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Making history come alive for children

February 20, 2014 - Andrea Johnson
How do you pass down family history (or any kind of history, really) so that kids will actually be interested in it?

After months of working on the family tree, I've decided to write down some of the more interesting family stories for my older nephew, who will turn 8 in a month.

I've decided he might be interested in the minute description of a log cabin owned by one ancestor in the wilds of 1770s Pennsylvania, as well as the deerhide breeches that ancestor wore. The English civil war between the Royalists and the Puritans led by Oliver Cromwell will probably make his eyes cross with boredom, but maybe he will still be interested in how it all affected one of his ancestors, a Scottish prisoner of war who was shipped to Connecticut to become an indentured servant. I would like him to know that women did more than cook, sew and have babies in that era. One of his ancestors was a midwife who rode 50 miles on horseback to get to her patients in the wilderness. Another was a Frenchwoman who received a dowry from the king of France when she agreed to travel to Quebec to marry a total stranger in that new frontier.

There are other stories that would probably give him nightmares, like the one about the ancestor who died with her baby in her arms during an Indian attack on her farm in Deerfield, Massachusetts in 1693. Yet another ancestor was rather infamous and his story completely inappropriate for young children, though I think he was ill-used by the famously puritanical Puritans and by his own wife.

I expect my nephew to laugh at some of the names of his ancestors. What were the Puritans thinking when they cursed their daughters with names like Deliverance, Experience, Mercy, Thankful and Wait? All are names of some of his Puritan forebears.

I suspect that a vividly told story, one that he knows connects him to the history of this country, can only make my nephew more interested in all of history. At least I hope that will be the case.

How have you made history come alive for the children in your families?


Article Comments



Feb-22-14 12:08 PM

The Civil War era is pretty interesting too. One of my great-great-great grandfathers lied about his age and fought on the Union side during the Civil War. I don't know if he wrote a diary but he lived a pretty interesting life. I am trying to figure out exactly what connection one of my ancestors had to the family of John Brown the abolitionist. I think she was probably a sister or cousin of one of his great-great-great grandparents because the families were from the same town in Connecticut and used some of the same unusual first names for their children. My interest in history is probably what has kept me doing this.


Feb-22-14 9:25 AM

Andrea.. the freedoms we have in this country tend to make little Kings of little kingdoms out of every one of us.


Feb-22-14 9:23 AM

Andrea.. pretty interesting stuff you uncover. I like History and at the current time I'm reading Civil War diaries the soldiers wrote. The Civil War was more about looting and raiding from both sides than skirmishing. Although when the Soldiers did bump into their enemies while out foraging they killed the he double L out of each other that's for sure.


Feb-21-14 5:26 PM

I wonder sometimes if it is something engrained in the American psyche. I consider this every time I read comments on a newspaper forum calling for some criminal to be put to death or for some young kid to be put on a national registry for life or a politician demanding mandatory minimums for something or another or Americans not being concerned about the spying of the NSA because "you don't have anything to worry about if you don't have anything to hide." The people and the culture who did that to my many times great-grandparents are our ancestors; their culture is the one we have inherited. We are a schizophrenic society in many ways and it is a scary place and time to live.


Feb-21-14 4:35 PM

Yet we claim to be so much more sophisticated than those "dullards" of times past. Despite this, we have our very own witch trials in our modern day culture, but are so deluded to see that what we do to each other now is no different than what was being done back then. We just feel better about it because it takes on the appearance of kinder and gentler harassment of others we don't like.


Feb-21-14 12:39 PM

I would not have wanted to live under the Puritans. Look up the names Andrew and Mary Sanford and "witch trial" for a story about some of my distant great-grandparents.


Feb-21-14 9:36 AM

I am related to them.

The Puritans may have been another reason some people went west. They didn't want to run afoul any vengeful neighbors...


Feb-20-14 4:42 PM

What a great story. I think some of those Rothschilds were given a title in England. Maybe you're related somehow to those people.

Every time I think I'm finished, I keep coming up with new stories. I just found out I'm descended from a poor woman who was tried as a witch in Connecticut about 20 years before the Salem Witch Trials. She and her husband were Quakers and the Puritan neighbors did not approve. The Puritans weren't a very tolerant lot.


Feb-20-14 2:48 PM

Here's my fun story from another relative who did the research some years ago:

The furthest back I (we) can trace one line of ancestry is to a man who was born James Eggert Rothschild (yes, he was one of THOSE Rothschilds...verified by another distant relative via one of your DNA projects, Andrea) in Oneida County, NY in the early 1820's. His family strongly disapproved of his decision to marry one Anna Mann, so JER changed his name (dropped the 's'), forsook the religion of his youth, and went west, as so many other Americans of his day were doing.

He came to settle in Kansas where my family came to have some extensive roots (my grandpa Rothchild was born there).

However, due to his falling out with his family, he obliterated any connection he had to them. To this day, the identity of his parents is a mystery and has confounded many a sleuth in the family who sought to break open a great secret buried long ago by a family patriarch.


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