Storytelling: Painting a main character

“Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.” 

~ Sue Monk Kidd

Storytelling is an important part of family history.  Passing down stories about our lives and the lives of our ancestors makes history real.  Characters make stories come to life.  Likewise, stories make characters come to life.

Most good family stories don’t make pronouncements about a character’s behavior or history.  They make listeners ask questions and form their own opinions.  But, before the listener can ask questions, the storyteller has to sort through facts to figure out what the questions might be.  Many questions relate to a main character and his/her experiences and reactions.

Smith, Charles_father of Alfred Josiah Smith_shared by sphelps

photo from the collection of Donna Fetzer

Let’s talk about the “character” Reverend Charles Smith.  We know some basic facts.  He was born 2 May 1818 in England and died 27 July 1893.  He first married his brother’s widow Elizabeth Hooker in 1842.  She passed away in 1845, and he then married Maria Bixby in 1847.  Charles and Maria had nine children, one of whom died in childhood.

What do those facts tell us about his character?  Did he marry his brother’s widow out of love or a sense of family of obligation?  He describes Elizabeth in his one-page autobiography: “I can truly say she was a good Wife, a loving Mother, a Faithful Friend.”   A good mother?  Charles must have inherited his brother’s child or children when he married Elizabeth.

Via autobiography, Charles is compelled to tell his own story.  The reader is left to decide his motivations.  Charles and Elizabeth were married three years, but they had no children of that marriage.  Charles and Maria Bixby Smith were married in 1847, and their first child was born in 1848.  They remained married the rest of their lives.  Did Charles initially marry Maria out of love or because he needed someone to help raise his niece and/or nephew?

One question leads to another.  A primary question, known by every two-year-old child is:  WHY?  Does the fact that Charles wrote the short autobiography say anything about his character?  Did he write it because he wanted his children to learn from it?  Perhaps he wrote of his own life because he was very proud of where it had taken him—eventually into the ministry.  He says he wrote it at the request of his wife.  As genealogical storytellers, we are very glad he did.

In his story, Charles recounts his long physical journey that began in England and ended in Wisconsin several years later.

smith charles_exerpt from autobiography_sus phelps

Why was the trip important enough to include?  What does the nature of the trip itself tell you about Charles?  Was he having trouble finding his place in life?  Was he proud of all he had accomplished?

Here is an excerpt from a letter Charles wrote in 1852 to Robert Hooker, his sister Charlotte’s husband.  In the letter, Charles is berating Robert for his lack of direction and his inconsistency with in his occupation and in providing for his family.  Charles includes money with the letter and promises to send more.  Does that make Charles an enabler or a concerned and generous brother?

smith charles_excerpt from letter to Robert Hooker from Charles Smith_sus phelpsphoto from the collection of Jerry Dreher

Transcript:  “My advice is don’t you think of returning here much as I wish the society of my friends I know you never will get along here if you try to do so.  For once in your life, be willing to take advice and either work at your trade as Blacksmith or Hairdresser or something else but don’t think of spending more time & money traveling back & forth.  I have not told Father and Mother any thing about your letter or intentions for I would not have them worried with the idea of your travelling back here.

With very little information, we can draw an interesting picture of what Charles was like, what formed his character.  Think of the main characters in your history.  How would you describe them to your children or grandchildren?

Don’t let a good story die for want of telling.


Photo credit Maria Bixby and Charles Smith: Daphne Purchase

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  1. intriguing historical story
    gets me curious
    as to what
    really happened 🙂

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    1. Susan can best answer that question. Thanks for posting. Love your writing style.

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  2. Great job, Susan. Thanks again for a great contribution to our family history blog. Hugs. ❤

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  3. Great post with great question and outline for looking at the the information we have.

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    1. I agree. Susan did a great job presenting information about Charles. Charles is an ancestor Susan’s husband and I share, and I am so thankful she found me while researching his family. It’s a small world. 🙂 Thanks for chiming in.

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    2. Glad you enjoyed this. It was fun to write. I find old letters to be a particularly fascinating way of determining what a person may have been like.

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  4. Even with a relative many knew, there are a lot of different interpretations of that person’s life. My aunt committed suicide, leaving no note. There are at least five stories about why she did it that floated around my family. I think in many instances of family history story telling there is no way to know.

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    1. Oh, my, that is so sad. The not knowing why in addition to the loss itself. I am sorry your family experienced that type of death. So many questions, and yes, you can totally understand about different interpretations of a person’s life. Were you ever able to verify any of your theories? Thanks for stopping by. 🙂

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      1. No, although from what I know of mental illness, I believe it was from a manic swing and that she thought she could fly.

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        1. It matters more than ever to really watch our loved ones. On the outside they can appear and act as if all is very normal. My best to you. ❤

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    2. How very sad about your aunt. There is never a way to know for sure. The more I get into this domain for family history storytelling, the more I realize that almost everything is open to interpretation, and the fairest stories come from combining and comparing the various interpretations. Thanks for reading.

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      1. I love it when I can find outside corroboration for events. One of my ancestors was abducted in Deerfield in 1704 and there are records of that.

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        1. My goodness! That sounds like a great blog post. I hope that individual was not further harmed. Great you have records, especially ones that date that far back.

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          1. She did indeed survive. We visited the place she was held captive in Montreal a couple of years ago. After returning to Connecticut she had 13 children. I am descended from the 13th, a daughter named appropriately “Thankful.”

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            1. OH, how wonderful. Is there a blog post in there? I hope so. 🙂

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  5. What an intriguing way to tell the story of Charles’ life! Great post.

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    1. Isn’t it, though? Thanks, Amy. I like how Susan presented this information about our Smith patriarch.

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    2. So glad you enjoyed it. This only tells a small piece of his life, but it is fun to imagine the rest of it. Thanks for reading.

      Liked by 2 people

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