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Fonzo Palmer Part Two

Posted in Family Biographies/Histories, and Primary Sources: Letters, Documents, Diaries, Histories

This post is the second in a chronicle of what I have been able to discover about Fonzo Palmer, who was enslaved by the Palmer family in Tippah County, Mississippi. To read the first, follow this link.

As many genealogists know (and lament), the 1890 Census was lost, so having traced Fonzo Palmer through 1880, the next step was the 1900 Census. As you will see, it’s a shame we cannot consult the 1890 Census because we would have learned a great deal about Fonzo’s family during that time.

Fonzo Palmer 1900 CensusBy 1900, we find him married and living with his family in Ripley, Tippah County, Mississippi. Some pertinent information summarized:

Palmer, Fonzo. Head of House. Black. Male. Born June 1860 [which tracks with the list from the previous post], Age 39, Married 17 years, born in Mississippi, both parents born in Mississippi, farmer, cannot read or write, but speaks English

Fonzo must have married in about 1882. His wife is named Betsy, which is extremely hard to read on this Census, but it is clearer on subsequent Census records. Her birth year is listed as 1866, but her age as 34 (again, hard to read). It says she has had nine children, seven of whom are still living.

That Census question always strikes me because something I notice all too frequently is that the numbers are not the same. When I think about how many women had to bury much loved children, it’s hard. I just have to admire women in history for all they have borne.

Betsy was listed as born in Mississippi as were her parents.

Fonzo and Betsy’s children are as follows:

  • Ollie, daughter, born April 1885
  • Arthur, son, born June 1883
  • Lonzo, son, born Feb 1887
  • Fonzo, son, born Feb 1887
  • King, son, born Feb 1893
  • Aney [Onnie], daughter, born Dec 1894
  • Rosco, son, born June 1898

The four older children are listed as farmhands, and it looks as if they had some schooling in that year and may have been literate. The four children are all listed as being able to write, and Arthur and Fonzo are listed as being able to read.

The first thing that jumped out at me was the fact that Fonzo and Betsy named their twins after Fonzo and his own twin brother, which made me wonder again how long Fonzo’s twin Lonzo lived. Another son was also named after Fonzo’s brother King.

Next, I consulted the 1910 Census.

Fonzo Palmer 1910

In 1910, Fonzo is once again living in Ripley, Tippah County, Mississippi. He is 52 and Betsy is 44. Her age is correct, but his age should be 50. They have been married for 27 years. Once again, next to Betsy’s name, there is an indication that they have lost two children, but all the others living in 1900 are still living in 1910. Fonzo is listed as born in Mississippi and his parents in the United States, while Betsy is born in Mississippi, as were her parents.

The twins Lonzo and Fonzo are still living at home and are 23. Son King is 18. There seems to be an error as Onnie is listed as 15, which would be correct, but is listed as their son, and on all other Censuses, she is their daughter. Son Rosco is 12.

The subsequent Census records will take a bit more untangling, so I’ll share those findings next time.

Fonzo Palmer Part One

Posted in Family Biographies/Histories, and Primary Sources: Letters, Documents, Diaries, Histories

As I alluded to in my previous post, I’m hoping to learn more about the people wrongfully enslaved by my ancestors. Slavery makes it extremely difficult for many people to trace their family histories, as their ancestors’ names often appeared nowhere on documents. They might be enumerated on Slave Schedules, census records that counted the numbers of enslaved people, who were listed by age and gender under the names of the slave owners.

I chanced upon two remarkable documents connected with my ancestor Randolph Eubanks Palmer. He was a planter in Tippah County, Mississippi. This small article was featured in the Vicksburg Daily Whig on March 21, 1856.

Randolph Palmer Article

A quick transcription in case you find the article difficult to read:

BIG FARMING.—Mr. Randolph Palmer, living four miles from Ripley, in Tippah county, Miss., last season made 145 bales of cotton, 900 barrels of corn, and 68 stacks of oats, each stack containing 1000 bundles, and only worked nineteen hands. At a moderate estimate, his crop would bring him upwards of $11,000. Who says there is no profit in farming.

Memphis Whig.

A Slave Schedule for Tippah County in 1850 indicates that Randolph Eubanks Palmer claimed ownership of 21 human beings. In 1860, he claimed ownership of 28 human beings. According to a fellow researcher (unfortunately, I’m not sure who originally shared the information), a handwritten document with the ages of enslaved people born after 1851 through 1862 or 1863 was found in a trunk in the Palmer home. Here is an image of the document:

Palmer: Births of Enslaved People

A transcription (original spelling and capitalization retained):

Ages of Negros

Jane was born September-5-1851 (unreadable year scratched out)
Henry was born September-15-1851
Marthy was born January 13*-1855       [*possibly 18]
Joseph was born december-25-1855
Samira* was born January-9-1856        [*I can’t make out this name definitively]
Manday was born Octob 23 1856
Samuel was born december 22-1856
hall was born march-14-1858
toney was born April-4-1858
georg was born April-20-1858
Fonzo & Lonzo borned June the 27. 1860
dilcy was born may th 4—1861
King was borned Dec 18. 1862*             [*possible 1863]

This is the kind of document that is invaluable to Black Americans researching their family histories, but unfortunately, when White enslavers think to document such information, they rarely, if ever, think to share such information.

I wanted to find out if this document could possibly be genuine. On the list, two names jumped out at me: apparent twins Fonzo and Lonzo born on June 27, 1860. The names are distinctive enough, I thought, that I might be able to do some digging and actually find them. Their names also reminded me of Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt in James Baldwin’s book If Beale Street Could Talk.

I decided quite on a whim to start with Fonzo, and I found him and his mother and siblings on the 1870 Census for Tippah County, living near other Black families with the last name Palmer and also Randolph Eubanks Palmer, Jr., the son of Randolph Eubanks Palmer. I suspect Fonzo and his family were sharecropping on the land where they had formerly been enslaved, which was a common occurrence following emancipation and the end of the Civil War.

Fonzo Palmer and family 1870

Transcription of pertinent information:

Palmer, Amelia?, Age: 37, Gender: Female, Race: Black, Occupation: Keeping House, Birthplace: Missouri [could be a mistake], Cannot read or write.

Palmer, Mat or Mar, Age: 17, Gender: Female, Race: Black, Birthplace: Mississippi; Cannot read or write [note: there is a + sign in the column labeled “Whether deaf, dumb, blind, insane or idiotic”]

Palmer, Fonzo, Age: 10, Gender: Male, Race: Black, Birthplace: Mississippi

Palmer, Cain, Age: 7, Gender: Male, Race: Black, Birthplace: Mississippi

His mother’s name is difficult to read, and it was transcribed as Anicha, but my guess is that it was actually Amelia. She is 37 on the 1870 Census, meaning she was likely born around 1833. She would have been about 27 on the 1860 Slave Schedule, and there were two women who were 25 listed under Randolph Palmer’s name. There were many other candidates older and younger as well. Fonzo was not listed with Randolph Palmer on the 1860 Slave Schedule but a two-month-old male child is listed with Randolph’s son John D. Palmer. It’s hard to say if Fonzo was not enumerated or if he was enumerated with Randolph’s son John. In any case, there is not a woman close to the age of 27 enumerated among the people enslaved by John Palmer.

The other two children listed with Fonzo’s mother appear to be Mar or Mat and Cain. I believe that Cain is probably King, born on December 18, 1862 or 1863 above. If Cain is King, then the date above is probably December 18, 1862. Mar or Mat could be Marthy above, who was born January 13 or 18, 1855, but if so, then her age on the 1870 Census is incorrect, which wouldn’t be terribly unusual given the difficulty of keeping records for enslaved people. If Mar or Mat is Marthy, then she would have been 15, according to the Palmers’ reckoning (well within a margin of error).

I was not able to find Lonzo, and I suspect he may have died before the 1870 Census. I next traced Fonzo to the 1880 Census.

Fonzo Palmer 1880 Census

Transcription of pertinent information:

Palmer, Fonso, Race: Black, Gender: Male, Age: 19, Relationship to Head of House: Boarder, Marital status: Single, Occupation: Works on Farm, Did attend school within the census year, Birthplace: Mississippi, parents birthplaces unlisted.

Fonzo is a boarder in the household of Phebie Smith. King Palmer appears a few lines beneath Fonzo:

Palmer, King. Race: Black, Gender: Male, Age: 19, Marital status: Single, Occupation: Works on Farm, Birthplace: Mississippi, parents’ birthplaces listed as “Unknown.”

It’s possible that King Palmer either didn’t know his age or his age was given incorrectly. There is a round mark next to his name that looks like the census-taker was trying to swap lines, but it’s unclear to me if King Palmer was working for the White family Wesson or Wasson that appears above him or the White family Russell that appears below him. In any case, Fonzo and King’s mother may have died. I was not able to find her again on the Census. It’s also possible she married and had a different last name. I will keep digging to see what I can find.

I was extremely happy and surprised at how far I was able to trace Fonzo Palmer. I will share more of his story in my next post. I believe the list of names is a genuine document that lists the names of people born into slavery on the Palmers’ plantation (or farm) from 1851 to 1862 or 1863 and that two or possibly three children—including Fonzo—of an enslaved woman possibly named Amelia were among those whose births were listed.

Some Updates and Future Directions

Posted in Genealogy and History, and Updates

If you have visited this blog in the past, you might have noticed some major differences. I have changed the look of the site. I had to upgrade my family tree on this site after my host upgraded some technical things behind the scenes, which broke my family tree pages. I wasn’t able to upgrade successfully using the database I already had, so I imported a GEDCOM from my Ancestry.com tree. However, that tree has a lot of errors that will take a long time to weed out, so please be patient with me here as I fix those issues on this website.

Second, I have some plans for future research directions that I hope to document here on this blog. Like many White people with ancestry in the South, I discovered that some of my ancestors engaged in the heinous institution of chattel slavery. I want to make it very clear that I am anti-racist, or am striving to be, and I do not condone or excuse my ancestors, nor do I give them allowance for engaging in a practice that was common at the time because there were plenty of White people who opposed slavery. I also acknowledge that it’s impossible to be “kind” or “good” and also think you have the right to own human beings. I recognized that my ancestors were flawed—they may have had aspects of their personalities and attitudes that were kind, but I also have no doubt in my mind that they engaged in cruelty to both those people they thought they owned and the Native inhabitants of the land they settled. I have decided to reckon honestly with my ancestors in all their complexity. To do otherwise, for me, is dishonest.

To that end, I am very interested in learning more about the people enslaved by my ancestors and plan to do what I can to uncover their stories on this blog as well. If I can learn more also about the Native people whose land my ancestors took, I hope to be able to share what I discover here as well. That does not mean I will stop learning more about my direct answers, but rather that I am seeking a fuller picture of who they were in all their complexity.

Comments

Posted in Site Issues/Technical

Hello all. Just a short update to say that two people have recently contact me to let me know they were unable to post comments here. I disabled a plugin that might be causing the trouble, and I was successfully able to post a comment from an alternative email address, so I believe the issue is resolved, but if you have trouble posting comments, can you please try again and let me know the results?

Family History News

Posted in Site Issues/Technical, and Updates

Papa and Me
My grandfather and me before my grandmother’s funeral

I don’t update this blog very much, mainly because I don’t have a lot of time to work on family history, but I have some found time today, and I plan to do some updating on the family tree on this site. I continue to enjoy the fact that far-flung cousins find old posts on this site and interact. This blog probably has way more comments than any other site I administer, which speaks to the power of family bringing us all together.

I have been thinking for a while that I should share some updates. A lot has happened over the last six months. We all lost my grandmother Doris Thurman Cunningham last November. I was personally devastated by her loss as we were very close. I wrote her obituary and delivered her eulogy. Perhaps some time I will share the eulogy here. I have struggled with whether or not to make her family tree page public since she has passed, but ultimately, I don’t think I am ready yet. If you are a family member and create a login, however, it is accessible.

We lost my father’s brother, my Uncle David “Buck” Swier, Jr. last week. Here is his obituary. I am thinking a great deal of my Aunt Sandy and cousins Misty, Krista, and Nicole, as well as their children. I was not close to Buck and hadn’t seen him in many years, but he and my dad spoke via Skype, and my dad enjoyed these conversations.

I had to move web hosts since the last time I updated. I had a truly awful experience with my former host, Bluehost. They basically shut down my site because they alleged it was not optimized and was slowing other sites on the same server down. They offered to fix the issue for several hundred dollars. I was a customer of theirs for over ten years, and I don’t feel I was treated fairly. I moved to DreamHost, and I have been very happy with them. Much less down time for my sites, and no issues at all so far. In the process of migrating, I had to fix a few issues, but it’s entirely possible that some photographs didn’t link up properly, so if you find broken links or images, I apologize. It will likely be summer before I have the kind of time I would need to fix those issues.

As always, I invite family members to connect, and I love to read comments from people who find the research here useful. The family tree on this site is a slow work in progress, but if you find information you wish to contribute, please let me know.

Surprises from 23 and Me

Posted in Genetic Genealogy

My husband and I ordered kits from 23 and Me to compare with what we learned via the DNA kits from Ancestry.com. There are some things that the 23 and Me data share that Ancestry.com data do not—fun things like the extent of your Neanderthal background, and interesting things like what seems to be a more precise breakdown of your ancestry composition.

European Composition

The picture above shows how my European DNA breaks down. It’s important to note that this is somewhat speculative. 23 and Me customers can change confidence levels to see a more conservative estimate. If I choose the most conservative setting, my results differ from those above quite a bit.

Here is my entire ancestry composition at 50% (Speculative):

Speculative Ancestry Composition

And here is my ancestry composition at 90% (Conservative):

Conservative

I understand that some users find there is not much to see if they look at the conservative estimate, but mine seems pretty clear. I am very European, though what kind is harder to tell with a more conservative estimate. I assume that is because I’m an American, and I imagine I have a lot of European lineages in my tree. I am pretty certain about German, Irish, English, and French because of my genealogy research.

The big surprise in the speculative view is a tiny percentage of Ashkenazi heritage. I can’t imagine where it came from, and I wonder how 23 and Me determined it was a possibility. Obviously, it’s not certain because it vanishes with a more conservative view. However, so does French and German, Southern European, and Scandinavian, and I know about the French and German in my background. Going back several hundred years, there is potential evidence of an Italian ancestor, but the stories about him are so wild, it’s hard to know what to think. I had long speculated he was Jewish and hiding that part of his identity. I actually thought he might be Sephardic. As far as I know, however, there are no Ashkenazi Jews in my tree, so that tiny percentage is a bit of a mystery to me.

My Ancestry.com test indicated a small amount of African DNA, but it wasn’t very specific, and in any case, it indicated North Africa, not Western Africa or Sub-Saharan Africa.

Ancestry.com Ethnicity Estimate

As you can see, even with the conservative ancestry composition estimate, my African DNA is higher than Ancestry.com estimated it was. I don’t deny the results, but I wonder why they are different. It’s the same DNA that was tested. I am also curious how Ancestry.com separates out Irish DNA when 23 and Me puts it together with English/British.

Both companies put my European heritage at about 98% or 99%, which does not surprise me. I’m curious as to how trace regions in the Middle East show up in the Ancestry.com test and not in 23 and Me. I wondered if that might be the Ashkenazi background because Ashkenazi Jews moved into Europe from the Middle East some time during Holy Roman Empire. I honestly don’t know enough about any of this to make even an educated guess.

What does seem fairly certain is that I do have some African DNA, though whether it is North African, as Ancestry.com thinks, or West African and Sub-Saharan African as 23 and Me thinks, I don’t know how to determine. I actually am excited to learn this information, and as you can probably imagine, it raises a lot of questions for me about my family tree and especially about brick walls.

One thing I was really excited to learn from 23 and Me was my maternal haplogroup, or mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) group.

mtDNA

Of course, this got me curious because this particular haplogroup is more common in Eastern Europe and also is believed to have emerged from the Caucasus. If you are interested in that kind of thing, it’s the same maternal haplogroup as Dr. Mehmet Oz (Henry Louis Gates discusses Dr. Oz’s haplogroup in his book, Faces of America).

Migration of Haplogroup H2

Haplogroup H is quite common in Europe, so given my large percentage of European heritage, it’s not a surprise. I would love to be able to learn more about mtDNA haplogroups. I’m not really sure what this information really tells me at the moment, but it was, for some reason, information I really wanted to have.

Because I am a woman, I have no paternal haplogroups to look at. I would be extremely curious to know that information, but the chances of getting my father to take a DNA test are probably in the negative numbers. My paternal grandfather passed away about fifteen years ago. It is possible male cousins descending from my father’s brothers would be interested enough to try, but I don’t feel close enough to that side of my family to ask something like that. It seems like a big request—excuse me, can I please have some of your DNA so I can find out about our fathers’ paternal haplogroup? For that matter, I’d be curious about my father’s maternal haplogroup, as I inherited mtDNA from my mother and not him, so it is probably different.

One last result that was really surprising:

Neanderthal DNA

My husband had a very good time with that result, which was much higher than his own. I don’t really know what this means, aside from the fact that 23 and Me says I inherited one Neanderthal variant that is associated with less back hair. So I have that going for me, which is good.

With my husband’s permission, I will share his results here, as I know a lot of Huffs stop by looking for information about their families as well. One last fairly surprising result I wasn’t expecting—23 and Me allows you to compare your DNA to connections, and as it turns out, my husband and I are absolutely unrelated. We have 0 DNA segments in common. I kind of expected we shared maybe some small connection far, far in the distant past. It wouldn’t be that weird, given our families both lived in the South for generations, and it wouldn’t be inconceivable that we shared an ancestor. We might, but not within the last couple of hundred years, anyway. I used to joke with him that it was my mission to figure out how he and I were related, but it looks like I probably won’t figure that out.

A Brick Wall Broken Down and Other Updates

Posted in Family Biographies/Histories, Primary Sources: Letters, Documents, Diaries, Histories, and Site Issues/Technical

For many years, I have had a brick wall on my father’s side of the family. My great-grandmother, born Gertrude Nettie Perkins, told her daughter in a letter written April 6, 1940:

I am English on my fathers [sic] side. His folks settled in Virginia shortly after the Revolutionary War and were English Quakers.

I had been unable to trace her father’s side of the family back any further than the small bit of information I had about his name. I had no idea who his parents were, and I couldn’t really find them on the census. I’ve been on spring break, so I’ve had a little bit of time to conduct family history research, and on a hunch, I did some digging into her father’s family once again. Ancestry.com appears to have added quite a few databases I haven’t had the occasion to use, so it makes sense that this information was harder to find in the past. I don’t have the luxury of spending tons of money to order documents or hire researchers, never mind traveling all over the country to research in libraries.

I tried using Ancestry.com’s search feature on my great-grandmother’s father, John E. Perkins. I had a match. After I did some digging around, I was certain I had the right person. His father declined to fight in the Civil War because he was a Quaker, and I found the family mentioned, finally, in Hector, Renville County, Minnesota, where I know my great-grandmother was born according to her own information. Unfortunately, the Perkins name had been misspelled “Perkis” on a census, but other evidence I found from books on the history of the area available online through Google Books confirmed it is Perkins and that I had at last broken down a brick wall.

John E. Perkins’s father was John B. Perkins, and he was born in North Carolina, rather than Virginia, but that was fairly close and fairly typical of the ways family stories often are partly true. Actually, when I do some more digging, I may indeed discover the family came to Virginia first. Tracing John B. Perkins back to North Carolina proved fairly easy because of the scrupulous records kept by the Quakers.

Marriage Bond of John B. Perkins and Deborah D. Outland Kennedy
Marriage Bond of John B. Perkins and Deborah D. Outland Kennedy (click for larger)

Sure enough, the lead from my great-grandmother that her family were Quakers proved to be a solid one, and it helped me determine I had the right family.

I am quite curious about John B. Perkins and his wife Deborah Outland. They had established a family in an old Quaker enclave in Wayne County, North Carolina. Based on the birthdates of their children, it’s possible to pinpoint their migration from North Carolina to Minnesota to 1852 or 1853. My ancestor, John E. Perkins is listed in census records as having been born in Minnesota in 1853, and his older brother William Samuel Perkins was born in Wayne County, North Carolina on 9 May 1852.

What made John B. Perkins and Deborah Outland pull up stakes and go to the Minnesota Territory? They clearly came from a close-knit community, and there would be no guarantee they would be able to continue to worship in the manner to which they were accustomed. What was the lure?

I discovered that John B. Perkins was something of a pioneer in the small town of Hector, Minnesota. He established a hotel there, and indeed, on the 1880 Census, he is listed as a hotel operator. The first school in Hector was taught in a room in the hotel above the kitchen, and the first church services were also held there. Reading about him in the various history books I could find online was absolutely like reading about characters from Little House on the Prairie.

Towards the end of his life, he headed west again to California, where he died in Brentwood in Contra Costa County. I am fairly certain he is the same John B. Perkins listed on several California Voter Registers I found because his name and birthplace match up. What made him decide to go clear across the country for a second time, this time, just about as far as he could go? I found him absolutely fascinating.

After I established the connection between John E. Perkins and his parents, using my great-grandmother’s clue to confirm what I had found, it was easy to fill in the rest going back fairly far. I have not yet input all of the information I’ve found to the family tree on this site, but look for it in the coming months.

On a related note, I have done quite a lot of updating to the family tree. Places are now geocoded so that you should see a map keyed up to events in the lives of individuals. I have also added sources to many of the facts—a time-consuming process that will take quite a long time to complete. However, it’s important to me to include verification for information. I have not added information I’m not sure about. There are a lot of errors in trees, especially when they go fairly far back. I want the tree on this site to reflect research, with accurate and reliable information.

I have done so many updates that it’s hard to list them all here, but in addition to adding sources, I have also added some portraits. Some of these portraits are from cousins on Ancestry. com, but Find a Grave has really exploded, and some users are quite generous in posting additional pictures they have of people on their Find a Grave memorials. A few years ago, it seemed I couldn’t find anyone, but now I can find most people in the last 200 years or so.

My husband and I have also both registered with and submitted DNA tests to 23 and Me. We had done Ancestry.com’s DNA test as well, but we had also grown frustrated by some of the limitations of that kit. Given how large and comprehensive 23 and Me is, I expect I’ll be posting here about results.

One other addition to the blog: I’ve made it easy for you to subscribe to updates via email. If you are family and don’t want to check for my sporadic (to put it generously) updates, please feel free to subscribe. The subscription area is in the sidebar to the right.

New Family Tree

Posted in Archiving, Genealogy 101, and Site Issues/Technical

Family TreeAs I promised in my previous post, I will be sharing more about digital storytelling in a future post, but I wanted to share that I have found a family tree sitebuilder I’m excited about. My cousin Rick Zeutenhorst uses it on his site. I really liked the look of my cousin’s site, and based on his recommendation, I decided to get it for two reasons:

  • Having a site in the cloud will make it easier for me when I migrate. I know I can save gedcoms from software programs, and I have done so in the past, but I have also lost things in the transition, and I think this solution will work for me as well. I can back it up so that I always have a copy of my data, should losing data ever become a worry.
  • At this point, the only place I have my data is Ancestry.com, and there may come a day I don’t want to use the site anymore (right now, I’m happy with it, and I obtain tons of information quite easily that I would have to spend a great deal more money to obtain). It’s probably not a good idea to put all my genealogical eggs in one basket, though.

In addition to these two reasons, I also like the idea of having control. I have set living individuals to “private,” but collaborating family members can register for an account.

I opted to start building from scratch rather than using a gedcom because over time, I know errors have crept into my Ancestry tree, and untangling the errors seems to me to be a more daunting task, if you can believe it, than starting over.  I also will be able  to standardize conventions for dates and place names if I start over. Starting over allows me to be careful and cite sources for information as I work. I am a much more careful and thorough genealogist than I was when I started. I will admit it—I fell prey to the lure of looking for famous ancestors in my tree and often attached unproven connections that appeared uncited in other trees.

I know starting over is a lot of work, but it will prevent me from introducing errors and will allow me to go slowly. As such, the tree is a little spare at the moment. Rest assured I will be adding people, and if you have information to contribute, feel free to contact me.

Some things I really like about the sitebuilding software, which is called TNG: The Next Generation of Genealogy Sitebuilding, are the ways in which photographs are handled and the “Most Wanted” feature. I have really only just begun to explore the possibilities. The site is easy to manage after a small learning curve. The most difficulty I had with it was my original upload didn’t work, so I had to re-upload it to my site. I happen to feel comfortable with managing the back-end of my site, but others’ mileage may vary on that score.

You can view the family tree by clicking this link or by clicking the permanent link in the menu at the top of the page.

Digital Storytelling to Capture Family Stories

Posted in Family Biographies/Histories, Photographs, and Storytelling

Genealogists long ago adapted family stories and photographs as a means of sharing their family history, but I have not seen a great deal of digital storytelling in family history yet. Digital storytelling is a relatively new mode of storytelling. Depending on your level of expertise, you might want to take a class to learn how to do it. If you do, I can’t recommend the Center for Digital Storytelling more highly. I took one of their three-day courses for educators last summer in Denver. However, they offer workshops for people from all walks of life.

Because my grandparents are still living and actually live in the Denver area, I took the opportunity to interview them. I had most success capturing their voices with my computer, but if you have a good camera for taking video, you may choose to capture video instead. Even if you are not able to interview family members, you can still tell a digital story about them. Take a look at this guideline for writing good digital stories:

This presentation was created by Joe Lambert and follows the Center for Digital Storytelling’s elements of creating a good digital story.

The first step, Owning Your Insight, involves finding your story and deciding what story to tell. One important thing I learned is that somehow, even if you are telling someone else’s story, the story also needs to be about you. You need to bring insight and connection to the story you tell. It is easy to fall into the trap of telling an ancestor of family member’s story and taking yourself out of the equation, but your story will offer more to connect to if it is also about you. The facilitator in my workshop recognized this problem in my own digital story idea, and she challenged me to figure out “how is this story about you?” That is not to say you can’t tell the story of a family member or ancestor, but you want to identify why you want to tell their story. What do you connect to in their own story? Are you proud? Embarrassed? Consider your own insight and what it will bring to telling the story of your family. This video is a good example of what I’m talking about:

Holly McClelland was one of the facilitators in my workshop, and what she does in this story is really turn the focus on herself and her own feelings about her relationship with her father rather than discuss her father, whose story she can’t truly tell. You might not feel comfortable sharing these types of stories with an audience. It’s up to you to decide how personal to be.

Next, CDS recommends Owning Your Emotions. This part is tough. Family stories can sometimes be very personal, and you should only share what you feel comfortable sharing. Your feelings should come through in the story. Sometimes I find that I discover how I feel in the process of creating the story itself. Here is a video that I think is a great example of owning your emotions:

Daniel Weinshenker is the Rocky Mountain/Midwest Region Director at CDS.

Step three involves Finding the Moment. This is the part of the story you want to tell. It’s best to keep stories fairly short. In fact, my CDS workshop facilitator recommended five minutes or less. So you need to get to the essence right away. What is the moment of change? What is the turning point? That moment will determine what story you decide to tell. I like the way this story zeroes in on one moment:

The moment in this film, as I see it, is discovering that what was lost was found again in a discovery of old film.

Seeing Your Story involves selecting the images and video you want to use. Don’t necessarily put this step first, but it is okay to begin selecting images as you are thinking about the story you want to tell. You might find that the images suggest a story you want to tell. Images do not have to be your own, but you will want to use images that are either in the public domain or licensed by Creative Commons unless you want to pay to license copyrighted images. Here is an example of a video made with only a handful of images. The rest is public domain footage from Archive.org.

Josef: A Digital Story from Brad Johnson on Vimeo.

As Johnson explains, “95% of the images and footage is from archive.org. I have about 5 shots of my grandfather in there that are mine.” He adds, “I was experimenting with telling a personal story using footage that was ‘public’ and that was about the ‘larger, American immigrant’ story that seems part of our collective identity (or at least for many of us).”

Hearing Your Story is your opportunity to either use interviews or your own recorded narration to tell the story. As I said, we were advised to keep the story to five minutes or less. That’s between 300-500 words, and really should be on the lower end. Once you draft your script or storyboard, you will quickly discover it’s not very long. It will be important to zero in on one story. Remember, you can always make other digital stories to tell other parts of the story. The best digital stories clock in from two to five minutes or so. Five minutes is really on the longer end. They are snapshots of a moment in time rather than a full documentary.  Some video-making software comes with sound effects and music, but you will probably find that you want to explore options for music. It’s important to be careful of copyright concerns when using music. I look for music that is Creative Commons licensed. The perfect piece of music will really pull your whole video together.

What strikes me most about this particular video is that the music is perfect and perfectly timed to go with the pictures and narrative. I find it to be a great example of the power of a simple but perfect piece of music to create a digital story.

When you begin Assembling Your Story, economy and pacing are important. You want the images and video clips to line up well with the narrative and music. You shouldn’t feel the need to fill up the entire space with words. Sometimes you can allow images and music to fill in and speak. “Lost and Found” by Susan Becker above is a well-paced story.

Your last consideration is Sharing Your Story. Who is the audience? How do you want to share it? There are lots of online video sites, such as YouTube and Vimeo. You can also create DVD’s and share the videos with loved ones who might want a copy.

I created these two videos based on interviews I did with my grandparents.

I used some images footage of the Seabees in World War II and some images taken of the Army’s 7th Division on Attu as well as censored letters, but aside from those pieces, the images all belong to my family.

I liked how this came out, but I wish I had done more with the music and practiced a bit more economy in the storytelling. My video with my grandmother integrated these two elements a little better.

I am very happy with how the music works, and I like the pacing. I found this story, even though it is my grandmother’s story, really has the personal connection, the “moment,” when my grandmother reveals she hasn’t been able to sew. She had just recovered from a serious illness, and she has since been able to sew a little bit. It’s sad to me to enjoy something so much and not be able to do it.

In my next post, I’ll discuss some of the more technical aspects, such as where to find images and music and how to record yourself. Because all software is different, I won’t post a tutorial as such, but should you decide to create a video, either taking a class or finding online tutorials for your specific video editing software will help.

The Genealogy Blog is Back!

Posted in Site Issues/Technical

I have not written in this blog for nearly three years, a time period that coincides precisely with my move from Georgia to Massachusetts to accept a new teaching position. It’s been busy, and I have had little time to devote to family research, but I am glad to be back, and I’m looking forward to reconnecting with family, fellow genealogists, and other readers. In the time that I myself have been fairly absent, the comments sections on individual blog posts have been quite active.

You might also notice things look a little different around here. I changed the look of the site. As such, some items might be in different places, and if you can’t find something you used to be able to find, please just let me know. I think everything is in place, but it’s entirely possible I missed something.

Thanks to all of you for your patience.

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