Hearing Voices

Former NGS board member B. Darrell Jackson had an unusual request for his birthday. He asked his three adult children to read one of the six books he has written on their family history and write about their impressions. His son’s response was particularly thoughtful.

I am struck overall about how little we can know of the lives of people who we have never met. There are no tax records related to one’s feeling for one’s spouse; no plat maps that delineate the quality and variety of one’s sense of humor; no draft registrations that describe one’s voice, cooking skills, or the fashion in which one prefers one’s tea.[1]

As genealogists, we often focus on proving identity, relationships, and vital events. In doing that work, we sometimes lose sight of what we ultimately want from family history: to get to know our ancestors. One of the most compelling ways to do this is to use sources that actually contain our ancestors’ voices.

Diaries and journals are the most obvious examples of people describing their lives in their own words. If you have one of these for one of your ancestors, you’re very lucky. In the absence of that, however, other sources may contain those voices as well.

Newspapers don’t often include their subjects’ original voices, but they can sometimes be found there. Reporting often includes quotes from its subjects, particularly if your ancestor was interviewed. And, of course, there are letters to the editor that fully retain the author’s voice and opinions. My great-great-grandfather, Addison Harris Day, lent his voice and a rather extraordinary claim in a letter to the editors of the Atlanta Constitution that was published in 1889.

The Boy Soldier of the Confederacy.

Toombsboro, Ga., December 16.—Editors Constitution: I claim the honor of being the youngest soldier that bore arms in the confederate army. My father’s family record shows that I was born October 6, 1850. I can furnish proof that I was mustered into the Sixty-third Georgia regiment, Company D., in September 1863, and carried a gun and did a man’s duty until June 24, 1864, when I was wounded at the foot of little Kenesaw mountain. I lay in prison at Camp Chase, O[hio], until May 14, 1865. As to my capture, I was clubbed over the head with a gun and made a prisoner while insensible. My skull was smashed in. Some of the bone has come out. It produced instant paralysis, from which I only partly recovered. At the instance [insistence] of some of my friends I applied for some of the allowance money the state was giving, but my application was returned marked N. G., because I was not disabled from performing manual labor only a part of the time.

Addison Harris Day[2]

Similar kinds of statements can be found in many military pension applications.

Court records can preserve voices when witness statements or depositions are recorded. That’s not the case for all or even most court cases, but you may be surprised where and when they may appear. In an 1818 divorce case in Kentucky, my 4G-grandmother, Ora (Townsend) Clay’s voice was not recorded, but those of her brother, sister, and mother were. Without their depositions, we wouldn’t have a sense of Ora and Charles’s relationship or how Ora’s family felt about Charles.

Question by Complainant’s Attorney: Are you acquainted with Charles Clay & Ora Clay his wife?
Answer by Joshua Townsend [Ora’s brother]: I am.
Q: How long have you been acquainted with them?
A: With Charles Clay 9 or 10 years & with his wife since her infancy.
Q: Has Charles Clay abandoned her entirely as a wife?
A: Yes.
Q: How long since he abandoned her with the avowed intention of leaving her entirely?
A: Two years some time past.
Q: What was his treatment to her whilst they lived together?
A: I never saw him abuse her, but I have seen her shortly after his abusing her with considerable signs of violence on her person.
Q: On your conversing with him about his treatment to her did he not acknowledge that he had used violence with her?
A: He did not.
Q: Do you think that her life was ever in danger by abuse from him?
A: From what I heard from her at the time & the neighbours I think it was.
Q: Where does he now live?
A: On the Alabama river near fort Jackson.
Q: Have you not heard that he was living with another woman?
A: I never did.

Question by Complainant’s Attorney: Are you acquainted with the Comp[lainan]t & def[endan]t?
Answer by Patsy Hicks [Ora’s sister]: I have been acquainted with the Compt from her infancy & with Charles Clay about 9 or 10 years.
Q: What was the treatment of C. Clay to his wife while they lived together?
A: I have seen him beat her, slap her, kick her and choak her, and I have seen her shortly after he had abused her much bruised, & with considerable marks of violence on her.
Q: Did you ever hear him threaten to kill her?
A: I have often heard him threaten to kill her & saw him sharpen a butcher knife to take her life & be cussed at all day. I thought her life really in danger—he laid with the knife under the head of his bead, & when they went to bed he commenced choaking of her & she got up & set up all night.
Q: How long since he left her with the avowal of his intention to abandon her?
A: I don’t know. It is upwards of two years since he left her entirely, he left her for about 8 months once before.
Q: Did you live about their house a long time when they lived together?
A: I did about 2 or 3 months.
Q: Did you think Mrs Clays life often in danger from his violence?
A: I did.

Question by Complainant’s Attorney: How long have you been acquainted with the parties to this suit?
Answer by Patsey Townsend [Ora’s mother]: 9 or 10 years with C. Clay and with Mrs Clay since she was a child.
Q: State what the treatment of C. Clay was to his wife when they lived together.
A: I never saw him beat her. I have heard him abuse her.  And I have seen the marks of a whip on her which she said was the mark of cowhide. The whipping seemed to have been violent.
Q: How long has it been since he left her with an intention to leave her entirely?
A: Upwards of two years, & he left her twice before that, once about 4 months & again about 8 months.
Q: From your knowledge of his treatment to her, did you think her life was endangered in living with him?
A: I did not hear him threaten her life myself, but others did.

& further saith not.[3]

Sometimes our ancestors leave us little nuggets that we might not even know to look for. Hidden among the papers for my great-grandmother, Anna Catherine (Yoachum) Gregory, was a scrap of paper on which she had scribbled a few lines, apparently notes to expand upon later. Her spare language, rich imagery, and stream of consciousness form a kind of primitive poetry that I’ve come to love.

When we got home from Iowa 1901 we lived
edge of Verona on road going to Aurora[4]  While there
one of us kids would hear a car coming they made
lots of noise We would holler to rest We would
stand by gate to see it coming & watch it leave
instead of stearing wheel there was a rod to guide
the car.  Also we liked to dress up in Mamas[5] old
clothes & shoes.  One time going to church with
Mother at Christmas at 5.a.m. was the first time I
saw the moon and stars at that time I was so
thrilled I couldn’t explain how happy I was.
While we were in Iowa Aunt Mollie[6] made me a pretty
rag doll.  I slept with that doll for years.  Later we
moved over in town to a nicer house, Grandmother[7]
passed away, there was no funeral home so she
was in casket in our front room.  We had a
lot of company they slept upstairs, some one put
a cot oposite side of room where Grandma
was, for me to sleep, I realy hugged my doll that
night, I stayed awake a long time, finly went
to sleep but never told any one I was scared.
At that time the cofen was put in a spring wagon drawn
by 2 horses and people would 2 or maybe 4 abrest walked
to cemetery a couple miles away, neighbors dug
the graves.  Neighbor women dresses the corps.  I was 9
yr’s old then, this was in April 1903

I went to Catholic school
I like to jump rope but never
could get good at it
I had chicken pox
after moving to Pierce City
I didn’t do much playing
there was always some
work to do.

wanting to be first
Christmas morn.
asked rich girl to
eat dinner with me
mother gone.
couldn’t find anything
but bread & molasas.[8]

Finally, we can help our descendants and future researchers by making sure that the voices of us now living are preserved for the future, which brings us back to B. Darrell Jackson and his NGS Magazine article, “The Case for Autobiography.”[9] We’re often prompted to interview our relatives while they’re still alive, but Jackson and his wife succeeded using a somewhat different method: “We asked relatives to write accounts of their lives, especially of their younger years and their interaction with their larger families.”[10]

Not everyone responded, as should be expected, but many people did, adding rich stories and details to Jackson’s family history. They especially hit pay dirt with Jackson’s mother-in-law, Flora, who wrote 50 or 60 pages about her youth in the Missouri Ozarks. As you can imagine, those pages are priceless, containing a great deal of information that would never be found in public records.

Be sure to read Jackson’s article for hints about how to successfully engage your extended family and enrich your family’s history. And don’t forget to write your own autobiography, however brief or detailed you wish to make it. You might even consider writing your own obituary.

In what sources have you found your ancestors’ voices? How are you preserving the voices of your living relatives? And how are you preserving your own?


[1] B. Darrell Jackson, “The Case for Autobiography,” NGS Magazine 45 (July–September 2019): 46, citing Jeremy Jackson, Iowa City, Iowa, to Darrell Jackson, letter, 28 December 2018; privately held by the author, 1015 San Juan Dr. SE, Grand Rapids, MI; PDF, NGS Magazine Archives (https://www.ngsgenealogy.org/magazine/archives/ : 30 January 2020).

[2] “Letters from the People,” Atlanta Constitution, Thursday, 19 December 1889, page 4.

[3] Ora Clay v. Charles Clay, 1818, Madison County, Kentucky, Circuit Court, box 73, bundle 145, case file 7762 (FHL#2,241,471).

[4] Verona and Aurora are in Lawrence County, Missouri.

[5] “Mama” was Lovena Margaret (Hall) Yoachum, 1874–1960.

[6] “Aunt Mollie” was Mollie (Yoachum) Merritt, 1873–1966, her father’s sister.

[7] “Grandmother” was Lovena Teresa (McNair) Hall, 1841–1903, who died April 18th that year.

[8] Anna Catherine (Yoachum) Gregory, undated notes; privately held by the author (aarongoodwin@mac.com).

[9] Jackson, “The Case for Autobiography,” (note 1), 46–50.

[10] Jackson, “The Case for Autobiography” (note 1), 47.

  1. February 1, 2020 2:16 pm
  2. February 24, 2020 11:53 am

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