Over seven years ago, when I retired, I stared at the boxes and files filed with over 35 years of genealogical research. It was time to digitize everything, so I did that for about three years. It takes about three hours a day.
The family trees and research are on Ancestry with a backup on my computer using Family Tree Maker software. I was an early customer of Ancestry, all the way back to the early 1990s. When I decided to back up what was online, I chose Family Tree Maker shortly after that. Their track record was already good. I trusted them.
I stayed with both because Ancestry offered an extensive sample, and the Family Tree Maker’s track record was still excellent. Plus, it would require too much work to change now. I had too much invested.
While inputting it, I couldn’t help wondering whether anyone in my family would actually read it. Except for one daughter, I feared no one else would take the time to search through the “this ancestor begat that ancestor” information.
So what can one do to ensure one’s offspring understands their heritage?
It occurred to me that people will read narrative stories before reading basic research, so I wrote a book.
Because I needed help, I found Lynn Palermo and her Family History Writing Studio. Her online courses teach amateur genealogists how to write about one’s family in a narrative nonfiction way.
I signed up for a 28-day challenge held in February several years ago. It turned out to be just what I needed. The challenge came with daily directives, such as identifying the theme and focus of what I wished to write. She immediately made me realize I needed to focus on one or two ancestors instead of entire families.
Next, it helped me organize and gather the resources I already had. In addition, it helped me understand the resources and research needed. She just completed one in February.
Later, for example, she requested a short story about our chosen ancestor, and the challenge participants critiqued each other’s work. It became a daily exercise that got each of us into the habit of writing.
The result was a book series entitled Palmetto Pioneers, a three-book story. I chose one family member, Mary Adeline Walker, my third-great-grandmother, on my maternal side. She came to territorial Florida in 1829 and settled with her parents and grandparents near Monticello, Florida. They were yeoman farmers who primarily raised cattle.
During the 28-day challenge, I focused on my family in my home county. I had been told they were among the first settlers of this area of Florida, but there were too many family lines. I descend from the Hamricks, McSwains, Rodgers, Wheelers, Lightseys, Andrews, Wilsons, Carters, and Walkers. All arrived in Jefferson County, Florida, before the Civil War.
I narrowed the list to the Walkers because they first arrived in 1829. They came to this county as several Walker families.
I chose Mary because she is the keystone for the distinct lines of the family from which I descended. Her daughter, an Andrews, married a Lightsey, who married a Hamrick. My mother is a Hamrick.
All I knew about Mary, though, was her marriage. It required much more research to prove her parents. Until the 1850 census, the enumerator did not ask for the names of other household members, so she is not listed by name in the 1830 and 1840 censuses. She married in 1843 and moved out. However, there is a girl her age in each of the two earlier censuses; and I could not find a girl her age living with any other Walker family. There are other secondary sources used in a proof argument in the book.
Mary’s parentage wasn’t the only research needed. It took over two more years of research, including over 120 digitized issues of Monticello’s first newspaper from 1859 to 1861. This process was slow but valuable. Information gleaned from these issues changed the story. I had to rewrite an entire chapter of the second book.
Because I was writing a narrative account, the story needed much more than its characters’ primary and secondary resources. I realized I needed a timeline, not only for local happenings but also for state and national. I developed all three timelines and used them to fill in the backstory, those events happening to the family at each point.
For example, during the Second Seminole Indian war, Jefferson County suffered many massacres. One was in Mary’s community. History Geo showed that the massacred family lived next door, close enough for the family to hear. Local diaries and journals described the fear of children and adults. One log told about a Carter cousin killed.
While researching the family for the book, I realized that Mary and her husband may be Florida Pioneers. Thus, I began the Florida Pioneer Descendent Certificate process. At first, this task seemed daunting, but the Florida State Genealogical Society had an excellent system to follow. A warning, though. If I had looked too far ahead at the amount of work to be done, I wouldn’t have started it. But I went through each part step-by-step without looking ahead, and before I realized it, I was done.
When I turned in my initial application, it needed more. Kathy Stickney contacted me, and she became my mentor. She was on the committee that helped those who wished to complete their certificates. I accomplished it several years ago.
A Series named Palmetto Pioneers
I entitled the first book, “The Emigrants, which begins when Mary was seven and still living in South Carolina. It covers the roads we believe they took between Colleton District and Monticello, Florida. It is also a bit of a history lesson, describing why these areas had recently opened.
Determining when they left South Carolina and arrived in Jefferson County required several resources. Later, census records showed when their children were born and where. Using these dates and places provided a good idea when they made the trip. Common sense showed they probably made the trip in the late fall or early winter. These were farmers. They would have wanted to stay for the last harvest and be in place in the new land by the time of planting. With all this information, we felt confident they left around early October 1829 and arrived by the end of the year, with plenty of time to raise their cabins and get their first crops into the ground.
To determine what route they took, I studied maps from that era. The family did not use some roads because they traveled with livestock. According to journals and diaries from that era, the road down the east coast and the Coffee trail did not have enough water for the cattle. I studied other roads, weighing their distance and ease of travel, before choosing the most likely route.
The first book ends when Mary marries and begins having children. She married a widower born and raised in the District of Columbia, when Washington, DC, was rebuilt after the British burned the Capitol and other buildings during the War of 1812. His father was a joiner in the carpentry business there.
Another milestone of the book’s ending, though, is statehood. The book carries the reader through when her father and husband vote in Florida’s first statewide election. For this story, their day began early because they had to ride 8 miles into town for the event. Because it was spring, a busy time on any farm, I felt certain Mary’s father did not come into town the day before.
When I began the book and was well into ending it, I thought I was working on one book. It wasn’t until my 94-year-old distant cousin read it for family content. He said, “Cindy, I think this is two books.” He kept the chapters I sent him and placed them in a notebook. It required two large notebooks. That is when I knew I had written a series.
The book is self-published by Amazon, and it was easier to publish than I imagined. It is available on Amazon as an e-book, paperback, and hardback. Because I felt the first book was over-priced, I have split the second part in half again. Hopefully, the next two will be a cheaper read.
The book has an extensive bibliography in the back, and the e-version can be word searched for any person, place, or event.
Though my primary purpose was to write a book for my descendants, I always had in mind two more secondary goals. I love my state and my county, and it concerns me that my neighboring citizens do not understand its rich history. I meant these books to provide anyone, whether kin, a look into how this wonderful state was settled.