How to write your family history, part 4: forget the royals!

Genealogists often fixate on inducing certain results, such as establishing a family’s lineage back to European royalty or American Revolution participation.  Finding links to historical events and famous individuals can change our perspectives on who we are.  Along the way, though, most genealogists ignore the rich history of “ordinary” relatives’ lives.  Ignoring these stories is tragic.

Among the most impressive genealogical findings are the obscure stories of relatives’ accomplishments, difficult decisions, near-death experiences, and triumphs over adversity.  These stories don’t come easily.  They’re often deeply hidden in the pages of a forgotten local history book, or they’re only obliquely discoverable by poring over multiple texts and connecting the dots.  Sometimes these stories are never written down and we have to painstakingly coax them from a living generation’s memories.  But they’re always worth the effort.

Among our favorite stories is the Maddox family‘s experience in the Civil War.  A curious story has been passed down the generations – a story we originally thought was impossible.  The legend was that three Maddox brothers – who had fought on both sides of the Civil War – gathered in an Illinois farmhouse some years after the war and talked of their experiences. One brother explained that his unit had been chasing a Confederate unit and finally caught up with them.  In a pitched battle, he had taken aim at a cavalryman atop his horse and shot at him, but missed and instead killed the horse. Later in the battle he saw the same cavalryman who had found another horse. Determined, the brother took aim at the cavalryman again and fired his rifle, only to kill the cavalryman’s second horse. The cavalryman then disappeared in the confusion of the battle.

Hearing this story, one of the other Maddox brothers rose from his chair and exclaimed, “You son of a b****, that was me!”

The story demanded some research.  We came to learn through muster rolls and pension records – easily available on and –  that Joseph Jefferson Maddox had enlisted as a cavalryman with the Union 3rd Kentucky Cavalry Regiment, and his brother Benjamin Wesley “Wes” Maddox had enlisted with the Confederate 10th Cavalry Regiment, of Morgan’s Raiders. Colby Stevenson Maddox enlisted with the Union in Illinois, and a fourth, William, enlisted in the Union and died in the war. If the storytelling actually occurred in that Illinois farmhouse, then Joseph, Wes and Colby were the men telling stories.

A depiction of Morgan’s Raiders in Harper’s Weekly, 1863.

When we first heard the story, we knew little of Morgan’s Raiders – Wes’s unit – and not many Americans do. Their wartime operations, mostly in 1863, were largely an attempt to draw Union forces from their strategic objectives, and are obscured by the enormity of the war’s other events at the time. In the east, Union General Meade had defeated General Lee at Gettysburg on July 13, causing unrecoverable personnel losses. To the west, Major General Grant had defeated the Confederate garrison at Vicksburg by July 4, thus disrupting the Confederacy’s critical Mississippi passage. The Union then committed to eliminating General John Hunt Morgan’s cavalry, who was increasingly making a mockery of Union control of the Ohio region. A victory over the elusive Morgan’s Raiders – who had been showcased in popular Northern newspapers as marauding bandits – would demonstrate that the South had lost its freedom of movement. The North could claim some rule of law in the Ohio region.

Modern tacticians would call Morgan’s Raiders guerrillas. They moved swiftly, with little heavy equipment, and made no permanent gains. Their task was to harass local militias and civilians and to draw the greater Union force into the most difficult type of warfare. After previous successes in Kentucky, in June 1863 Morgan led his troops on a 1,000 mile offensive – called the “Great Raid” – from southern Kentucky through Indiana and into southern Ohio.

Morgan’s Raiders were emboldened by frequent small victories early in the Great Raid, but by July 9, the Raiders – including Wes’s unit – were being closely pursued by a strong Union force, including the cavalry unit that great-great Uncle Joseph belonged to, according to battlefield histories. Joseph certainly would have known that he was pursuing his own brother’s unit. There would have been ample opportunity for the kind of sniping described in the brothers’ war stories. So the fantastic family legend may have some truth to it. But it was at the Buffington Island Ford, near Portland, Ohio, that the brothers would have a run-in of Shakespearean proportions.

We do not know exactly what happened. We know from partial war journals that the Union pursuit of Morgan’s Raiders reached its peak on July 19. The men on both sides were ragged, stinking, overheated and exhausted after a week of sleepless horseback pursuit. The Raiders slowed as they attempted to cross at a ford over the Ohio River toward the relative safety of West Virginia, and the Union cavalry and a gunboat opened fire on them. Over 700 Raiders were captured by Joseph’s unit. Among those captured was Joseph’s own brother, Wes.  As a result of his brother’s actions, Wes would spend the last two years of the war in one of the most atrocious prison camps of the war – Camp Douglas in Chicago, where one in five prisoners died of disease, famine, cold or abuse.

There are many stories of families splitting over the Civil War, but there are few of brother fighting brother in a battle.  It’s the kind of historical narrative that should make us sit up in our chair, and it beats most claims of European royalty somewhere down the line.  But too often, stories like this one are denied their place in our family histories because we don’t take the time to dig into the seemingly pedestrian lives of our quietest ancestors.  They deserve better.

If you’d like our help to get started, let us know!

How to write your family history, part 3: the importance of imagery

Hopefully you’ll agree genealogical research is about much more than describing a relative’s descent from royalty.  The extraordinary effort that genealogists put into their family history should result in deep context of relatives’ lives.  One of the best ways to build compelling context for your subjects (your relatives) is to find images from their lives – and to present them in a way that is accessible to current and future generations.

Imagery can supply a deeper understanding of our ancestors’ lifestyles than many other forms of documentation.  A map of an ancestor’s hometown can help us understand the dimensions of his or her life, but a hand drawing or a painting of that town from the same time provides a cache of environmental information that might otherwise be unknowable.

A great example is a hand-drawing of the tiny 17th-century settlement of Moore’s Lodge, Maryland – a place that served as the first Charles County courthouse.  We might conclude from our stereotype of Colonial life that Moore’s Lodge would somehow resemble a Colonial Williamsburg reenactment, but the map of Moore’s Lodge presents a much rougher lifestyle for the settlers.  The illustrator made a point of depicting larger-than-life stockades, allowing the viewer to come to his or her own conclusions about their importance at the time.  The tiny trails leading into town speak of the limitations on commerce at the time.  An orchard implies the settlers’ efforts at permanence.  These implications were a real eye-opener for one Narratio Vitae customer, whose family owned the courthouse in the early 1700s.

Moore’s Lodge was the center of courthouse life in the mid-1600s, and a singular illustration provides important insights into Colonial life at the time.

Another great example of an image supplying context to a relative’s life is the one we found of John S. Quinn, an early 20th-century track star in Boston.  While the Quinn family knew their grandfather was a runner, they did not understand the extent of his fame. When Narratio Vitae discovered his image in the Boston Herald archives, the family was thrilled.  Not only did they have documentation of John S. Quinn’s stardom, but the image provide something more tangible to hand down to generations.

John S. Quinn as he appeared in the 1901 Boston Herald.

A third example – and the kind of image that is becoming increasingly accessible to researchers on the open internet – is one we found of a customer’s ancestor’s World War II ship.  Narratio Vitae not only discovered the ancestor’s military service information, but paired it with an image of the actual ship the ancestor served on.  An image of the ship allowed the customer’s imagination to run wild.  They could envision their ancestor’s life aboard the ship, and could begin to understand what he might have gone through.

A customer’s grandfather served aboard the USS Boreas, pictured here.

It’s getting easier to find historical imagery, but it still takes a lot of time and effort to find specific subjects, since the subjects of photos and illustrations were not frequently listed by the original photographer/artist.  With persistent, broad searches (instead of trying to find your relative alone, try to ind his or her military unit, for example), online search engines can return a trove of images if they’ve been appropriately curated.   Beyond a broad online search, serious genealogists will pay for access to newspaper archives and other periodical archives, which retain well-tagged and well-dated images. The Library of Congress,  and national and state archives have amassed collections of unique imagery, and new efforts like claim to be making headway with genealogical imagery curation.

And as always, Narratio Vitae is here to help!

How to write your family history, part 2: deducing your ancestors’ motivations

Your family tree and the fact of your ancestors’ professions and places of residence are interesting enough… for starters.  But your ancestors’ motivations are the more compelling story, with implications for your family’s current generation and many generations to come.  Sleuthing your ancestors’ motivations can be one of the most rewarding genealogical efforts.  Unfortunately, few genealogists take this extra “deductive” step.

One of our favorite examples of this deductive effort is our research into the Novom family.  It has lessons for all family historians.  When Narratio Vitae began its research into the Novoms, the current generation knew little about its past beyond a great-grandfather, and most of its historical information was based on family legacy.  This isn’t unusual for the children and grandchildren of recent immigrants, who often seem to focus more on developing a new life than on re-adjudicating the past.  But with time and establishment, families begin to wonder about their deeper history.

For the Novoms, as for so many other American Jewish families, there was an unspoken dread of digging too deeply into the harsh reality of their departure from Europe to America.  But they wanted to know where they came from and why they left their original home. They knew their grandfather had arrived to New York in the early 1900s, but not much else.  Family tradition held that their grandparents had fled the Russian pogroms – organized massacres of Jewish communities.

Narratio Vitae dug.  And dug.  And dug.  By reverse-transcribing into English the transcribed and misspelled Russian place name of great-grandfather Joe Novom’s original home town as recorded on his naturalization petition, we found that he had lived in Panevezhys, Russia (now Lithuania).  This gave us a starting point for homing in on the conditions of his departure.

Joe and Bessie Novom, with their son David, shortly after their arrival to America.

By consulting numerous obscure historical records and narratives from the time, available on passionately committed genealogical sites like JewishGen and the National Archives, we were able to contextualize their departure.  We found that Joe Novom’s motivations were probably similar to the motivations of the thousands of other Jews who fled Russia at the same time.  Joe and his wife Bessie grew up under the tough conditions of pre-Revolution Russia, where as Jews they were singled out in a violent game of retribution between the Czarists and their detractors.   Panevezhys in particular had a high population of Jews and was a center of discontent.  Joe and his wife Bessie fled Russia shortly after the Revolution of 1905, along with about 80 percent of the Jewish youth of Panevezhys.

Beyond confirming the Novoms’ family legend of their grandparents’ distressed flight from Russia, Narratio Vitae was able to describe the specific conditions of their departure and to help the family understand the emotions behind the Novoms’ decision to leave Lithuania behind.  It could not have been easy.

While each family is different, the basic process of deducing ancestors’ motivations takes a similar line.  With the Novom case, Narratio Vitae established the fact of the Novoms’ geographic residence during a specific time period, and conducted a broad “lateral” investigation into the environmental conditions at that time.  We spent a lot of time doing a literature review to find descriptive primary sources.  The pressure of Czarists was the consistent topic of those sources, and that pressure was felt by all Jews in Panevezhys.  The Novoms were no exception.

Revealing ancestors’ motivations may be beyond many amateur genealogists’ scope of effort because of the time and complex research required.  But it’s probably the most important story a genealogist can hand down to later generations.  As always, Narratio Vitae is standing by to help.



How to write your family history, part 1: develop a sense of place

So you’ve done the detailed work of proving your ancestors’ names and birth dates, and you’ve linked back a few generations.  And among the details you’ve discovered is the appealing idea that your family was not just a nebulous string of names on paper; instead, your family was part of a small town or a rural county or a thriving city – a place that had an important influence on your family’s fortunes.  The space we live in can make or break us, and it’s important that we place families in their geographic context.

It can be difficult to envision the terrain of our ancestors’ lives.  The terrain of 17th century mid-Atlantic America, for example, has been fundamentally changed by hundreds of years of political, commercial and natural modifications.  To take a specific example, the Maddox family‘s 17th-century settlement of Port Tobacco, Maryland, was once a thriving port town that attracted leading politicians and businessmen during its heyday, but deforestation resulted in over-silting of the riverbed, making it too shallow for commercial vessels from England.  The later establishment of the railway a few miles away meant Port Tobacco’s demise by the early 19th century.  To look at Port Tobacco now, it’s nearly impossible for the Maddoxes to imagine the place’s former vitality.  But explaining that vitality is crucial to developing an accurate narrative for posterity.

Researching geographic features can take a lot of time and patience.  Starting with two maps is a good way to begin to understand where your family lived.  First, find a map from the time of your family’s residence.  Second, compare that historical map with a modern map of similar scale.  Compare borders, transportation routes, place names and any landmarks.  If you’ve spent a good amount of time researching your family line and their close associates, there’s a very good chance you’ll find many familiar names on the maps.  The USGS provides a good guide to map use here.  Using the Maddox family example again, a map of the area around Abbeville, South Carolina, would include hints of the Maddox family’s 18th- and 19th-century presence there – such as Maddox Shoals along the Saluda River, Maddox Mill, and Maddox Bridge.  These landmarks tell a story of their own.

Plat maps, available in city and state archives, are the best resource for finding the precise location of your family’s former land or city property.  Colonial plat maps include sometimes fanciful descriptions of the land, along with hand-drawn maps.  More recent plat maps are much more precise, including clear perimeters and latitude/longitude details.  Compare the plat map with both your old map and new map to geolocate your family’s site, and then use Google Maps to zoom in on the land.  Record the Google Maps location in your records.  It will be useful when you want to visit the location.

A Maddox family member visited an ancestor’s 19th-century farm after locating it by comparing modern and old maps.

If you persevere, you’re likely to be surprised by existing research into the historical geography of your ancestral home.  Most libraries’ local history sections include such studies.  Another great place to look is in the digital library JSTOR, which houses an incredible array of studies.  A great example of a “good find” is the research done by Smithsonian archeologist C. Malcolm Watkins into the Marlborough Town, Virginia, Colonial site.  The archeologist definitively located Edward Maddox’s plot #15, which Edward bought in the 1690s, and it was easy to compare Watkins’ maps with Google Maps details despite the antiquity of the original maps.

The Maddoxes discovered their ancestral land in Virginia had been well studied, and could easily find their ancestor’s plot (#15, above) on modern maps, making the place accessible literally and figuratively.

As always, don’t expect immediate success with this genealogical research effort.  It can take a good bit of luck to bump into the right information.  But the more you know about your family, the more you can relate bits of seemingly disparate information to the geographic terrain of their lives.

And as always, Narratio Vitae is standing by to help!


Cost-split your family history project with payment apps

Are you interested in developing your family history, but the cost seems prohibitive?

At Narratio Vitae, we recognize the difficulty of balancing your interest in developing your history for posterity against your need to pay your bills.  To make this balancing act easier, we recommend cost-splitting your family narrative.  Cost-splitting minimizes the cost for individual family members and has the added benefit of attracting stronger family participation in family narrative development.

Two cost-splitting apps make it incredibly easy to collect funds from far-flung relatives and friends, and to send those funds to Narratio Vitae for payment:

PayPal: PayPal’s Send Money app allows users with accounts to send money directly and securely to email addresses and mobile phone numbers.  Account holders can track each other’s payments and debts on the app.  If you’re organizing a family narrative with Narratio Vitae, you would simply ask your relatives to set up PayPal accounts and send a certain amount to you, and then you would transfer the final sum to Narratio Vitae’s existing PayPal account.

Venmo: Similar to PayPal’s system, Venmo allows users with accounts to share costs on its app, but Venmo emphasizes the social aspect of purchases by allowing users to discuss the purchase in real time on the app.  If you’re organizing a family narrative purchase, you would ask your relatives to set up Venmo accounts, and then you could converse with them in the app about the purchase.  The app also allows the group to see each other’s obligations and payments – so you can easily goad parsimonious Aunt Penny into making her payment.

Of course Narratio Vitae also invites its clients to pay with traditional forms of payment, such as credit card and personal check, and will work with each client to make the process as easy as possible.

Save some Georges!

Jinns, dybbuks and ghosts…frightening new movies for this Halloween season (part 3 of 3)

At Narratio Vitae (“life story” in Latin), we constantly encounter the undying reflections of our clients’ pasts, and we revel in the thrill of a good ghost story.  This Halloween, three movies reign as genuinely creepy ghost stories.  We highlighted Under the Shadow last week, and here’s a third for your consideration…

OK, so it’s not a movie, but of the 2016 releases, it belongs in the top three with our other selections… American Horror Story seemed to have been going off the rails with seasons four and five, but the new season, American Horror Story: Roanoke, redeems the series, and particularly appeals to history buffs like us.  It’s receiving great reviews.

Roanoke is a story within a story, documenting the haunted lives of a couple who fled their colonial-era home in North Carolina after being assaulted by a gang.  Part of the intrigue is in unraveling a complex network of ghosts.  While viewers’ attention seems to be focused on Lady Gaga’s central character Scathach, a witch, the show develops a host of ghouls based on an (apocryphal) story that the colonists in Roanoke all became ghosts after a “blood moon ritual.”  Be ready for blood and guts.

Lady Gaga appears as Scathach in American Horror Story: Roanoke (Photo: FX)

Jinns, dybbuks and ghosts…frightening new movies for this Halloween season (part 2 of 3)

At Narratio Vitae (“life story” in Latin), we constantly encounter the undying reflections of our clients’ pasts, and we revel in the thrill of a good ghost story.  This Halloween, three movies reign as genuinely creepy ghost stories.  We highlighted Demons last week, and here’s a second for your consideration…

Under the Shadow is the story of a girl and her mother haunted by a jinn – a supernatural creature of Arabian and Islamic mythology – in their apartment in war-torn 1980s Tehran.  Unlike many recent ghost stories that rely on cheap scare tactics, Under The Shadow slowly builds emotional tension as the story progresses, setting up for a fearful crescendo.  The LA Times calls it “a brilliantly conceived thriller, about a woman plagued by dark forces both inside and outside her home.”

Avin Manshadi plays Dorsa in Under the Shadow (Photo: Vertical Entertainment)

Another recommendation to come…

25,000 ancestors and growing

The Wall Street Journal nailed it with their recent article on 18-year-old Jonathan Puckett, who has researched and documented over 25,000 of his ancestors.  Jonathan was trying to understand how he fits into his network of ancestors, and what traits they might have passed on to him.  There’s no better reason to dedicate years to genealogical research than to develop a meaningful family narrative.  Hats off from Narratio Vitae, Jonathan!

Read the WSJ article at

We are more than our “permanent records” indicate

Thoughts In Passing” is a growing exhibition of people’s life lessons as they age.  The collection offers sublime views of human nature, and reminds us of the difficulty of characterizing our loved ones based only on the records they leave behind.  It’s a problem that Narratio Vitae continually works through as we develop family narratives, and we’re grateful to artist Claudia Bicen for her encouragement of a thoughtful storytelling technique.

Ora from Claudia Bicen on Vimeo.