Family Research and Writing

For the last few months, I’ve been working on researching what life was like in Geauga County during the mid-1800s for an essay I’m trying to write. For some reason, I’m having a hard time with this.  There are definitely resources out there, detailed ones, about life in the 1850s, but when I try to imagine life then, I tend to default to Little House on the Prairie.  I’ve known for a long time that my parents’ house was built in 1844, if not earlier, and yet all this time I’ve been imagining people settling in Geauga County and building little lean-to’s and ramshackle shacks to live in… not the solid, two-story, more-than-a-century homes that still stand today.

My imagination can’t seem to allow for any kind of transition between wilderness without roads or pathways and settlements.  I can reach out and imagine being the first to arrive in a place, or one of five original settlers, and I can imagine coming once a lot has been established, but what was it like to be the 20th family to arrive?  Did half a dozen friends or brothers or relatives decide to launch out and settle in one area of the county and then bring their families once things were settled, or were there lots of individual pioneers, setting out to make something for themselves, alone?  And when five or six fellas finally put down roots and rolled out logs for their homes, how did they receive newcomers?  Did they invite the boys from back east to join them?  Were they all strangers? 

And what drove people west (or midwest) anyway?  How did they decide to leave their familial roots in pursuit of more farmland, more wilderness?  Did they leave family behind, like we do today, in order to find wealth and success elsewhere?

These are the sorts of questions I keep stumbling over, because I haven’t found any real answers yet, at least not about this particular family line.  I have names and birth dates, weddings, deaths, and I have the names of towns they left and approximate dates they arrived, but all I have for answers as to motive is hypotheses.  I don’t know if that’s enough to write on – I might just have to guess, develop theories for reasons they left, what they found alluring about this region, what they left behind.  And own up to the guesswork. 

When I start trying to write about these people, though, I get caught up in the details, afraid to misrepresent a date or intention, afraid to read too far between the lines.  Their mom and dad passing away a year before they left New York might not have anything to do with their decision to move to Ohio.  Just because I can only find one other brother’s name doesn’t necessarily mean that was the only one he had.  Just because they had babies late in their marriage might not mean they had trouble conceiving.  These are all my own conjectures. I’m using my personal experience as a lens through which to interpret their lives, assuming that because we’re family, we might have shared these same kinds of experiences, thoughts, and ideas. 

But we’re family.  The shape of my nose and bone structure of my face aren’t the only things that have been passed down from generation to generation. Unless there’s some significant effort to deviate from what came before, some dissent or disagreement, some major conflict or culture shift, there’s a good chance that the beliefs and values I possess were handed down to me from my parents’ parents’ parents’ parents.  So is it that far off to assume my great-great-great grandmother might have responded a certain way because that’s how I might respond? 

These are the dangers about writing about people who are dead.  They aren’t here to clear up the story.  That’s also the freedom of it.  They aren’t here to protest my theories.  And writing about people who are living… well, you are certain to only get them in one, maybe two, dimensions, and all through the lens of personal bias and perspective.  This portrayal of family is only family as I see it, not necessarily as my brothers might see it, or my grandfather, or my great-great-great grandmother.  Which is why it’s personal essay, personal memoir.  Family and familial roots are important to me, so I want to write about it.

It’s just so dang hard. 🙂

Published by Sarah M. Wells

Sarah M. Wells is the author of The Family Bible Devotional: Stories from the Gospels to Help Kids and Parents Love God and Love Others (2022), American Honey: A Field Guide to Resisting Temptation (2021), Between the Heron and the Moss (2020), The Family Bible Devotional: Stories from the Bible to Help Kids and Parents Engage and Love Scripture (2018), Pruning Burning Bushes (2012), and a chapbook of poems, Acquiesce, winner of the 2008 Starting Gate Award through Finishing Line Press (2009). Sarah's work has been honored with four Pushcart Prize nominations, and her essays have appeared in the notable essays list in the Best American Essays 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017, and 2018. Sarah is the recipient of a 2018 Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council. She resides in Ashland, Ohio with her husband and three children.

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