My Uncle Rick says that at six years old I was already walking around with a notebook and interviewing my relatives about their childhoods. I was born, he tells me, the family’s historian.
Nothing has changed. All these decades later I am still just as interested in learning how my family lived before me. I ask, I read, I research, and as a result I have bulging file folders everywhere.
Some are physical file cabinets in my office, much of their content from the pre-Internet era. But many more files are digital ones—on my computer, external hard drives, and in the cloud.
I have PDFs with titles like "Burial John Duffield 1668" and web archive files labeled "Edward Duffield II – a Fine Portrait Miniature" and "A history of the townships of Byberry and Moreland, in Philadelphia, PA."
It’s overwhelming how much I’ve gathered. At my home in Hawaii, I sit at my desk to write about my family’s story and I struggle with what to include and what to leave out. Sometimes it all feels like too much information but other times I want more. As I work on my book I frequently duck out of my Scrivener writing software to search on my computer for a record.
Occasionally I stumble upon a random .txt file where I recorded some family lore I heard and had since completely forgotten about, and am so glad I wrote it down.
Every file is one more piece of the puzzle I’m putting together as I write about my 8x great-grandfather Benjamin Duffield. Ben was only 17 years old when he left England and sailed for Philadelphia in 1678. If he lived now, he’d be starting his senior year in high school.
During his 17th year, though, he made his way to live in a new land where at first he needed to trade with Native Americans for food. He couldn’t have known it, but that adventurous teenager started what became a huge family of Duffields all across America.
A lot of my information is in Word files. I have historical timelines, essays I’ve written about parts of my family’s stories, and documents about my ancestors with mysterious names like “Ghosts” and also “Unverified Shakespeare.”
I'm also writing about Walter H. Bradley, another great-grandfather. He left home in England about 1885, by himself, and never looked back. He supported himself by tuning pianos, selling pianos and giving piano lessons as he moved from France, to Afghanistan, to Shanghai.
There lives, somewhere among my digital files, a speech given recently by an academic in London about how, in the late 19th century, Afghanistan had a small group of Western entrepreneurs living there—“even a piano tuner.”
I have a copy of the 1899 letter of recommendation Walter got from a music store he worked for in Sydney.
He left Australia after he became ill and a doctor recommended the “Sandwich Isles” due to its mild climate. Always the traveler, I imagine my great-grandfather was delighted with the suggestion.
He sailed for Hawaii and he recovered; or maybe he recovered and then sailed. In Hawaii, he met my great-grandmother, married and settled down, though in reading old letters of his, one senses that he never lost his wanderlust.
My laptop, phone, and Cloud accounts are a treasure chest of interesting information. It’s a huge, fun job to pull together the big picture—my family’s grand story as understood from these thousands of bits and pieces of research, hearsay, official records, and tales, from hundreds of different sources over the decades. Synthesizing all that into just one of the many stories that could be told is very satisfying to me.
I am still the family historian I‘ve been since I was a kid, but now I’m one with a computer full of irresistible clues.
Leslie Lang is an award-winning content marketing writer and journalist with 18 years of experience. She writes about business, travel and tourism, hospitality and hospitality technology, nonprofits and ancestry. She’s also a destination expert on Hawaii.