahlonega was where my Bryan line seemed to have settled and that was a big start for now; knowing where they lived in the early 1830’s helped me to further my search.
Armed with new information, I first wrote to the Postmaster in Dahlonega asking if he could put me in touch with a local historian. I received a letter back quickly with information on my next generation and further. He sent me family pedigree charts on several of my lines and told me from all the surnames listed that I was probably connected to the entire county of Lumpkin, including him. I was stunned and excited to have received so much information at one time. From the information he sent, I now had names of researchers who had submitted that history. I quickly wrote letters to all the names I found on those pedigree charts, but soon disappointment set in when they were all returned. It seemed that since those charts were compiled many years ago, either those people were deceased or moved. I was still determined to find one of those contributors and began looking for a surname in one of those towns to contact. I soon sent a letter off to another person, of the same Bryan surname, in the town of the last contributor. That letter was a success! They answered quickly telling me they forwarded my letter to a Bryan researcher who could help, a nephew who lived nearby. It turned out that the very person, who they forwarded my letter to, was the last contributor on the family pedigree charts. I had not found him because he had been in college when he began the family research and now was a lawyer in a nearby town. It pays to not give up and look for another avenue of contact.
I waited, not so patiently, but a package from my new cousin finally arrived in my mailbox that made me dance all the way back to the house – you know what that happy dance looks like! Besides a nice penned letter introducing himself and how he became involved in family research, he enclosed Bryan history, photos and documents on my line – and I was smiling ear to ear. One of our shared ancestors was my ggggrandfather, Berrian Clark Bryan, who had fought in the Civil War. He shared many photos of him as well as his Civil War pension records that he copied at the National Archives; he wrote how he actually held the originals in his hands that B.C. Bryan signed. We corresponded often and as he wasn’t involved in actual research now, I shared with him all my new finds.
Research takes much perseverance, no piece of information discovered is too small – it’s another piece to the puzzle and it takes many pieces to keep taking those steps back. Every letter written to me yielded more than family history – there often were family stories or photos shared in those envelopes that I couldn’t open fast enough. One cousin sent me a photo of my father at age three – that picture had not been found in any of my grandmother’s photo albums. It was truly a treasure and left me in tears as I saw my father at such an early age. As exciting as it is to receive those letters of treasure, it’s sad as you often have no one close by to share your excitement with at the moment.
I saved all my family correspondence as they held much more information besides family history; they were family stories written to me. Later I compiled a journal to keep track of all my letters and now emails; I also saved their addresses and email address. That book itself is a great read and documents where much of my information came from and when I discovered it. Emails were easy to keep track of – just copy and paste. The letters I typed into my journal. As letters have become more of a scarce commodity now, they are in themselves a handwritten treasure.
As the Internet opened up with family history boards and genealogy sites like Ancestry, it drew more people to begin researching their family. I was now able to find details like census records and discover other people searching my family names. Before the Internet, many like me spent afternoons at the LDS library reading census or county records on microfiche. It was a timely process, but my first discovery there was the exciting find of my husband’s grandfather on a ship manifest coming into Ellis Island. As long as I was finding small pieces of info, I was hooked! I have since slowed down on my research as other things in my life have taken priority, but I’ve managed to put together two family cookbooks, a book on my husband’s family, a book of stories on my life as well as my mom’s stories growing up on a farm in Georgia. The most recent was a year long commitment of 52 weekly stories – of which this is one.
At some point, you feel overwhelmed with all your paper files and books you have amassed – they can take over your life – as well as your house. I worry as to who will keep my hard work – or want it. Will it end up parked in someone’s garage or attic sitting in boxes – lost in time forever! I have five granddaughters now so I plan on talking family history to them and hope they will share my love of the history to save. Maybe one of them will be that future researcher to gather more pieces of the puzzle and add to my work.
Every so often an email pops up asking me family questions – and I get the bug for a while as I help them and share history and photos. I’ll add a few new pieces to my history but then I slowly get pulled away until the next time. I’ll never completely pack it away, always wanting to add just one more piece to the puzzle.
Even though this story was not just about one ancestor, I hope you’ve enjoyed how I began gathering my stories and history and if you have the time, sit down and pen a letter to a family member. Those letters are becoming extinct – start a new hobby – Write! Emails don’t excite me as much, but if I find a letter in my mailbox, I’m ripping it open, anxious to read!