What do you do when you get notified that the final academic class you were scheduled to take has been cancelled and that you have to choose an entirely different subject -- one that will fulfill a general ed credit? If you're a writer, majoring in family studies, you decide to take History 433 -- writing narrative biographies. It is turning out to be one of my favorite classes -- and that says a lot because up to this point, my favorite class was organic chemistry.
Learning to write a narrative biography has as much or more to do with the research process as anything else. I've learned how to do oral interviews, transcribe recorded interviews, read and translate maps, and dig up facts. I had no idea how much information could be pulled up from one document. For example, one of the assignments required looking up a homestead application and then writing a one paragraph history of the person in the document, based solely on those application pages. (There were two pages to the document.)
Here is what I wrote:
It's hard to imagine raising 5 children in an 18ft x 20ft log cabin at the same time you are building corrals and fences, digging water ditches, and cultivating thirty acres. But that's what John Christensen and his wife did. After making an estimated $1000 in improvements, John Christensen, a naturalized citizen of the United States of America, filed a Homestead application and described that log house, complete with a door, windows, and a wood floor. He even mentioned building the outhouses. John must have been a very industrious man as he claimed that he built the house on his land in 1876 and established actual residence that same year. By the time he filed his application he had raised six crops and shown that the land was valuable for agriculture. A long time acquaintance, John Pine, confirmed that John Christensen and his family had indeed continuously resided on that homestead from the time the claim was made.
Another assignment involved researching and gleaning information from military records and pension applications. Here's a little historical bit from just one pension application:
Lieutenant Captain "Col" J.H. Harpster of the 148 RN didn't expect Private Jackson Hartley to live beyond his service in the Civil War. In a letter to the Commissioner of Pensions, dated August 10th, 1885, J.H. Harpster described the twenty-something-year-old private he worked with from 1862 - 1865 as a "used up man" who suffered from asthma and a lung affliction and who was frequently unfit for duty because of coughing, shortness of breath and the inability to keep up with the column. Despite being assigned detached duty to care for the Lieutenant's horses, Jackson Hartley appeared to be marked for death. I wonder if Lieutenant Harpster ever knew that Jackson Hartley did more than just survive.
Born June 24th, 1841, in Snyder County, Pennsylvania, Jackson Hartley turned twenty-one two months before he enlisted in the military in Harrisburgh, Canter County, Pennsylvania on August 4, 1862. He was assigned to Company G, 148 Regiment in Bowlsbrug, Pa. Just two short months later, the young Hartley contracted diphtheria and spent 5 days in the regimental hospital. He returned to duty October 14, 1862, but based on Lieutenant Harpster's description, suffered the effects of his illness for his entire period of enlistment. Jackson was granted an honorable discharge in Alexandria, Pa on June 1, 1865 and had no further military employment.
After his discharge, Jackson ventured west and settled in Ohio in 1866. Sarah Ann Swalley fell in love with the 5ft 7in tall shoemaker with dark hair, black eyes, and a fair complexion. They were married on January 18, 1868 and in July of that same year, Sarah gave birth to their first child -- a daughter they named Joanna. Seven more children followed in quick succession: Mary Catherine (November 26, 1870), Cora (July 23, 1872), William Henry (May 10, 1874), Mamie Alice (Sept. 19, 1876), Lettie Alice (Nov. 27, 1878), Charles Alton (June 19, 1881), and Effie Ione (August 13th, 1883).
In 1890, Jackson and Sarah moved to Nebraska. Seven years later, in 1897, they returned to Indiana where they would spend the rest of their lives. Sarah Ann passed away in 1900 in Wabash, Indiana. Her oldest daughter Cora and son William spoke of attending Sarah's funeral in an affidavit sent to the Bureau of Pensions in 1926.
Several years later, the widow Catherine Keller Rupe caught Jackson's eye and on June, 14, 1909, the couple were married in Warsaw, Kosciusko County, Indiana, by Rev. Beaton. In 1912, Jackson applied for his military pension. Two of his friends of more than a decade, James Showalter and W.G. Gardner, attested to his identity and witnessed the signing of the application. In January of 1926, Catherine applied for Jackson's pension as his widow, so one can assume Jackson passed away sometime in late 1925. Despite the odds, he lived a full life for 85 years.
Catherine lived for another five years, passing away October 8, 1931.
That one document carries enough information to sketch an outline for an entire historical-fiction novel! Can't you just see how to fill in the blanks and show the way each of these events transpired?
Following old city directories and reading Sanborne fire insurance maps, I discovered that a couple of sets of great-grandparents not only knew each other well, but lived next door to each other. I found where they worked, where they worshipped, where they bought their groceries and even where they got drunk.
The next lesson presents a giant hurdle for me. I have to call a couple of government agencies and locate records for members of my own family about whom I am writing. Calling people I don't know and having to ask them for something absolutely terrifies me. I would rather drive across the country, walk up to them in person, smile, shake their hand and start a conversation. But I can't get to Michigan right now. So phone, I must.
The final hurdle is organizing all the information and creating a beautiful story out of it. Actually, that sounds like a lot more fun than making that phone call. Maybe I can pay one of my kids to make the call for me...or bribe my husband with chocolate chip cookies. Regardless, when all is said and done, not only will I have improved my writing skills, but I will have a written family history that would have otherwise been lost.
Maybe that phone call won't be so bad after all!