Unpacking History One Discovery at a Time
Here I go. Once more heading out to a long-awaited trip to continue my family research. This time I’m off to Minneapolis and Madison. I’ve been waiting to go to Wisconsin Historical Society Museum and Library for three years now, ever since I reunited with my bio-family. Thursday night I’ll be camped in a hotel on its doorstep. And do I have a research plan? Of course not. Do I think “winging it” is a good practice? Of course not. But it’s what I do. Sigh.
I’ve had some wonderful surprises when working without a research plan yet I always think about what else I might have found if I’d been better prepared. Alas, once again I’ll be cramming on a flight.
The good news is that I do know who I want to learn about and what questions I want to answer so at least I’ve got that going for me. And I’ll have two days so I can use part of one day to help build a plan on the fly. Some days you just gotta work with what you’ve got.
I used the flight from Seattle to Minnesota to review some of the physical documents I do have on these families and read some county histories and general information about the migration patterns. I couldn’t open my laptop so was confined to paper. Which turned out to be a good thing.
When you hear “begin with what you know” as advice for new genealogists, it’s important, I think, to remember this applies to all of us. I went back and reviewed documents I had uncovered years ago and with more knowledge behind me, I see more in these documents. From a survey I found one family had one patent in Barron County and one family had two patents. I hadn’t recalled that. So now I wonder about why that difference: more people? more money? OOOOHHHHH a new question.
The crafting of the research question seems easy at first and then reveals itself to be surprisingly difficult. At times I was struggling with defining exactly what I was trying to “prove.”
Drat. She’s right.
My research will focus on two lines of my father’s mother’s parents, the Swartouts and Worden families. There’s a family story we are related to Jessie James through the Worden side and I would love to prove that. I’d also like to know more about their religion and political leanings.
The other research focus will be on my biological mother’s families. Cumberland in Barron County, Wisconsin, saw a lot of my ancestors. Four different families lived there, and then at least one person from all four of them came to Seattle. Farmers, veterinarians, politicians, servants, housewives and students. I want, of course, to know their stories.
I’m curious about why families migrate. I’m fascinated by the drive west. So one question: Why did they come to Wisconsin from the east? I know they arrived in the mid 1880s as part of the great Western Expansion:
Between 1870 and 1890, the biggest movement westward took place. Spreading from the railroad tracks, hundreds of thousands of settlers moved into the Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. The last territory settled was Oklahoma in 1889. A frantic rush took place to seize a piece of this last bit of the wilderness. The frontier was closed. There was now no dividing line between wild and settled land.
How were the dry plains turned into farming land? Why did the cattlemen give way to the farmers? One reason why the cattlemen were forced out was the summer drought of 1886, when the grasslands withered and cattle starved. The winter was the worst in living memory and thousands more cattle froze to death. Many ranch owners were ruined. The other major reason for the farmers’ success was the spread of new inventions that
made farming possible on the Great Plains. Barbed wire began to be sold in the 1870s and large areas of land could now be enclosed cheaply and quickly. Equipment to dig deep wells became available. Most important, new machines were developed, such as the steel gang plow that could turn several furrows at once; special harrows to break up the soil; mechanical reapers and binders, and steam threshing machines. Vast areas could now be farmed far more efficiently.(1)
No matter which of my ancestral families you look at, at least one courageous adventurer followed the railways and moved west as the country expanded. Now I get to follow them.
Do you have a favorite research plan template? How do you research plan?
Western Expansion http://imnh.isu.edu/digitalatlas/geog/explore/expand.pdf
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