Family history is often dismissed by historians in the academy as something less than, but I’ve been thinking for awhile that the particularized approach that family history takes is a valuable tool, and might provide valuable lessons for historians. One of the best assignments I’ve ever had to do was for a course on immigration, in which we were given the name of a person in Chicago from a particular background at a particular time (in my case, from Ireland and living in Chicago in the 1880s) and asked to find out as much about them as possible, and to write about what that person could and couldn’t tell us about other immigrants from that background. You can find out a lot about a person just by tracking where they live, when they married, who their neighbors were, and how those things change over time – and a representative sample of, say, people of Irish ancestry living in Chicago in 1880 can begin to describe the broader population.
Some things, however, are peculiar and particular.
Say, for instance, my own family. On Sunday I rediscovered a 1937 Parker Vacumatic inscribed J.W. Shrout. I could have called my father and asked who J.W. was, but since it was a grey day and I had just finished a draft chapter, I dipped into Ancestry.com to trace the Shrout line back to a J.W. It turns out that J.W. was my great-grandfather, and that Ancestry.com has digitized his marriage certificate
and his draft card.
I find it very strange that documents so personal to me are out there on the internet for anyone to find, but that’s another post.
It also turns out that this Shrout is the great-great-grandson of Johan Peter Shrout, who happened to be executed in Hardy County, VA in 1804 for “the crime of killing his wife, which deed he committed by choking her with a broom stick handle. Shrout was executed at Moorefield according to the method of executing a criminal at that time, which provided the accused should sit upon his coffin, borne by about 6 men to the place of execution, usually a tree with an appropiate limb. The prisoner was allowed to signal when he felt that he was ready to take the step into that bourn from whence no traveler e’er returns. It is said that Shrout , instead of dropping the stick, threw it defiantly into the air.” (Christman, Gamble-Montgomery: History and genealogy and connected families, 1979. p. 251)
I think there is a story here about gender relations on the frontier in early America, about trials and capital punishments, and about how people treat, create and obscure memories of their pasts.
But for now its just family history.