Family History Research

Telling the story of your “Silent Women”

History and women’s history are two important components of a well rounded family history. What is important to recognize is that these components are often left out when family history researchers tell the stories of their families. Why are these components left out? I believe it is because family history researchers do not know the importance of incorporating history into family histories and they do not know the great wealth of resources available to them when researching the stories of their family, especially women.

I would like to tell you the story of my great grandmother Anna Svihlik Tregler. Between 1915 and 1925, Anna made a few trips back and forth between Bohemia, which became Czechoslovakia, and the United States, specifically Chicago. From information I have gathered, she was bringing her children over and then returning to Eastern Europe with her husband for reasons unknown. She married her second husband, Jaroslav, in Chicago in 1915, three years after the birth of my grandfather, Jerry. Family story is, when Jaroslav died in 1922, he left Anna and Jerry with a small sum of money. As a result, Jaroslav’s family did not want Anna to leave Czechoslovakia because she would have taken her money with her. Anna decided to leave Czechoslovakia for the last time in 1925 and wanted to take my grandfather, Jerry, to Chicago.  Apparently the Tregler family tried to prevent Anna from leaving so she sought help from Thomas Masaryk in order to leave the country. Anna was successful and arrived in the United States April 14, 1925.

This story is interesting at first glance, but what is the importance? Anna’s story offers a combination of world history, U.S. history, Chicago history and women’s history. When I heard the story for the first time I wondered why Anna left Bohemia. In the end, why did she ask Thomas Masaryk for help and who was he?

In researching Anna’s story on and off over the last 14 years, I began finding answers to these questions and of course, finding more questions I wanted answers to. Why did Anna leave Bohemia and then after returning, Czechoslovakia? The exact answer will never be known, but by looking at the history of Czechoslovakia and Europe during her lifetime, I can see the political, social and economic upheavals occurring before and after World War I. These upheavals gave me possible reasons why Anna left. Why did she enlist the help of Thomas Masaryk and who was he? Masaryk was the first President of Czechoslovakia when it became an independent nation on October 28, 1918 at the end of World War I. He was still the President in 1925 and although I have no documentation to prove he assisted Anna, I suppose it is possible. Another mystery!

If a researcher has the basic information such as names, dates, and places, possibly a family story, but no history, they certainly do not have a complete story of the lives of their ancestors. Val Greenwood said it best, in his book, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, “Genealogy and history (religious, economic, social and political) cannot be separated. Men cannot be dissociated from the times and places in which they lived and still be understood. It is impossible to recognize the full extent of research possibilities if you are not aware of the historical background from which your ancestor came.” In a sense, researchers have separated history from genealogy. What Greenwood is telling us is that we must know history to put out ancestors into the historical context in which they lived. He is also saying that by putting our ancestors into historical context, we understand exactly what resources are available to us in our research. Once researchers understand how to incorporate history into their family histories, it is time to move forward to researching the women in our past.

As researchers collect all these names, dates, and places, they strive to see how far back they can trace their paternal lines. In essence, family history researchers focus more on the lives and stories of men, rather than women. When writing women’s history, Christina Schaefer wrote, “Women’s history should not reflect only an isolated tale of victims, but should give a full context of the events which women helped to shape.” Scahefer goes on to state, “Looking for women requires a readjustment in how we view traditional record sources.” (Source: The Hidden Half of the Family by Christina Schaefer). With these ideas in mind, it is my hope to leave you with a greater understanding of what resources are available to you as a family historian incorporating history, and more specifically, women’s history into your family stories and give you a new perspective on some already used sources.

I would like to share a few topics family history researchers can examine about the lives of their female ancestors. Please understand there are many more topics about which stories can be written. Researchers can examine a specific period in their ancestor’s life and compare it to other time periods with these topics in mind. Not only do you want to examine the lives of your matrilineal line, but also of sisters, cousins, and aunts, of the women you are researching. It is interesting to compare the women not only across generations, but within the generation. Here are some possible topics.

  • Was the woman married or single? If married, at what age did she marry?
  • What were her roles? What was expected of her as a woman, wife, mother, friend, daughter?
  • Was she educated? If she had formal education, how much education did she have? If she did not have formal education, what skills did she learn growing up? Was she encouraged to further her education if formally educated?
  • What was her occupation? Did she work inside or outside of the home or both?
  • Where did she live? Alone? With a spouse and children? With her family?
  • When and how did she come to the United States if she was an immigrant?
  • Was she involved in any women’s clubs?
  • Did she work during World War I or World War II?
  • Was she a pioneer somewhere in the United States?
  • Was she in Chicago and experience any major historical event such as the Great Chicago Fire or World’s Columbian Exposition, etc.? This is a specific example to Chicago but can be applied to any city and major event.

As an example, I did a study comparing the roles of married women in my family. I looked at my grandmother and her mother. I looked at their roles in the family, what was expected of them, whether they worked inside or out of the home, and where they lived in relation to their families. The time period was roughly the 1930s. I then looked at my mother in comparison to my grandmother and finally myself. It was interesting to see how different the generations were in comparison to one another.

Now that you have an idea about the types of stories you could write, where do you find the information for these stories? The best place to start is with home sources. These are the same sources used to fine pure genealogical data such as names, dates, and places of events in your family. Examined more closely, these sources help you find clues about the lives of your female ancestors. As in pure family history research, it is also very important to document your sources so you know from where the information came.

Next I would encourage you to find books about women’s history for the time period in which your ancestor lived. Find books specifically about tracing women’s history such as The Hidden Half of the Family by Christina Schaefer or Discovering Your Female Ancestors by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack. These books will be reviewed on my blog in an upcoming post.

Go online and Google women’s history and specific topics in which you are interested. Talk to others online via blogs, message boards, and other online forums about women’s topics. The possibilities are endless for finding information on women.

In conclusion, I used a quote from Christina Schaefer’s, The Hidden Half of the Family, “Looking for women requires a readjustment in how we view traditional record sources.” Readjusting our view and use of these tools as family history researchers, will allow us to start researching the lives of our female ancestors and being to write their stories.

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Using Maps to Visually Make Sense of Family History Research

Maps are a valuable tool in family history.  Maps can be used to search for the place from which you ancestor came and can also be used to illustrate a point you want to make in your research and writings. In my research, maps have helped me in in three specific ways which are explained below.

Visually presenting the migration of a family within a city or state after immigration.

I have used Google Maps to build a map of Chicago in 1900 with the street addresses of my families. I am able to pinpoint a location on the map and add text to a pop up box. Google Maps connects to Google Earth and allows me to see a present day shot of the street and home, if the home still exists.  If I want to publish a map I have created, I can link to it, print it, or send it via email. Google Maps allows me to save maps I have created and either make them public or private. In my research, this has been a very useful tool for me to see where my families lived and where they moved as the families grew.

Illustrating the relationships between families.

At the turn of the century, many of my families lived near one another. As the children of the immigrants began their own families, and down yet another generation, mapping out the addresses has shown me that my families were close-knit. A child grew up, married, and typically moved within a street or few blocks from the parent’s home. The grandchildren could “walk across the alley” to grandma’s house for bakery.  Even as my families began moving out towards the suburbs, this same living proximity emerged. It was definitely a different way to live than most families today. I think many would find if they mapped out their parents addresses and those of the children, there would be a much greater distance than “a walk across the alley” between families.

Illustrating military movements.

As I explained in my post about Family Atlas Software, maps can provide a great visual to accompany text in our family history writings. I am currently writing the life story of Michael Kokoska, my great, great uncle who died in World War I in France.  While I do not have a Statement of Service record to know exactly where he fought, by reading his 32nd Unit history and the World War I Order of Battle books, I am able to plot on a map, places in France where his unit served. The software also allows me to add text to the map which gave me the ability to add a timeline for his military service. This map makes a great addition to his story.

How have you utilized maps in your research?

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