Thomas Leeds was born to a farmer and his wife in Kent, England around 1620. He took a bride of his own, named Mary, around 1640. Thomas and Mary had three sons, William, born in 1645, and Daniel, born in 1652, and Thomas, born in 1653.
Thomas Leeds, the father, was a cooper (barrel maker) by trade and immigrated to America around 1670. His sons followed their father to America. Thomas evidently left Mary in England, although she may have returned to England after spending some time in the New World. All we really know is that she died of smallpox in London on July 4, 1677.
In 1678, Thomas married Margaret Collier. Thomas died in New Jersey on November 23, 1687. Margaret died in Philadelphia on September 18, 1703.
I know quite a bit more about my ancestors, but my intent is not to bore you with details. My intent is to discuss how those details were discovered, and to encourage you to leave a record so that your descendants will be able to know more about you.
Quite often when people try to research their family trees they find that most of the information available is nothing more than names and dates. If you go back and read the first three paragraphs of this article, you’ll find that the bulk of what I wrote is nothing more than names and dates. The only facts beyond the vital statistics are that Thomas’ parents were farmers, Thomas was a cooper, Thomas left England and went to America, and Mary, his first wife, died of smallpox. We can only assume Thomas continued to make barrels after he arrived in America. We have no idea what he or his second wife died from.
Interestingly enough, the information I have on William, Daniel, and Thomas is even sketchier. The same can be said about most of the other nine generations to precede me in this country. The question raised is “How do we know any details of Thomas’ life?” The answer is “property deeds, meeting minutes from the Quakers, and letters.” For the purpose of this article, I’ll concentrate on letters.
Before the advent of the telephone and other forms of electronic communications, people kept in touch with one another by writing letters. Fortunately, some letters from the past have survived. They provide a wealth of information on events as well as the people who experienced those events. Even events as recent as the Civil War are made clearer to us because of the personal letters that have been passed from one generation to the next.
Some might argue that newspapers and books provide all the information about historical events such as the Civil War. From an overall perspective, that’s true. News reports tell us about armies moving about and fighting with other armies. But if we want to know about the individuals who made up those armies, we must rely on the letters they wrote to their families back home.
There is so much to be learned about people from reading their letters. We can learn where they traveled, what they saw, and how they felt about it. With enough letters, we can piece together a fairly accurate biography and truly get to know what sort of person the letter writer was.
Which brings me to the big question: “How many letters have you written lately?” I’m not talking about e-mail on the computer, I’m talking about words on a piece of paper that can be stored in a safe place and brought out to be reread from time to time.
Maybe you’re not thrilled with the idea of writing letters. Perhaps all your relatives live within shouting distance. Or maybe you feel it’s more personal to call someone. I have to agree that a phone conversation can be much more productive if you need to exchange information quickly. So let me give you another suggestion: keep a diary or a journal.
Set aside a half an hour or so every day to record the significant events of your life. Try to include as much detail as possible. If you can’t think of what to write, reverse the situation and think about the things you’d like to know about your ancestors. Remember, you’re writing for the sake of your grandchildren’s grandchildren.
I know practically nothing about my grandparents; they were all gone before I was old enough to realize what a grandparent is. If I could sit down with them, I’d want to know what they did for a living, how they met their spouses, how old they were when they got married, where they lived, what kind of transportation did they use, how much they traveled, and much more. I’d want to know what it was like not having the modern conveniences we take for granted. How often did they have to dig a new hole and move the outhouse? How did they prepare and store food before refrigeration? Where did they go to school? What subjects did they study?
My list of questions is almost endless. I’m sure my descendants’ questions will also be numerous. The way technology is going, in a hundred years our lives will seem primitive. They’ll want to know what kind of paints we used to create the drawings in the caves.
Humans are peculiar in that we don’t seem to be interested in such stuff until we get older. By then, the people with the answers are no longer around. With that in mind, don’t be surprised if your children aren’t interested in what you have to say. Your grandchildren probably won’t show much interest either. But the day you die is the day they’ll start wondering what you were like when you were growing up. They’ll be curious about all sorts of things – just like you are about your predecessors.
So do them all a favor. Write down your life story before you go. Your children may not be thrilled about such an inheritance when they first receive it, but someday they might recognize its value. There’s a better chance that your grandchildren will come to treasure the written record of your life. Your great-grandchildren will cherish it. Your great-great-grandchildren will see it as priceless. Like fine wine, your life will become more valuable the more it ages. But if you don’t take the time to record it, future generations will know nothing more than your name and a few dates.
2500 is over five hundred years away. That equates to approximately twenty generations. Unless you live to be well over a hundred, sixteen of those generations will know little or nothing about you… unless you tell them. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar. Even your mistakes will tell your descendants more then they would otherwise know about you.