News / Scott’s journey through genealogy: add the power of stories to your family tree

Scott’s journey through genealogy: add the power of stories to your family tree

In this blog series, genealogical historian Scott Phillips invites us along on his journey through genealogy and shares some of the lessons he’s learnt along the way.

As a genealogical historian, I have always enjoyed two special aspects of working on my family history, ancestry, and genealogy.  The first has been to learn the history and lifestyles of my ancestors and the second is to then supplement those findings with those ancestors’ personal stories.

Why include stories in your ancestry work?

Family time is just naturally story time!

Family time is just naturally story time!

As I think back to what the genesis of my love of my work in genealogy was, I recognize that it came from my grandparents, aunts, and uncles.  All of my grandparents and many of my aunts and uncles were born storytellers.  Whenever we went over to visit, while I may not have particularly enjoyed the strange rattling from their old coal-fired gravity furnaces, nor how hot they kept their homes, I always relished those visits because I knew I was going to be treated to some awesome stories.  Not only the stories that would be told directly to me, but especially those I listened to by eavesdropping on the adults from the upper corner landing of the stairs while we kids were directed to ‘go upstairs and play quietly’.  The stories about growing up in Cornwall and Bohemia as well as tales of being shipwrecked, surviving on raw horseflesh, and sailing on the U.S.S. Constitution were some of my favourites.

Then, lo and behold, I was doubly blessed by marrying into a family that was also filled with additional family members who also loved to share their stories.  Once again, this time later in my life, I was treated to stories.  This time they were of Italy, simply being Italian, and creating a life as an Italian immigrant living on the Iron Range of Minnesota.  It was wonderful that they came from my newly ‘acquired’ parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.  The fact that my in-laws are 100% Italian was a special bonus!  I believe hearing all these family stories are a great way to learn about history, culture, and the lives of the families and their ancestry.

So it is, that as a result of this background that my family history work and our family tree are highly decorated with every family story I can find about any of my ancestors.  Not only have I benefitted from these stories, but these stories have also greatly assisted me in enticing and drawing in many additional family members (especially the younger generations) into our shared history, which I maintain electronically, and which is also a crucial goal to anyone undertaking their genealogy!

An example of the value of a good story to your family history work:

Let me give you a recent example of just what can happen when you always keep your eyes and ears open to history and how it might intersect with your families and their histories.

My Phillipps family has deep roots in Cornwall and while my family tree is always still a work-in-progress, I have been able to trace these roots to the middle 1500s.  At that time the parish of St. Teath was ‘home’ and the center of life for them.  After several generations, the family expanded beyond the parish of St. Teath to the parishes of Lanteglos by Camelford, Minster, Forrabury, St. Neot, Tintagel, and a few others in the area.  As I was working on a will for one Thomas Phillips, of the branch of the family that settled in Lanteglos by Camelford, I found myself searching the local website.  This is helpful for the town, its history, and the area of Camelford and Lanteglos by Camelford.  I was taken with a page of videos that highlight 18 historic buildings and locations in Camelford.  Imagine my surprise when, clicking on a YouTube link I not only saw one of the ancestral homes of the Phillips family, Culloden in Camelford, that I had found described in a family will from 1795.   Then as I listened longer, I learned that the Phillips were at the heart of quite a civil disturbance, stirring up political trouble, and inciting a full-on riot!

I knew immediately that I wanted to learn more about this event in our family’s history, and about, as the narrator said ‘the Cornish Battle of Culloden’!

If only the Brothers Phillipps would have gotten along as well as the current Brothers Phillips all might have been avoided, but then there would have been no good story to find!

If only the Brothers Phillipps would have gotten along as well as the current Brothers Phillips all might have been avoided, but then there would have been no good story to find!

As you may know from my other writing, I went right for the newspaper and in this case I did it via the findmypast British Newspapers.  There my first discovery was a feature story, from page one of the Exeter Flying Post dated 03 April, 1823 and titled “Nisi Prius Borough of Camelford-Battle of Culloden!”  There in multiple column inches was detail after detail about a group of Phillips brothers who lived in Culloden and started the riot as some of them were Darlingtonians and some were Hertfordians.  This wonderful article even held details including the names for the several court cases that followed on the heels of the riot.  Best of all, there was the name of the one Phillips brother, Arthur, who was a minor at the time.  As an aside, I had to chuckle since nowadays the newspapers publish the adult names, but not the minors, it seems that back in the 1800s this practice was reversed.  Thankfully I at least got one name and a minor at that.

As I read additional articles about this ‘Battle of Culloden’ I had to smile to myself.  Over and over in my memory I could hear my own mother or father warning me that if I did not straighten up and fly right, that they would ‘read me the riot act’ and here I was learning what that phase means and having ancestors who actually had “The Riot Act” read to them all!

Culloden House at the present time

Culloden House at the present time

Now I have much more to learn.  While I know from the estate papers dated 1785 that Thomas Phillipps left the house at Culloden to his brother, William, I do not know the names of the other three brothers that owned Culloden along with Arthur, the minor.    My working theory is that the four brothers who owned the home in 1823 (Arthur and three others) were possibly the sons of William.  Next stop: having a top notch researcher spend a day in the Archives in Kew to see what treasures the actual court case files might hold.  Could they all be named there?  I so want to learn the rest of this story!

What might your theory be on finding ‘The Brothers Phillips’ of the Cornish ‘Battle of Culloden”?

Let me know!

Last night I lost my mum so I would like to dedicate this edition of ‘Scott’s Journey Through Genealogy” to her.  She was 93, our family matriarch, and one of the most significant reasons why I fell in love with family history and genealogy.  She was a truly cheerful individual and the first real storyteller I knew.  She could always spin wonderfully captivating stories about our family and history.  She taught me the incredible and irreplaceable value of ‘family time’. 

Mimi enjoying a beer

Mimi enjoying a beer

Growing up she was the glue that held our extended family together and whether it was a major holiday, birthday, anniversary, or even just a plain old ‘weekend’ Mum always made sure that family was invited over to our home to join us.  She was always the happiest when she was surrounded by family.  It was often at these gatherings that I learned the most about who we all really were and where our family, and our values, originated.  I say with the deepest love, ‘thank you, Mum’ for all you did in shaping me and for teaching us all the value of family.  Yours was a happy and well-spent life! May you now rest in peace.

Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services in Indiana, US. Scott calls genealogy his ‘sweetest passion’ and his wife calls it ‘our shadow’! Scott specialises in immigrant ancestry, especially from Bohemia (Czech Republic), Cornwall, the UK and Italy. In addition to joining as a columnist, he is a regular genealogy contributor for Huffington Post United Kingdom, and his own website, Onward To Our Past. You can follow Scott on his Facebook page and on his website/blog