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[Detail] The David Hilton family near Weissert, Nebraska. 1887.

Historical Research Capabilities: Writing a Biography

Writing a biography involves a particular kind of historical research—learning as much as possible about an individual and then placing him or her in a historical context. A good biography not only tells an interesting story of a person's life but demonstrates how that life represents the collective experience of a larger group, a historical trend, or a powerful idea.

Choose one of the members of the Oblinger or Thomas family. You may also want to select a particular span of years on which to focus. Read letters written by the subject of your biography, as well as comments about the person in other people's letters (for example, many of Giles Thomas' letters include information about Uriah Oblinger; sometimes, as in the months following Mattie's death, these comments provide insights into Uriah's actions that are not available in his own letters). Sketch out a list of events in your subject's life in the period you are covering. You may also want to check the special presentation, The Oblinger Family and Their Letters for more information. Consider such questions as the following as you decide what to write in your biography:

  • What makes this person interesting?
  • How did others describe this person? What do the subject's letters tell you about his/her personality and character? What words would you use to describe the person?
  • What events shaped this person's life?
  • What were the person's goals?
  • What important decisions did this person make during the period you are examining? What influenced his/her decisions? How would you evaluate those decisions?
  • How did this person's life represent the collective experience of a larger group, a historical trend, or a powerful idea?

In answering the last question, you might consider whether the person's life represents something about the history of women, family, work, homesteading, the impact of the environment on people, or male-female relationships and the nature of 19th-century rural courtship. You may want to do some searching in other American Memory collections to learn more about the historical context in which your subject lived. Some useful collections include American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940, Pioneering the Upper Midwest, and The Northern Great Plains collections.

When you have completed your research, write a brief biography of your subject. Exchange biographies with a classmate and give each other feedback on the work.