2013 – Your Immigrant Ancestors’ Stories: Writing a Quality Narrative

Coordinator: John Philip Colletta, Ph.D., FUGA

Instructor: Michael Hait, CG

2013 July 25 - Your Immigrant Ancestor - Kathryn Johnston - Valerie Sanford 2013 July 24 - Your Immigrant Ancestor class 2013 July 25 - Your Immigrant Ancestor - Michael Hait in action 2013 July 25 - Your Immigrant Ancestor - Lynn Parent - Carla Cegielski From Old World to New World, the saga of migration tends to be the most dramatic and momentous chapter in American family history. You have researched that story for at least some of your immigrant ancestors and discovered many other stories about your family’s past as well. Now it’s time to share them! Two dynamic instructors are eager to share their expertise and experience to help you write and publish a narrative account of your ancestors’ lives, particularly that pivotal experience of leaving the homeland, journeying to America, and getting settled in a new land. Vivid examples and case studies from colonial times through the early twentieth century demonstrate how to compile the material you’ve gathered; narrate life stories; maximize ship passenger lists, naturalization records, and information found in other immigrant sources; choose a numbering system; document, edit and proofread your text; and publish your work on paper or electronically. Classes explore how to weave oral family lore and treasured heirlooms, as well as pertinent local history, into your ancestors’ stories, and how to incorporate maps, charts and illustrations to enliven your prose. One in-class writing exercise (with follow-up in-class critique) helps you improve practical writing skills, share your special talents, and exchange ideas with the instructors and fellow students. Solid genealogical scholarship and narrative family history writing are not mutually exclusive, but rather complementary.


8:30- 9:45  Welcome, Orientation, and Preliminaries: What, Why, How, and For Whom Are You Writing? (Colletta)

This lecture introduces the key themes and subject matters of the course and lays the groundwork for all of the sessions to follow. It discusses the fundamental considerations for producing a narrative family history that is both an accurate record and a readable story. These include deciding the scope, form, content and style of the account, selecting a numbering system, and documenting the work.

10:15-11:30  Turning Biographical Facts into Real Life Events (Colletta)

  • How to Build Historical Context: Miller Family Immigration (1830)
  • How to Create a Narrative of Biographical Facts: Two Immigrant Brothers, George and Joseph Ring (1853)

Our ancestors were born, lived and died in specific physical circumstances at specific moments in time. This lecture demonstrates how to turn biographical data into the real-life experiences they represent. The suggested methodology results in ancestors who are more than names on a chart. They are distinct individuals with their own personal stories. The Miller family and George and Joseph Ring serve as examples.

1:00-2:15  Principles of Good Writing and Good Storytelling (Colletta)

This lecture addresses the essential elements of setting, action, characters, and theme. Specific vocabulary examples show how to evoke the five senses, incorporate archaic expressions and period quotations, and remain accurate by using qualifiers, such as “probably,” “perhaps” and “evidently.” Well-rounded episodes from the Civil War experience of one soldier show how to use literary techniques that hook a reader’s interest, employ powerful verbs and effective adjectives, keep the ancestor “at center stage,” portray ancestors as three-dimensional individuals, support speculation, and portray an ancestor’s personality, temperament or character.

2:45-3:30  How to Use Artifacts in Genealogical Writing (Colletta)

This lecture demonstrates how to use family heirlooms—such as jewelry, a pocket watch, photographs, kitchen utensils, furniture, books, letters and diaries—and on-site inspection of ancestral places—such as gravesites and homesteads—to help portray who an ancestor was. Clues from material culture, in conjunction with oral family lore and information from written records, may reveal an ancestor’s physical appearance, character, temperament, personal interests, social standing, day-to-day life, and perhaps even personal goals and motives.

3:30-4:00  In-class writing exercise: students write vignettes featuring immigrant ancestors (Colletta)

Finished vignettes must be submitted at 8:30 am on Tuesday.

(Distribution of book excerpts for Friday discussion) 


8:30  Writing exercises for critique due to Dr. Colletta

8:30-9:45 = Lineage Presentation and Numbering Systems (Hait)

In two centuries of American genealogy, a few presentation and numbering systems have been developed that have gained general acceptance in the community. This lecture describes the Ahnentafel system for organizing pedigrees and the Register and Modified Register (NGSQ) systems for organizing descending genealogies. Examples demonstrate the systems, showing the pros and cons of each.

10:15-11:30  Evaluating Evidence and the Genealogical Proof Standard (Hait)

Producing an accurate family history is as important as producing a well-written one. We can only produce an accurate family history if we conduct accurate research. This lecture discusses the importance of evaluating evidence and introduces the Genealogical Proof Standard as a measuring stick to access the reliability of our research conclusions.

1:00-2:15  Editing and Proofreading (Hait)

One of every author’s greatest challenges is learning to edit his or her own work. This lecture discusses how to meet this challenge and prepare your best work for publication. It examines common issues of grammar, punctuation and spelling.

2:45-4:00  Indexing (Hait)

Every good family history has a good index. This lecture discusses various options for creating your book’s index, including manual indexing vs. automatic indexing, using multiple indexes, and index design.


8:30-9:45  Passenger Arrival Records, Colonial-20th Century (Colletta)

This lecture begins with a discussion of sources for discovering the arrival time and place—and perhaps the ship—of an immigrant to colonialAmerica. It then exploresU.S.passenger arrival records, especially 1820-1957, available on microfilm and the Internet. It suggests what facts you need to begin your search and explains step-by-step how to conduct that search. Specific examples illustrate how to use Web sites, National Archives microfilmed indexes, book indexes, and other research tools.

10:15-11:30  Naturalization Records, Colonial-20th Century (Colletta)

This lecture addresses the legal means by which non-British settlers in colonial Americacould become naturalized citizens ofGreat Britain. It then explains U.S. naturalization laws and processes, which began in 1790, and describes the records that resulted from them. It considers the naturalization of both alien classes and individuals, and provides guidance on how to find an ancestor’s records, whether the naturalization occurred in a municipal, state or federal court. Pertinent research tools such as Internet sites, manuals and indexes are all demonstrated.

1:00-1:45  Documentation: Important for Readers . . . and the Author, too! (Colletta)

This lecture discusses the rationale and forms for citing the sources used in the preparation of a family history. Genealogical works from three different periods provide sample source notes for comparison and debate. Current standards found in the Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition) and Elizabeth Mills’ Evidence Explained, Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace are evaluated in light of earlier practices. Thorough, consistent documentation is an essential part of every genealogy and family history.

1:45-2:15  Writing Historical Narrative: The Pitfalls and Snares (Colletta)

To narrate the life experiences of our ancestors is to tell their true stories. The undertaking is rewarding, but fraught with snares and pitfalls. Portraying the physical and social world of a bygone time in a bygone place is no easy matter. Citing diverse examples, this lecture addresses some of the most common errors made in the name of “historical context” and suggests ways to avoid them. Family historians who are not on guard may produce ancestral accounts that are imprecise, misleading or downright untrue.

2:45-4:00  Assembling the Immigration Story (Colletta)

  • Andreas and Franziska Noeth (1882, 1886)
  • Patrick Sheehan family (1893)
  • Santo and Rosalia Colletta (1914, 1919, 1920)

The immigrant experience was not the same for every one of the millions of men, women and children who came toAmerica over the past four hundred years. Each immigrant’s story is unique. Using two 19th-century case studies and one 20th-century case study, this lecture describes the original records and published materials available to discover the particular facts of your own ancestor’s story. It discusses how to evaluate those sources, extract the facts and assemble them into a cohesive narrative that conveys both the drama and individuality of your ancestor’s emigration/immigration experience.


8:30-9:45  Pilgrims, Adventurers, Servants and Prisoners: Colonial Immigration to North America(Hait)

From New England down toGeorgia, immigrants to the British colonies came for many different reasons. This lecture discusses some of these reasons, as well as the records pertinent to researching colonial immigration.

10:15-11:00  Creating a Genealogy or Family History on a PC (Hait)

This lecture discusses the use of common word processors to write your family history. It explores tips and tricks for using Microsoft Word, OpenOffice Writer, and GoogleDocs.

1:00-2:15  Electronic Venues for Publishing Genealogies and Family Histories (Hait)

The 21st century has seen an explosion of technologies for publishing. This lecture explores new ways to publish family history, including of e-books, blogs, wikis, and others.

2:45-4:00  Publishing Your Genealogy or Family History as a Paper Book: fundamentals of self-publishing and subsidized publishing (Colletta)

There are many ways to publish the results of your genealogical research. This lecture focuses on producing a traditional paper book. It explains the decisions you must make, the variables you must consider, to self-publish. Using Only a Few Bones, A True Account of the Rolling Fork Tragedy and Its Aftermath as an example, many practical issues are discussed.


8:30-9:45  In-Class Critique and Discussion of Writing Exercise (Colletta)

10:15-11:30  Sample Immigration Narratives for Discussion (Colletta)

(Discussion of book excerpts) This wrap-up discussion session recapitulates all of the key themes and subject matters of the course by analyzing how the authors of exemplary published family history narratives handled the immigration story.

11:30-12:00  Wrap-up and certificates followed by lunch