FINDING YOUR NIKKEI ROOTS: Writing your family history (part 2): Adding context to your story

Where were your ancestors during the 1906 earthquake and fire?

Last November, I wrote about the “Gift of Family History.” In that article, I explained that “writing your family history is a way to give your ancestors a voice. Use documents, photographs, and family heirlooms to create the framework from which you bring your ancestors to life. Use historical context to help the reader understand the time periods during which your ancestors lived.”

WRITING YOUR STORY — San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, 1906. Sasanji Okazaki circa 1912, Tomikawa Photo Studio, San Francisco.
Library of Congress

But what does that mean? What is historical context? Certainly you don’t want to create a work of fiction when writing your family history. But you also don’t want to simply list mundane facts (he was born, he married, he died) or your reader will become unmoved and disinterested. As the family historian, it is your job to make the factual story interesting, readable, and relatable.

One way to make your project more readable is to break it down into smaller segments. Start by compiling your facts into a timeline. Then, do more research; read about the history of the time and place where your ancestors lived. Ask yourself questions such as:

What job did he/she have?

What was the community like?

Who was his/her employer?

Who else lived in the neighborhood?

What sort of transportation did he/she use?

Was the person born at home or in a hospital?

Did he or she suffer any illnesses?

What were the marriage customs like?

What were the funeral customs like?

What sort of clothes did he/she wear?

What about hairstyles?

What churches or temples were in the community?

Were there any significant historical events which occurred in the time frame?

Be sure to research beyond the individuals; look to the community and surrounding areas. Were there any epidemics in the area and time period? What about wars? New laws? Major technological advances such as electricity or automobiles? Try researching both conventional and ethnic-specific newspapers to learn more about the time and place.

Photos can often add depth to your story. If you include photos, be sure that you have permission to do so. Are the images in the public domain? Are they privately held? Let the reader know where the original is located or how you obtained it. Many images are copyright protected, so don’t include photos that aren’t yours to use or publicly available unless you have explicit permission to do so.

By adding historical context, your stories will feel more real to your reader. This doesn’t mean you should embellish or fabricate stories. Family history is history, after all. Use accurate social and historical facts to help your reader better understand the lives of your ancestors.

Tomikawa Photo Studio, San Francisco.
photo privately held by the Okazaki family

Sasanji Okazaki was a farmer from the small village of Tabara in Okayama prefecture. Life must have been difficult for the father of three in Meiji-era Japan. He likely sought economic opportunities when he left his hometown for British Columbia in 1898. On 7 March 1906, Sasanji left Canada and crossed into the United States at the port of Tacoma, Washington. He planned to go to a hotel on San Jose St., in San Francisco. It’s not clear exactly when Sasanji made it to the city by the bay. Where was he when the great earthquake stuck in the early hours of 18 April? Was he in the hotel? Working in another area of California? Regardless of his location, he likely was impacted by the earthquake in some capacity.
Is this tale accurate? Or is this fiction? Genealogists and historians always base their conclusions in fact. When something is not definitive, you can use qualifiers such as likely, perhaps, or possibly. You can also indicate uncertainty by asking questions: What was he thinking? Where were his children? Where was he living?

Sasanji’s name, the village, and the era are facts drawn from the koseki and other original documents. I researched Meiji-era Japan and the economic plight of farmers to add perspective. I know from immigration records when he came to both Canada and the U.S. And I will include all of those sources in footnotes or endnotes.

Genealogists place a great deal of emphasis on source citations. The important point to remember is that when you include a citation, whoever reads the story will be able to go back to those sources and do additional research.

Selected resources

“The Chicago Manual of Style Chicago, IL”: University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Starmans, Barbara J. “Tracing Your Ancestors Lives: A Guide to Family History.” Barnsley, UK: Pen and Sword Books, 2017.

Sturdevant, Katherine Scott. “Bringing Your Family History to Life through Social History.” Cincinnati, OH: Betterway Books, 2000.

Linda Harms Okazaki is a professional genealogist who is past president of the California Genealogical Society. She specializes in Japanese American records. If you have a genealogical question which might be answered in this column, send an e-mail to LindasOrchard@gmail.com. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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