From Family Story to Historical Fiction
Today I’m pleased to share a guest post written by Beverly Scott. Bev tells about the mystery of her grandfather’s life, her genealogical journey to uncover the truth about him, and her decision to turn the story into a historical fiction novel. She had always wanted to write her family’s story, but as she researched, she realized that it would be best to write historical fiction. Read a little bit about her decision to write her family’s story here. Today, Bev shares how she researched to provide context to her tale. She gives some tips at the end for others who are researching their families.
From Family Story to Historical Fiction
By Beverly Scott
My grandmother, Ellen Russell Scott told me that my grandfather, Harvey Depew Scott (H.D.), died at the age of 70 when my dad was two. She evaded any other questions and I grew up knowing nothing about my grandfather. Years later, I discovered that he actually died when my dad was four, and that there was much more to the story than my grandmother was willing to disclose.
The pieces of the puzzle have gradually come together. Family members, mostly my cousins, shared what little they had heard. A visit to H.D.’s gravesite by my uncles and the pursuits of an aunt interested in genealogy all led to the discovery of a previously unknown marriage. When I went to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., I discovered a treasure trove of documents that substantiated the first marriage of my grandfather and his abandonment of his first wife and family in 1879.
I learned from the documents in the National Archives that my grandfather was born in Clinton, Vermillion County, Indiana as John Howard Scott in 1840 to Paul and Rebecca Swan. Initially when I began my genealogy search, not as much was accessible online as it is today. I wanted to learn more about my grandfather’s roots and ancestors so I went to the Clerk’s Office in the Vermillion County Court House. There, I went through old records of marriages and land sales. I discovered the marriage of Paul Scott and Rebecca Swan as well as the marriage of their son John Howard Scott to Harriet Foncannon, his first wife in 1864. We also found land records that recorded sales of land to and from Paul Scott.
The 1870 US Census showed John and Harriet and four children in Illinois but the files I copied at the National Archives documented that they had later moved to Weatherford, Texas. Harriet had testified that John had abandoned her in Weatherford with five children and a sixth on the way. Since she claimed she searched for him believing that an accident or something serious had happened to him, I thought there might be newspaper records or an old poster announcing his disappearance. So, I went to Weatherford and to Fort Worth in hopes of learning more about their life there from land records or old newspaper information about his disappearance in 1879. I found a lengthy obituary of John Scott Jr., the oldest son who became a successful businessman in Fort Worth, visited his grave and his mother, Harriet’s. But there was no mention anywhere of John Howard Scott.
At some point, probably after he abandoned Harriet, John Howard Scott became Harvey Depew Scott. All of the depositions in the National Archives were an effort to prove Harvey Depew was the same person who fought in the Civil War as John Howard and deserved a veteran’s pension. In his depositions H.D. Scott stated that he worked as a cook and for a cattle outfit in Kansas. I went to Kansas City to see if I could find the records of the company he said he worked for but neither the library nor the History Center had any records of the company. I was coming up empty not only about my grandfather’s ancestors but also any information about John Howard after he left Weatherford, Texas. Then, hooray! I found land claims filed in Wyoming in 1891 as Harvey Depew Scott, just before he married my grandmother in 1892.
This is when I decided the story I wanted to write needed to be fiction. I didn’t have enough information to write an engaging true story about my grandfather’s life. There were too many missing pieces. I decided to use the facts I did know as the structure for the story and be creative about what happened during the gaps. The period of 1879 to 1991 was the time of the long-horn cattle drives from Texas to Dodge City. It seemed likely that Harvey Depew was involved. It was the wild west and a juicy time to create a story about a man running away from home.
But historical fiction was a new genre for me. I went to fiction writing workshops and read several books about Texas cattle drives. The best was The Western: The Greatest Cattle Trail 1874-1886 by Gary and Margaret Kraisinger, 2004. I also read two great memoirs – Tales of a Sod House Baby: Stories of the Kansas Frontier as told by my mother, by Helen McCauley Merkle; and Fifty Years on the Owl Hoot Trail by Harry E. Chrisman. I did research both online and in libraries about the history of the time and the various locations.
I went to Tucumcari, New Mexico where my grandfather died to find additional information and I hoped to visit his grave. I couldn’t access his grave since it was on private property. I didn’t find any information about him either, but it was there that I learned my grandparents probably lived in a dugout in the ground. Everyone who settled there in 1910-1911 did. I also got a book from the Tucumcari Historical Museum, “Quay County, New Mexico 1903-2003” which gave me considerable information about Tucumcari and the surrounding area at the time my grandparents lived there. I incorporated history and information I gleaned from the many sources I consulted into the final draft of my book.
In addition, I also visited the town in Nebraska where my maternal great grandparents homesteaded and H.D. and Ellen were married. At the Thomas County Historical Society, I found a booklet created by a member of my extended family which had considerable detail about the Russell family. In addition, the museum had files and articles about my grandmother and various members of the large extended Russell family. Much of this information was also used in the book.
My goal in writing this book is to share an inspiring story of an incredibly strong and resilient woman. I also wanted to have a good time doing it. Since the story is inspired by the lives of my grandparents, I hope it encourages more people to pursue their own family stories of pioneer settlement and homesteading in the mid-west or wherever they have roots.
I found that learning about my family’s story provides the context for characteristics and qualities present in myself and others in our family today.
My tips for others based on what I have learned:
• Be prepared in advance. Identify what you want to search for and bring the names and dates you already have.
• Look for historical societies, historical museums and library genealogy centers in the locations your ancestors lived. If you plan to visit, write to them in advance and introduce yourself and your project.
• When you visit county clerk’s offices to view birth, death, marriage and land records, be sensitive to the staff who work there. Be prepared to come back when it is convenient for them.
• If you want copies, ask for permission and pay for them.
• Most historical societies, museums and libraries have shoestring budgets. They will appreciate a small donation sent with your follow-up thank you to offset the time they gave you.
Her book, Sarah’s Secret: A Western Tale of Betrayal and Forgiveness, will be published soon! We look forward to it.