Tuesday 6 October 2015

Letters From My Aunt

My Aunt Doris (one of my mother’s older sisters) was the original family historian in my family. She compiled a great deal of information in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. I have mentioned her in passing on previous posts (September 9, 2014, September 16, 2014, October 4, 2014). Her work inspired me to get involved in genealogy.

Doris Marguerite (Miller) Schnur (1904-1995) – photo taken in 1940 in Oahu, Hawaii, USA
Of course, research when Doris was active was done by mail – back and forth to libraries, court houses and record offices – and by personal visits to those places. My aunt travelled widely across the US to obtain information about our ancestors, also visiting cousins who were also involved in the investigations. Imagine doing all that work and spending all that time, and perhaps not even finding what you hoped for or needed.

She produced several copies of her family history, dozens of pages long and all typed – using carbon paper so she could do three or four at a time. When she had a lot of new information she would retyped almost the whole thing again. I have a couple of versions she sent to my mother, produced at different stages of her work. These are like family heirlooms in themselves.

Doris was always delighted to hear that others were interested in the family history and shared all of her work generously. On one copy to a cousin she wrote a preface that said:

These copies are presented under the following philosophy: Data in this book came from public records and from the descendants of Asa Harvey McDaniel.  It is not copyrighted nor will it be.  Any who wish to copy any or all of the contents are free to do so.  Our wish is that the results of our work will give pleasure to those interested in our family history.
          Doris - March 1971.

Much of her work has been reproduced in many family trees as well as in family books. I recognize her work on many Ancestry trees, unfortunately none of it is attributed to her.

Not only was her family history all typed up neatly, she also typed all the letters she sent to family members. I have several she sent to my mother and copies she wrote to a cousin who was also involved in genealogy. And I have kept the one she sent to me in 1986 after she learned I was also interested in the subject, with all of its personal wishes, family information and wonderful typos.

The letters, themselves, are filled with information she had found and you can feel the excitement she had in both the discovery and the sharing of it with others, such as in the 1969 letter to my mother which she started with, “I hit the jackpot this morning when the mail came!”

Her letters were always full of current and relevant news about her family, too. Looking back and reading these letters now adds a great deal of information about people, like her, who are gone. We get a real understanding of who they were and what their lives were like. Some of the letters went on for pages like the one below to Cousin Mildred with whom she shared grandparents. Many copies I have also contain notes written into the margins both by Doris and by Mildred which add to the stories she told.

It’s too bad people don’t write letters any more. Emails and Facebook pages are nice but rarely do they show the enthusiasm of the author or have so much information about family as do those that people took the time to write and post.

Wayne Shepheard is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program in England, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy and is a past Editor of Chinook, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Family Histories Society. Wayne also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated