Writing a Family History is the Smart Thing to Do

Writing a Family History is the Smart Thing to Do

Recent research at the University of Graz, called the ‘Ancestor Effect’ suggests that thinking about our ancestors prior to a job interview or college exam increases the chances for success, as Jerrie Hurd reports in her latest blog post. The ‘Ancestor Effect’ hypothesizes that being aware of what your ancestors have gone through and overcome, increases your confidence and creates a stronger sense of identitySo doing genealogy and learning your family stories makes you smarter! I knew that already – go to any national conference and you will be amazed at the sheer number of smart and brilliant people in attendance.

Besides making you smarter, writing your family history can be emotionally healthier and very healing. A good way to start is by outlining the life of your ancestor into segments.
Let me show by example how I break a life into pieces.

My grandfather was Farmer Greenwade, yes, his name was Farmer and no, he was not a farmer! He was born 28 July 1884 in Jeffersonville, Montgomery County, Kentucky. His father was Henry Robert Clinton (HRC) Greenwade born 11 Oct 1830 Montgomery, KY and his mother was Martha Ann Alfrey born August 1862 in Jeffersonville, Montgomery, KY.
HRC had been married previously to Emily Amanda Wills who reportedly died when her son Thomas Breckenridge Greenwade fell into a well and she fell in trying to save him.
HRC and Emily had 7 children together at the time, with the youngest Rose Emma being 2 at the time. HRC had served in the Civil War in the Confederate Army’s 3 Batt’n Kentucky Mounted Rifle, Company B as a Private. He survived the war to become a new widower and with most of his children grown (according to Rose’s death certificate) apparently gave Rose to Nelson Wills, a relative of his wife to take care of her. Six months after Emily and his son’s death, HRC remarried to Martha Ann Alfrey, 32 years his junior.
Farmer was only 3 when his father HRC died from what family tradition says was due to a buggy accident. Martha, his mother delivered his brother Clarence one month after his father’s death. That information is the kind of data we list on our genealogy charts. But there is more to a person’s life than mere dates and places, when we stop and look at all the elements in a person’s life, a story and patterns become apparent, it becomes real. It’s not always pretty, but having a bigger picture gives a better perspective on the life of our ancestors and maybe understand them and ourselves a little better.
Lets add some tidbits to what I know about Farmer.

Born 1884 To an older father in his 2nd family. 20 years after the Civil War in rural Kentucky.
1887 age 3 Farmer’s father dies in buggy accident, leaving his 25 year old mother with an infant son and a 3 year old.
1891 age 7 Mother marries Allen Cyrus Perry who has a daughter 3 years older than Farmer. Martha and Allen have 2 boys, 9 and 12 years younger than Farmer.
1900 age 15 1900 US Census has Farmer living still with family in KY
1905 age 21 Enters the Army and is sent to the Philippines as a medic, enlisting in Marion Co. IN where his mother and step-father are living. Maintains a lifelong interest in health foods and natural remedies. Drank carrot juice and fruit smoothies before anyone had heard of smoothies.
1910 age 26 Marries Sophronia (Fronie) Louise Rigsby in Marion County Indiana
1918 age WWI draft shows him and wife living in San Francisco, CA employed as a sign painter. Farmer was a great artist and once painted a realistic copy of the Mona Lisa.
after 1920 bef 1928 Mother, Martha contracts cancer. Farmer and Fronie go visit and take care of her until her death.
after 1920 Census Brother Clarence changes name to Steven or Clarence Perry (step-father’s name). Clarence was involved in starting unions in CA and had death threats. Would often go to brother Farmer’s ranch to hide out for awhile.
1928 age 44 Wife Fronie commits suicide by ingesting arsenic, reportedly she was depressed because of being childless. Living in CA at time. They were married 18 years. After this Farmer had a loathing of funerals and believed flowers sent a waste.
1929 age 45 Farmer marries Helene Frances Halvorsen Cassidy, divorced mother of 2 young boys, living in California. Farmer owned a dance hall and met Helene there who loved to dance. Farmer is 17 years her senior.
1930 age 46 1930 US Census Farmer is found living with wife Helene, her 2 children and wife’s former sister-in-law Alice Cassidy in CA
1931 age 47 Kidnapped by rival gang after Farmer was involved in hijacking 1000 gallons of alcohol from the gang during Prohibition. Turns State’s Witness in Racketeering case. Beaten and almost killed he decides that he and family will ‘lay low.’
1929 – 1942 ages 45-58 Farmer and wife have 8 children, 1 a still-born.
1942 age 58 WWII Draft Registration shows him married to Helene and working for Western Pipe and Steel in San Francisco, CA
abt 1946 age 62 House burns down after Farmer puts wrong fuel in refrigerator. They move temporarily into a chicken coop.
abt 1947 age 63 Farmer and wife Helene separate (but never divorce) when my mom, Sandra the youngest was about 5 years old. Sandra and brother Frank throw walnuts at Farmer when he comes and tries to take Helene’s ring to pawn.
Helene raises 9 children (2 from previous marriage) on ranch by herself with no financial support from Farmer.
1955 age 71 Wife Helene dies from breast cancer. Sandra goes to live with various married brother and sisters until her marriage at age 17. Remains estranged from her father.
1959 age 75 Farmer takes children’s estate to court to gain control of ranch property. He wins.
1963 age 79 Farmer decides to reconnect with children. Gives Sandra money for down payment on house and moves in with daughter Sandra and her family in Seattle area. Leaves after 6 months because of disliking the weather. I was Sandra’s oldest child and I loved to talk with Grandpa and he taught me how to tie my shoes, we went clam digging and he made me drink carrot juice. Gave me his little carved wooden box after I colored in the lid. He drove an old yellow and black car with a ‘suicide knob’ on the wheel which almost came true when the brakes went out on a hill in Kirkland and we almost ended in Lake Washington.
1964 age 80 Dies from Hodgkin’s Disease, living with oldest daughter Flo in CA at time.

Some interesting things come out when you can see a life over times. Patterns bring some interesting questions, like this:

  • Farmer’s wife Helene married 17 years her senior. Helene’s mother Clara married 17 years her senior, and Clara’s mother, also named Clara married 17 years her senior. Is this significant? Note: All these marriages ended in divorce or separation.

My mother did not have a strong or close relationship with her father. Her memories of her father are far different than her older sisters who remember happier times. Because Farmer was 58 when she was born and he left when she was 5 and died by the time she was 22, she had little time to get to know him.Farmer was said to be handsome, charming, adventurous, quick witted, as well as hot tempered, stubborn…sounds like a Greenwade alright!  When you break his life into pieces and see the various things that he lived through, I am less inclined to judge and am actually filled with compassion towards him.
It must have been difficult growing in rural Kentucky, after losing his father and his mother remarrying 4 years later. He marries his love Fronia, only for them to remain childless for 18 years. I can’t imagine having to deal with her suicide. How did he get involved in racketeering and bootlegging? What was he going through when he was beaten and kidnapped and threatened with death? What was his wife Helene thinking when the kidnappers burst into their home and they had 4 little children there? Then dealing with the press and society after it appears in all the papers. Why did they never get divorced? Was it financial or something more personal? Did he in his old age regret the choices he made when he left his children?
When we ask questions and examine the timeline, and looking at the social history of the time we can begin to draw some conclusions and add details to our stories. When we are writing our family history and not are not relying on actual first person records like a diary, we need to make sure that our conclusions are ours. Using words, like possibly, and likely, help others recognize these are our suppositions and not facts. But, maybe when we write their stories, we can find similarity in our own stories. Maybe we can find some healing to troubled hearts as we see all the pieces and not just the part we may be familiar with…and maybe we might be smarter just because we make better choices.
So get smart and starting gathering, writing and sharing your family stories!


  1. So very interesting! You are so right – the stories make the people seem real.

  2. What an interesting, and beautiful blog! I’ve awarded you the Lovely Blog Award, and you can ‘pick it up’ at http://www.familytreewriter.com.

  3. Thank you Sherry!

  4. My name is Tracy Abrams and Rose Emma is my great grandmother. Would you be willing/able to share information that you have regarding this line of my genealogy? My email address is: tracyjabrams@yahoo.com.

  5. Wow, Valerie, this is excellent.

  6. Valarie, this is amazing. Have you compiled all your information on our family in a book or something, ’cause I would totally buy a copy. This was just amazing to read.

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