How to Make a Family Tree: Exploring  the Story

A romantic liasion between a young girl and the lodger; Irish ascendants hopping around the country in search of work; the one legged wheelwright who made a fortune by following his nose, and then lost it all gambling; the father of four who returned from World War I a man worn down to the bone, who loses his wife in childbirth and twins weeks later; the sons of a widower who were tossed out onto the streets and put into Barnardo's. All true stories and part of my family tree, a tree very like yours no doubt and you may not even know it.

Some time ago I started looking into my family tree, and like most people I hoped to find that I was the long lost heir to the throne, or related to somebody spectacularly interesting. However very few of us will have such lines of ancestors, and most people wouldn't even bother tracing their history, as they feel it may be too boring or difficult.

For me it has been a fantastically interesting journey, a journey that literally has no end. I have to admit that I have not managed to trace my history back to the 1500's or some other far off point, my current research has taken me back into the realms of the early 1700's, a time when my ancestors were involved in local communities, either as cotton workers or miners.

Hardly a celubrious or fascinating history you might think. Yet as you saw, you do not need famous and exciting relatives to create a fantastic story around your history. It is the depth of history, and storytelling you can gather from your history that gives you a feeling of where you come from.

In my next update I will explain a little more about my research and how to make a family tree that will not only reach far back into time, but will give you and your children, and future generations something to think about and treasure.

Getting your stories first hand - The World War II Hero

The first step on your path to making a family tree, is to talk to any relatives about what they know about your family history. Now here is where I differentiate from most standard e-books and websites you will read on the subject. For me it is not sufficient to simply have a few dates and names, they are great but they are not the story. I'll explain with an example:

When I started my family history, my grandad was still alive. Even at the age of 72 he was a tallish, physically strong looking man with unusual grey eyes (he even wrote that on his passport). The ladies down at the local community hall swooned after him, he walked eight miles, yes eight miles into the local town to buy groceries everyday.

Every Sunday he came for his roast dinner and whilst we were waiting for our lunch to arrive I asked him about his days in the army. I knew that he had fought in the African, Italian and Burman campaigns from what I had been told by my father but my grandfather was always reticent to discuss the war , and I fear that there were too many sad memories of friends lost for him.

The Bridge

He explained that he had joined the army in 1939, as soon as war had been declared. He was 19 years old, and had recently married my grandmother. A young man, separated from his wife and sent to fight in far away lands, laden with memories of his father who had fought in the Great War, and who had returned a broken man.

As with many young men during the war, my grandfather was posted to fight in Africa and was in fact one of the infamous "Desert Rats" so feared by Rommel. During his service in Africa he was defending a bridge with his brigade, they had been under heavy fire for two days, when the German troops suddenly stopped their fighting and appeared to be pulling back.

"the bridge exploded, and the jeep disappeared beneath a plume of smoke and debris"

One of the young soldiers was detailed to scout the bridge, and to see if they could determine what the situation was. My grandad watched with his fellow troops as the jeep approached the bridge, everything seemed quiet, and the jeep drove across, without drawing enemy fire.

And then it happened, the bridge exploded, and the jeep disappeared beneath a plume of smoke and debris. The German's began peppering the troops with heavy artillery and gun fire. Looking into the area where the bridge had collapsed, the remnants of the jeep could be seen. The commanding officer, sat with my grandfather's troops, asked if anybody would be willing to go to the aide of the fallen corporal. My grandfather stuck his hand up.

He was given a jeep to drive down to the point, and told that he would be given as much cover as was possible. Accelerating hard through trees down a rough shod track, he was able to get close to the bridge without bringing down too much fire, he pulled to a halt short of the bridge and walked through the trees, realising that any sudden movement might bring him to the attention of the German troops. In the rubble, he could see the soldier, and realised he was still alive.

Taking his chance, he ran out into the open hoping that the fighting would be concentrated on his colleagues, and that the rubble and dust would hide him enough to get to his fallen compatriot. As he ran across to the jeep, he could see that the corporal had a huge gash down the front of his head, with shards of metal in it. Quickly he lifted him out of the jeep, pulled him onto his shoulders and ran for cover, it seems that someone had spotted them and the onslaught of bullets began. Resting behind the jeep he had taken, he cleaned the corporal's wound, and dressed it best he could. He then threw the injured corporal into the back of the jeep during a moments quiet, and floored the accelerator back towards the British troops.

Once back behind the friendly line, the young corporal was taken away to be treated, and my grandfather returned to battle. He tried to find out if he was safe and sound afterwards, to little avail.

The End of The Story?

This in its own right would make an interesting story, and be worthy of remembrance. But as with all good stories there is a small twist.

After leaving the war my grandfather returned to my grandmother, and began work like many others. Eventually he ended up working for a company called Johnson's as the chief buyer and stores manager.

As company purchaser he would have many meetings with suppliers and companies. It was during one particular lunch meeting my grandfather got to talking with a man of similar age, and he noticed that this man had a severe looking cut across the top of his head. My grandfather asked him whether he had been in the war, and was that where he had received such an nasty gash.

The man smiled, and explained "I was a corporal in Africa, and had been sent out on a recon, to check for Germans, and as I drove across a bridge a mine exploded and blew me off the road. This is a memento of the fortune I had in getting away. I'm here thanks to a brave man who put his life on the line for me that day and saved me by cleaning up this damn thing".

My grandad couldn't believe it, surely this could not be the man he had saved some 15 years earlier, and so asked him if he knew who had saved him. The man explained that he was barely conscious at the time, but had been told it was a man called Dick. He had tried to track him down but had had no luck.

My grandad explained that he was Richard Goodwin, and watched as the man's expression changed as he also realised that he was talking to the person who had come to his aide that day.


What is your family tree, and what is your family history?

I rather expect when you started  your research on how to make a family tree, your thoughts were focussed  on delving back in time, to find out how your ancestors lived in the 1500's. Were they lords and ladies, did they own huge mansions, was I descended from aristocracy?

It is easy to forget that your family history, is as important as your family tree. These stories tell us more about ourselves and our family than any number of names and dates on a chart.

Which do you think will impress your children, and in time your grandchildren and maybe future generations, more? Stories told from the heart, with emotion, trials, challenges and pride, stories which show how your ancestors dealt with hardships, and courage in the face of adversity or a bunch of names who they cannot connect with.

Your family, and future generations, can learn so much from these stories, and it was after all the traditional method for handing down learning in ancient cultures for a good reason.

How to make a Family Tree into a Family History

Firstly you should approach members of your family, be prepared to spend an hour at a time with them, if you have a voice recorder (remember many phones and mp3 players have them built in now), then use that. If not just try to write down the salient points, you can always come back later for specifics.

Ask them for funny stories, or sad stories, ask them for stories about themselves, your parents, their parents and grandparents. Ask questions as they tell you the story but only to clarify, let them talk as much as possible.

Once you have gathered the information write it up on a word processor, and store it in a folder under the persons name. These stories have a dual purpose, not only do they provide you with a family history, they often contain golden nuggets of information, that when you are researching the next level of family can be used to ratify and confirm your findings.

My grandmother had always told me that I had some scouse blood (from Liverpool, England) and Irish blood in me, although she couldn't be sure when and who. Interestingly whilst doing my research I found the source of this in the mid 1800's, 70 years before my grandmother was born. This is how family knowledge is passed down.

Start researching your family history now, before all those stories are lost forever. Take the time to listen to the tragedy, the humor and the uplifting stories your family can share. I only wish I had taken more time to discover mine whilst there was the chance, do it now and you won't regret it.