Writing Your Autobiography

My father died in 1969 when he was but 57 years of age. Although he had suffered three earlier heart attacks, his death was still, at least to me, unexpected. I was thirty at that time and had been working on my family genealogy for two years. I had asked my father questions about his family, only to discover that he knew little about his ancestors, and I soon learned that my mother was the family historian. So I continued to research my ancestors and asked questions of my mother until she died in 1996, 27 years after my dad.

But in all the years I knew my parents, I never asked the important questions. I now know the names of my ancestors, and their dates and places of birth, marriage, and death. I know the whos, the wheres, and the whens, but I don’t know the whys and the hows, particularly about my own parents. Over the years since my mother’s death, I have come to realize that I actually know very little about their lives. For example, my father’s father was a dentist and my father was graduated from our town’s most prestigious prep school, but he never went to college. Why? I was an only child. Why? How did my parents meet? These and other questions have haunted me since my parents died, along with a more basic question: why did I never ask?

Forks in the Road by John E. Skillman IIINot wanting my children, grandchildren, and later descendants to wonder the same things about me, several years ago I began to write my autobiography. My inspiration came in spurts and much of it was written in the dead quiet of sleepless nights. I edited it numerous times and rewrote many sections more than once. I have no idea of how many hours I put into the project, but I labored on it for several years. I backed it up continuously and my autobiography survived crashes of my hard drive and mother board and two computer replacements.

I suppose there are many ways to approach one’s autobiography, but I thought the most logical way was chronologically. I began with my birth and have carried it through to my current age of 73. I gave more time to the earlier years of my life in the belief that character and values are formed when we are young. I combed through all of our old and recent photographs and added them where appropriate. Since I have been struggling for a decade with a serious medical issue, I decided to publish my autobiography while I am still able. That will allow time for my children and older grandchildren to read it and ask whatever questions they may have while I am around to answer them. Whatever happens in my life from now on will obviously not be in my autobiography, but all of the significant events have already taken place.

RootsMagic™ markets a software program to guide you through the writing of your autobiography, and I am sure there are many competitors who do the same. And there must be a wealth of information on the internet. My goal here is not to tell you how to write your autobiography, but simply to give you the inspiration to get started. I used Anundsen Publishing Company in Decorah, Iowa, to produce fifteen hardcover books and I am delighted with the result. I found Anundsen in their ads in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly and genealogical publishing is one of their specialties. I must add that it was much nicer to speak directly with the owner, and Erik Anundsen was extremely helpful and responsive. However, any publisher can serve your needs, including Staples, FedEx Office, Office Depot, etc., and numerous self-publishers online, such as Lulu Publishing Services.

So I encourage you to begin your autobiography soon. If you are young, you can add to it as you travel through life. If you are my age, waste no time in getting started. You will be surprised at how easy it is because, after all, you know more about the subject matter than anyone else!

John E. Skillman III

Dutch Families in Early New Jersey

In the early 1700s, the third generation of Skillmans began a westward migration to central New Jersey from Newtown (now Elmhurst), Brooklyn, and other parts of Long Island. In general, they settled in Somerset, Mercer and Hunterdon Counties. Although Thomas1 Skillman had married Sara Pettit (Petit), an Englishwoman, his son, Thomas2 Skillman, married Annetje Aten, a Dutchwoman. Largely because of the influence of the mother on the family, the third generation of Skillmans began to intermarry with the Dutch families of central New Jersey and the Skillman family began to take on a distinctly Dutch identity. Nearly all attended the Reformed Dutch churches in the area, some traveling great distances to do so.

An examination of the descendants of Thomas1 Skillman, particularly those in the 18th century, shows a high incidence of Dutch surnames among the husbands and wives of the Skillmans. Many of these Dutch names are still prominent in the central New Jersey area. According to my database of the Skillman family tree in my RootsMagic software, the incidences of Dutch surnames are summarized below:

  • Stryker appears 200 times
  • Voorhees appears 140 times
  • Beekman appears 97 times
  • Van Dyke appears 79 times
  • Van Tine appears 59 times
  • Doughty appears 54 times
  • Aten appears 50 times
  • Nevius appears 41 times
  • Hageman appears 39 times
  • Wyckoff appears 38 times
  • Suydam appears 35 times
  • Veghte appears 30 times

There are many other Dutch surnames appearing less frequently than those above, as well as variant spellings of those above. My own 3rd great grandmother was a Van Duyn. So it is clear from the prominence of Dutch surnames in our family tree that the Skillman family in America has been strongly influenced by our Dutch ancestors. There is no record that our American ancestors walked around in wooden shoes, but don’t be surprised if you have a natural affinity for De Kuyper liqueurs and the paintings of the great Dutch Masters!

Johannes Vermeer - Young Woman with a Water Pitcher 1660-1662
Woman with a Water Jug, also known as Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, is a painting finished in the Baroque style between 1660–1662 by the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer.

John E. Skillman III