Help, Please: And Then There Were Thirty-Nine!

When I poked a hole in the brick wall that had been keeping me from ancestors of my great-grandmother Wilhelmine Schulze, I suddenly wound up with 39 new members of my family tree!  And that's not including all the siblings, just the direct line of parents and children.  It seems that they were mostly farming families that stayed in the same place for centuries, so there's a long history of these ancestors in the Ortsfamilienbuch for Bremen-Lesum.  Here's my question now:

What do I do with all these people??

What I have is a very complicated and extensive pedigree for this branch of the family, but genealogy is meaningless to me unless it is held together by stories.  I'm not the kind of genealogist who is happy with a long line of names and dates that ultimately prove I'm descended from Charlemagne (I'm not); I want to get to know the living, breathing people and be able to show what their lives were like.  I don't need a lot in terms of facts or clues to weave a story, but I need something.

This is not even the whole branch -- the arrows on the right lead to more people!

So how do I go about working with all these people, finding the traces that will allow me to tell their stories? I'll share my ideas about how to get more deeply into this branch, but I would love it if you would add your ideas about how to get to know them and how to tell their stories.  What works for you?  What resources have you used?

1.  I get to know the area where they lived.  I look up the history, I look for pictures that I can include (with permission), I try to imagine what it was like to live in that physical place. I try to find a picture of the church my ancestors attended, of the baptistry within the church where they might have been christened.

St. Martini's Church in Burg-Lesem, where a number of my ancestors were married/baptized

2.  If I come up with significant historical events from that time, I try to see what connection might exist between the ancestors and those events.  In this way, I was able to imagine an ancestor on another branch joining his community to welcome Marie Antoinette as she made the journey from Austria to Versailles to be married, stopping at a monastery for the night in my ancestor's village.

3.   I scrutinize the dates, looking for clues about relationships, raising questions and making inferences from the clues; for example, I had no idea from oral family history that my great-grandfather was dead by the time my grandmother was 10 and her sisters younger than that -- once I knew that, I had to imagine how my great-grandmother kept going, with no husband and three children to support.  Of course, some questions I develop are unanswerable:  why did my grandmother leave her infant daughter with her in-laws when her first husband died?  Without letters or other evidence, we're on pretty thin ice.

4.  If as in this case, I'm lucky enough to have found my ancestors through an Ortsfamilienbuch, I mine it for every tidbit of information that I can -- in this case, there are lots of notations about various people (if a couple was married or not, other names the person might have gone by, occupations, and so on).  I will be working my way carefully through each person I came up with in the coming weeks.
 Historical building in Burg-Lesum

5.   If I can discover an occupation for an ancestor, I will find out all I can about that particular line of work in that historical time:  the life of a chimney sweep in late 1800s Germany, the economic problems faced by Silesian weavers in the early 1800's.  

6.   I follow the trails wherever they may lead -- when I learned my great-great grandfather died in a mental institution, I investigated that institution and the director, learned a great deal about him, and even ordered a book he wrote in the late 1800s, a history of that particular institution.  I painstakingly translated parts of it (my German is very rusty and certainly not up to academic writing!) and thereby learned that the conditions in the institution were quite humane rather than horrifying, as I had been imagining.

Can you tell that I like to do research?  

I'm sure there are other rabbit holes I go down, in pursuit of my elusive ancestors, but I'd love to have you add to the list -- what kinds of research do you do to humanize those people that start out as names and dates?


  1. Just catching up on blog reading since GRIP. I know exactly what you mean. I tend to focus on more immediate families trying to tell their stories. However, I, too, have names and dates of ancestors further back and appreciate your list of things to do to help "flesh" out their stories. I need to do more research!

  2. Thanks so much for your response, Lisa! I love to figure out how to tell the stories - they might not always be right, but who's going to prove me wrong? :)


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