In 2007 I summed up the approach I had developed to writing family history in an article that was published in 2008 in APG Quarterly, the journal of the Association of Professional Genealogists. I called it “Adding Muscle and Sinew to the Frame of Memory.” My ideal in what I had written and was writing was to put family history in its historical context.
You might put it this way: vital and property records, court, estate and other official documents, provide the skeleton of a family history; the more complete they are the stronger the structure. Often that is enough, and solving or at least explaining the lacunae in the records in some cases is sufficient challenge. However, curiosity can prompt further investigation of the social and economic context which will create a richer, more characterful narrative.
It was curiosity that prompted me to expand my investigation into the lives of forebears in New York and New England from colonial times to the present. As I proceeded, I found myself progressively wanting more detail to answer such basic questions such as, for example, what was involved in being an attorney in an 18th century Connecticut town, why and how places had been settled, what did they look like, how different or alike where the families from others at the time? These and any number of other questions popped up at each step of the way.
I’ll use this article to explain my approach and to give examples of what I call “adding muscle and sinew.” Notice that I didn’t use the more familiar “flesh” as a quality to be added to the narrative; flesh can be fat, padding in a narrative, fictionalizing, sugar-coating. I’d like to have the “muscle and sinew” of context brought into family history to be every bit as focused and disciplined as the building of the genealogical skeletal structure itself, that is, fact- and document-based. Believe me, however, it is a challenging task, and when I started out on the research that led to The Hatch and Brood of Time I had not a glimmer of what the book would be like or even that there would be a book. The material about these members of the Phelps family of Windsor and Hebron, Connecticut stimulated questions; research to answer them led to other questions and month-by-month the project grew.
Curiosity is the mother of investigation
The talisman that initiated my pursuit was a black notebook with scrawly handwriting—that of Julia Phelps (Haring) White, my great-grandmother. It contained the American ancestral lines down to her parents, and was a present to her grand-daughter, my mother’s first cousin, on her thirteenth birthday in 1919 and from that cousin to me on my 51st. I was a late starter, however, and since I was then fully occupied, it stayed in a garden house along with shoeboxes of family letters. This reprehensible custodianship of the documents came to an end with my retirement, and I read through it. Questions tumbled out: Some of the names I knew a little about: John Davenport of the New Haven Colony, Eleazar Wheelock, founder ofDartmouth, Peter Haring of New Amsterdam and Tappan, N.Y., after whom I was named. A cousin proudly showed me a photo of the house in Fairfield, Conn. of George Alexander Phelps, his 2x great, my 3x, in the style of the Greek Revival with magnificent columns and several figures visible, including a woman in black, said to be Julia in mourning for her parents from whom she was orphaned in 1868 when she was 18. As I am sure, others have experienced, I promptly felt it urgent to find out more, about these and the others in the numbered columns that Julia had so carefully laid out. And that began the first foray into the literature, the 1899 Phelps genealogy where there was a chronology from the immigrant ancestor, William Phelps of the Mary & John and Windsor that was a giant step forward and provoked an array of new questions about the places where people lived, what they did.
- Peter H. Judd, “Letters from Katie Powys to Elizabeth Wade White, 1938–1954,” The Powys Journal 7 (1997) 77–115.
- Peter H. Judd, “The Search for Thomas Herring: Bringing to light dramatic events in the life of a previously almost unknown merchant in early-nineteenth-century New York City” New England Ancestors, Spring 2004.
- Peter Haring Judd. “The Haring Family Notebook and the Origins of the Haring Family in Hoorn, Holland.” The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, 235 (July 2004) 169–173.
- “A Phelps Family Likeness Discovered” New England Ancestors 3:2 (2002): 27–29.
- “The Haring Family Notebook and the Origins of the Haring Family in Hoorn, Holland.” The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, 235 (July 2004) 169–173.
- “Adding Muscle and Sinew: Spicing up a Family Narrative.”Association of Professional Genealogists Quarterly (March 2008) 23–34.
- Carol Swaine-Kuzel, with the participation of Peter Haring Judd, “The New Hampshire Descendants ofNathaniel (4) Phelps and Mary Curtice of Hebron, Connecticut, and Orford, New Hampshire,” New Hampshire Genealogical Record, (Volume 24, No. 3 (July 2007), No 4 (Oct. 2007).