Category Archives: Writing Family History

Phantasmic art insights

I love to visit art museums, especially when visitors are allowed to take photos. It’s a wonderful research-gathering tool, especially if you’re looking for glimpses of how people looked and lived before photography came along.

That said, paintings of some eras and peoples are easier to find than others. Lately I’ve discovered that European cultures like France, Italy, England, and Germany are better represented than places like Scotland. On a visit to the Boston Museum of Art earlier this year, I found not one single painting by a Scottish artist. I even inquired at the information desk just to be sure. No, nothing about Scotland or by Scottish artists, I was told.

Therefore, being able to visit the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh was a huge breakthrough. In honor of the October Hallowe’en month, I offer this example of one of my finds there, a painting called “The Spell.”

The brass plate beneath the painting reads:

Sir William Fettes Douglas (1822-1891)
The superstition was common in many countries that it was possible, by word of power and magic, to force the dead to reveal the secrets of the unseen world. The Rosicrucians and Illuminati of the Middle Ages being especially accused of violating the tombs for this unholy purpose.

Beside the painting is a further explanation of the artwork (I also take photos of those so I can identify the paintings when I get back home):

The magician here is endeavoring to raise the spirit of a dead man. The mood of the painting is enhanced by the number of strange diagrams and mathematical calculations together with the glimpse of moonlit water and ancient standing stones.

It’s awesome to go to museums themselves for this type of elucidation about the art and artist, the time period, and more. The next best thing is exploring art images online. This week, for instance, I happened upon the Scottish artist Thomas Faed. His work is a wonderful glimpse into the life of Scots in the 19th century. Using Google search, type in “Thomas Faed artist” and then select images for a wonderful overview of his paintings.

Tips for family history albums

0 art 1

“The New Bonnet” 1858 by Francis William Edmond, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, NY

Two weekends ago, I gave a session at the Write on the Sound Conference in Edmonds called “For the Record,” about ways to write about and publish your family history. A popular approach is to design a “family history album” online. Many sites will assist with genealogy “scrapbooks” or family history albums. A few links to vendors are found on Cyndis list here.

"The Power of Music" 1847, William Sidney Mount Cleveland Art Museum

“The Power of Music” 1847, William Sidney Mount
Cleveland Art Museum

Additional options for creating an album: Snapfish, Shutterfly, and my friend David Williams’s favorite Magcloud. These companies provide design templates and instructions for uploading text, photos and graphics to create your personal album. At Magcloud, you can give relatives and friends the option of downloading the digital book for free, and/or buying a hard copy edition for a pretty fair price.

"The Penny Wedding" 1819 by Alexander Carse The Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh

“The Penny Wedding” 1819 by Alexander Carse
The Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh

Regarding graphics, the choices for visuals become slimmer before the invention of photography, first accessible to middle-class families in the mid-1800s. These days we’re so reliant on photography we tend to forget a very helpful alternative. Paintings. Before the camera, painters were the portrayers of everyday life. I’ve found that many art museums allow non-flash photos, so whenever I’m doing research I bring along my camera.

0 village in germany

“Return from the Church Fair” circa 1859-1860 by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller Old National Gallery in Berlin

If you do include a photo of a painting in your album, it’s helpful to include a caption noting the title, the artist and year, and the museum where you snapped the picture. How do you get all that detail down? Photograph the painting first, then follow that up with a photo of the label next to it for later reference.

Honestly, I didn’t think of this resource myself — my writing friend Michele Genthon pointed it out. Thanks, Michele. In this post, I’ve included just a few of the many paintings by artists who have brilliantly captured life in former times.

In the footsteps of every visitor to Amsterdam and beyond

Our first day in Amsterdam, we made a beeline to the Van Gogh Museum, where we came within about 200 yards of the place, at the back of a long line of ticket purchasers.

Van Gogh Museum“Must be because it’s a Sunday,” I muttered after about five minutes of no forward movement. “Maybe we should try again tomorrow.”

The next morning found us no closer. This time, at least we’d purchased tickets for the voucher line.

“This must be the one thing in Amsterdam every tourist does,” Dave said.

The woman in front of us turned around and nodded. One hears many different languages in this city, but just about everyone, it seems, speaks English. In the end, we only waited half an hour. The line to the Anne Frank House is the other must-see, and a wait of 2-3 hours no matter when you go. With only two days here, we had to skip it.

Amsterdam City ArchivesInstead, we opted for a 75-minute canal open-boat tour. The driver took us by the Amsterdam City Archives. (If we had another day, I’d definitely be dragging Dave here.) But you don’t have to physically stop by to appreciate archives treasures–through their website, the digital collection is extensive and impressive.

Self-Portrait at Rijksmuseum, Vincent Van GoghBack to the Van Gogh Museum, and the current exhibit (“When I Give, I Give Myself: Artists and writers respond to letters from Van Gogh”), with displays about the multitude of artists Van Gogh has inspired these last few centuries based on his brief 10-year career as an artist (1880-1890). In one letter, which Vincent wrote to his brother Theo in 1883, I  especially resonated with these words, about the “intense struggle between ‘I’m a painter’ and ‘I’m not a painter.'”:

Sometimes a frightening struggle … If something in you says ‘you aren’t a painter’ — IT’S THEN THAT YOU SHOULD PAINT, old chap … one must take it up with assurance, with a conviction that one is doing something reasonable, like the peasant guiding his plough …

Imagine. What if Van Gogh had listened to his inner critic?

Name change for Family Chronicle

family chronicle cover

January/February 2015 issue

Family Chronicle: A how-to-guide for tracing your ancestors recently arrived at my door, and I couldn’t be more pleased.

I learned about the publication when giving at talk at South Whidbey Genealogical Society. It’s a Canadian magazine with 80-percent distribution in the U.S. You’ll find it at many libraries and genealogical societies, and also in the magazine section at Barnes & Noble. And, I’m proud to announce, my article: “My Ancestor Was a Blacksmith!” appears in the January/February 2015 issue.

ancestor was a blacksmith



But that’s not all. There are a lot of great articles in this issue, including one on clues for discovering more about your family’s musical traditions. Here’s an excerpt from “Music in the Family”

Estate records for farmers often mention small bells that were placed on harnesses, or around the necks of sheep and cattle. … One bell was enough for a flock of sheep. The bell was placed around the neck of a “wether”, a castrated ram that the flock would follow. Called a bellwether, this term has evolved into a word for a person or group that leads followers into a coming social or political trend.

Love it! There are also articles on finding African American ancestors before 1866, a “Primer on the Russian Language and Names,” a primer on using DNA in genealogy research, and, my personal favorite, a great article called “Black Sheep, Loose Nuts, and Family Secrets,” about how to handle those skeletons in the closet.

The articles are all well written and informative. But one caveat — the publication won’t be called Family Chronicle for long. Beginning with the March issue, the magazine will continue under a new name: “Your Genealogy Today.” I’m really glad I found this publication, and honored to be in such good company.

Guessing right

“You might want to look through Dad’s stuff, the boxes in the spare room,” my brother Craig said to me over the phone. I was visiting his house in Cincinnati in early May. He had left for work earlier that morning. “I’m not sure what’s in there.”

The rest of the afternoon found me sitting on the floor of my brother’s living room, pictures and documents spread around me, as I took photo after photo of family genealogy documents, histories, and old photographs.

The material I’d pulled out of storage had been sorted into 9 x 12 manila envelopes. The outsides were labelled with names — PATTERSON — HOPPENSACK — MCINTOSH — GRESSLE — but I soon discovered the contents did not match the labels. In my dad’s dotage (he passed away in 2009), I remembered how he used to mix everything up. I had a clear vision of him sitting in his assisted living room, through a drugged haze of Parkinson’s, anti-depressants, and other meds, attempting to compose his “autobiography.” These materials had no doubt been spilled across his coffee table to jog his memory, then stuffed back in confused disarray.

It amazed me that I had none of this stuff when I was writing my novel The Last of the Blacksmiths. I had letters, tin-types and other photos, a family tree, plenty of other paraphernalia, but this material I had not seen.

One document in particular took my breath away: an 1858 confirmation certificate for “Elisabeth Crolli,” Michael Harm’s future wife.

elizabeth crolly confirmation zum schifflein christi


I had guessed Elizabeth Crolly was religious. Here was impressive evidence — from a church I’d guessed her family had attended — Zum Schifflein Christi (The Little Boat of Christ) German Church in Cleveland, Ohio. Somehow, through DNA? or instinct?, I’d also guessed my great-great grandmother was very devoted to her faith. Now, I beheld the evidence of her confirmation, carefully pasted to a stiff backing and preserved, a message to descendants five generations later regarding what this German American held dear.

Another first

With the publication of my debut novel The Last of the Blacksmiths, the “firsts” keep piling up. The first book deal, first book launch, first novel reviews, and now, a first radio interview! This afternoon at 4:00 p.m, I’ll be interviewed by host Ed Bremer on Everett’s “Sound Living,” KSER 90.7 radio.

Am I prepared? The novel took almost four years to write, so hopefully I’ll be able to answer a question or two. Since it’s radio, I won’t have to demonstrate how to shoe a horse or anything. Still, this being another first, it feels as challenging and daunting as all the others. I’m excited too–it should be fun. Listen in, if you get a chance, and wish me luck!

Sleigh rides

My grandmother was a young girl in Cleveland in the 1890s. One of her favorite memories of that time was winter sleigh rides, her parents tucking her into the sleigh seat with a lap robe and fur coat, her hands toasty in a beaverskin muff. I imagine her sleigh rides were more staid than this scene in a Currier and Ives print I saw recently on display at the Museum of the City of New York. This one is called “A Brush for the Lead: New York ‘Flyers’ on the Snow” by artist Thomas Worth. The image, poorly rendered by my non-flash camera in the museum, is still “Christmas-y” enough that I wanted to share it.

Currier and Ives New York Flyers on the snow

Of course, nothing is ever idyllic as it first sounds. There were inherent dangers, just like our car accidents today. Here is “‘A Spill Out’ on the Snow” done in 1874.

Currier & Ives "A Spill Out on the Snow" 1876

Happy holidays. Stay warm.

Holiday recipe for Lebkuchen

Emma Hoppensack PattersonMy German American grandmother outlived the rest of my grandparents by twenty years. Emma Hoppensack Patterson was born in 1891 and died in 1987. In her entire 96 years she never learned to drive and hence, spent most days at home, refining to perfection the duties of a home-maker–cooking, cleaning, sewing and laundry.

I still remember when Dad read out my grandmother’s Last Will and Testament, the whole family gathered in her oddly vacant living room. Items in her Will revealed her earthly cares. To me, she bequeathed her sewing machine and sewing basket. To my sister-in-law, she bequeathed her recipes.

In the past few years as I’ve researched family history, I started wondering about those recipes. Grandmother used to can grape juice out of concord grapes, a taste store-bought grape juice is never able to replicate. Could that recipe be in her files? Are any of the recipes handed down from her German immigrant grandparents?

Recently, my sister-in-law and brother were kind enough to send me copies from the recipe box, recipes for cakes, sauces, pickles, blackberry and cherry wine. To add to my delight, several of the recipes are noted as being from Lucy Hoppensack and Grandmother Harm, from Emma’s mother and her mother’s mother.

LebkuchenThis September, my German relatives Angela and Carlotta visited Seattle and brought me an early Christmas gift — Lebkuchen cookies. “We make it a rule not to eat these until Christmas,” Angela said. “But they’re selling them already in the stores.” I opened the package and bit into one, the taste redolent of cinnamon and cloves. It only took a moment to remember where I’d eaten these before: my grandmother baked these cookies every Christmas.

Leafing through her carefully hand-scripted recipes, I found them.

1 c. molasses
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup melted shortening
1 c. warm water
4-1/2 cups flour
1 tsp soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cloves
1 tsp cinnamon

Frost with 1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar and 3 Tbsp. water

The card doesn’t provide further instruction. No doubt she chilled the dough several hours or overnight, rolled it out, cut the cookies into circles, then baked them about 12 minutes at 350 degrees. I remember watching her frost them when they had just come out of the oven. Yum.

Come Christmas, I’m definitely giving it a try.

Writing family history

Is there a story in your family you’ve always wanted to record, for posterity? A family member who is getting older, who you’ve always wanted to interview? Or are there cherished stories from your own experiences growing up that you’d like to share with the generations that follow? Sometimes it’s a bit overwhelming to know where to begin, but I encourage you to give it a try, both for your sake, and for those who come after you.

Plenty of resources for writing family history can be found on the web. Below are just a few:

Cyndi’s List 127 links to writing your family’s history –

10 Steps To Writing Your Family History –

Ancestors: Writing Your History –

Family History Lesson (from LDS genealogy site): Conduct Family History Interviews –

Family History Lesson (from LDS genealogy site): Write a Personal History –

Have fun!

Metal splashes from the crucible

My great-great grandfather came from Freinsheim to Cleveland in 1857, and apprenticed with his uncle as a blacksmith. He was sixteen years old. I want to explore and write about his experience. To piece it together, I have original source material–photos and letters sent from my father’s ancestors back to their relatives in Germany. My German cousin Angela has been invaluable in learning the Old German script and translating the letters. I’ve been reading about the history of Cleveland, Ohio and the Rheinpfalz (Rhineland-Palatinate) region of what is present-day Germany, about steam and railroads and blacksmithing, about the 19th century immigrant experience. I’ve outlined and gathered my wits, and am now ready to begin writing a novel of historical fiction. With this blog, I’ll share some things I learn along the way.