Fleshing out a Family History Story

My earliest memory is sitting on the basement stairs and laughing at my dad as he is trying to catch frogs in a bucket. They keep jumping out and I think it is so funny. It’s kind of a vague memory and that is all I remember. My own memories make for an amusing story, but leave more questions unanswered than are answered. The biggest unanswered question is why the frogs were in our basement. I don’t know the answer to that from my memory.

After discussing with my mom and dad I have a much fuller picture. When I first brought it up to my dad he remembered the event but said there were no frogs, only tadpoles. I remember frogs so was fairly insistent that jumping frogs were involved. Luckily my dad is a good journal keeper so he went back to his journals. There were frogs, although he didn’t write anything about them jumping. This journal entry is from August 4, 1975. “Also caught a whole bunch of frogs in the basement. The packers will be here tomorrow and the movers on Wednesday. Then it’s home Utah here we come.” Here is the fuller story revealed through another peek into my dad’s journal earlier in the summer and the collective memory of my parents and me.

My dad joined the Air Force as a medical tech, in part to avoid being drafted. He served at a military base in Montana and my parents bought a house there. We lived close to the Missouri River and because the water table was so high we had a sump pump to keep the basement from flooding. In August of 1975 my father was released from service and headed back to BYU to work on a master’s degree. As part of trying to clean up the house and sell it he mentions painting and working on the trim, and getting the frogs out of the basement.

Why were the frogs in the basement? In June he wrote about some severe flooding in the area. It was severe enough that several homes were almost completely underwater.  After describing the flooding he writes that “the frogs by the thousands can be heard all night long.” Our home was fine and we were not affected by the floods, but the explosion in the frog population affected us. On the day my dad wrote in his journal, baby frogs started coming out of the sump pump into our basement. There were at least 20. My dad caught the frogs in a bucket or paper sack, and I had my own little plastic bucket on the stairs.

By having the date that this occurred from my dad’s journals, I can tell how old I was (I turned three a few months later). My mom said that she let me save a couple of frogs, but they died pretty quickly and we had to throw them out.

I share this story to show how you can flesh out your own memories by talking with other people who participated who might remember things slightly differently. By putting together all the accounts you can come up with a more full story of what was really going on. You can still separate your memories from those of other participants, especially if they have very different memories of the same event, while keeping the context of the larger picture.

What are your favorite memories, or first memories? How has talking with others about those memories helped expand them or give you a sense of the bigger picture?

Court Records are Another Window into Social History

A few weeks ago I attended a conference where Judy Russell (the Legal Genealogist) was the guest speaker. She gave several wonderful talks, but the one I was most looking forward to was the one about using court records to learn more about your ancestors and social history. I was not disappointed. She showed many examples of how court records can tell much about our ancestors even if our ancestors never appear by name. Probate records can give a sense of the wealth of the town, criminal records can show the most likely punishment for common offenses such as stealing, adultery or fornication in colonial times, etc., for a given locale and time period. She even showed cases where people in the town were reimbursed for caring for the poor, giving us a sense of what the going rate was for various services. My favorite example was one which highlighted the medical theories of the time in a homicide case.

Diane Rapaport is another professional genealogist with a law background. Her “Tales from the Courthouse”, a popular column which ran for several years in the the American Ancestors magazine, provided a humorous way to look at court records and gain insight into the society in which they were produced. Her book, The Naked Quaker, uses court records from colonial New England to examine societal norms and common (or uncommon relationships) between parents and children, neighbors, and society and slaves and servants.

I haven’t used court records yet, but will add them to my list of resources. What sorts of social history information have you found in court records?