Learning from NGS Family History Writing Competition Winners

Each year the National Genealogical Society holds a Family History Writing competition. The winning entry is submitted to the NGS Quarterly editors for possible publication. When accepted, NGS Quarterly readers benefit, for the contest winners’ work demonstrates excellence in researching and writing family histories.

Kay Haviland Freilich’s “Verifying an Ancestor’s Words: The Autobiography of Mary (Seeds) Haviland” captured the prize in 2009.[1] The family history documents the paternal family of Mary (Seeds) Haviland, who was born in Salem, Ohio, in 1878 and died in Pennsylvania in 1966. It offers readers several learning opportunities, such as how to structure, document, and add historical context to a family history as well as how to use NGS Quarterly format to number a genealogy. In addition, the author’s use of Mary’s unpublished autobiography as a source is likely to be of help to many.

Freilich’s family history consists of two parts. The introductory narrative section tells the family’s story, while the genealogical summary uses a defined structure (NGS Quarterly format) to provide names, dates, places, and relationships. Freilich’s narrative doesn’t mention everyone in the family, and it doesn’t include every date or event, but it puts the family into context by discussing key people and occurrences with important places, happenings, and associates as backdrops. Some researchers present biographical information in the body of the genealogical summary. For ideas on compiling a family history, see Christine Rose’s chapter, “Family Histories,” in Professional Genealogy: A Manual for Researchers, Writers, Editors, Lecturers, and Librarians.[2]

The compiled genealogy section of Freilich’s piece presents members of the Seeds family for three generations beginning with Job M. Seeds and his wife, Mary Mercer. Individuals are presented in NGS Quarterly format, which dictates the numbering and the order and style in which information is given. This is one of two well-known formats used for descending genealogies (that is, genealogies that trace a couple’s descendants). The other, known as Register format, was developed in 1870 by editors of the New England Historic and Genealogical Register. Numbering Your Genealogy: Basic Systems, Complex Families, and International Kin[3] includes more information about formats and systems.

Information about the subject family comes from a wide variety of sources. The footnotes reveal that the author used vital records, Bibles, deeds, censuses, and military pension files. One of the most unusual sources is a three-page autobiography written in 1965 by Mary (Seeds) Haviland, who then was eighty-six years old. Using the autobiography as a starting point, Freilich explored information found in other records to help judge the accuracy of Mary’s statements. Mary’s memory was very good, but in some cases her facts were slightly off. For example, she wrote that she was five years old when she moved with her family to Eastern Kansas, but other sources show the family moved there before Mary turned four. By studying the text along with the documentation, readers can learn about the types of sources an experienced researcher uses to support genealogical statements of fact. This is especially useful in cases where the sources disagreed, for Freilich provides insight to her analysis.

Identifying family members is only one part of an effective family history. Bringing the family’s stories to life involves placing people in historical context, describing their lives with respect to the times and places in which they lived. Freilich’s article illustrates how to accomplish the task. For example, Mary’s autobiography reveals that her father built a sod house with “one window with no glass and one door which was of boards. Father made the beds and they were covered with straw tick and feather beds.”[4] Freilich consulted additional sources to learn more about sod houses. In Joanna Stratton’s Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier Freilich found data about the construction and size of an average sod house.[5] Similarly, in an effort to learn about the tunnel on which Mary’s husband worked, Freilich consulted annual reports of the Bureau of Los Angeles Aqueduct, newspapers, and other publications.[6] She seamlessly merged information about the family members with general information that helped paint a more detailed picture of the Seeds’ lives and times.

Whether or not a reader plans to enter the NGS Family History Writing contest in the future, studying the work of past winners is an excellent opportunity to learn. The winning pieces show how to organize and present research results in a way that will engage readers. They demonstrate how to number and organize family members using NGS Quarterly format. They reveal the types of sources used by experienced researchers and illustrate how those sources should be cited. And they illustrate how to add interest by incorporating historical context.

Through their work, Kay Freilich and other winners of the Family History Writing Contest can teach and inspire. Winning entries can be located easily in the NGS Quarterly Archives by selecting the category “Family History Writing Contest Winners.”[7]

[1] Kay Haviland Freilich, “Verifying an Ancestor’s Words: The Autobiography of Mary (Seeds) Haviland,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 97 (December 2009): 245–64.

[2] Christine Rose, “Family Histories,” Elizabeth Shown Mills, ed., Professional Genealogy: A Manual for Researchers, Writers, Editors, Lecturers, and Librarians (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 2001), 452–74, especially pp. 459–60.

[3] Joan F. Curran, Madilyn Coen Crane, and John H. Wray, Numbering Your Genealogy: Basic Systems, Complex Families, and International Kin, Elizabeth Shown Mills, ed., rev. ed. (Arlington, Va.: National Genealogical Society, 2008).

[4] Freilich, “Verifying an Ancestor’s Words: The Autobiography of Mary (Seeds) Haviland,” 248n22.

[5] Joanna L. Stratton, Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982), 54.

[6] Freilich, “Verifying an Ancestor’s Words: The Autobiography of Mary (Seeds) Haviland,” 254–55.

[7] National Genealogical Society, “NGSQ Index Search,” NGS Quarterly Archives (http://members.ngsgenealogy.org/NGSQSearch/search.cfm?ssotoken=:ssoToken : 1 December 2016).

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