Four Steps to Putting Your Ancestor in Historical Context

February 12, 2012 at 6:51 am | Posted in Genealogy Research Strategies | Leave a comment
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Every genealogist is excited to collect dates and places to their ancestors’ lives. It’s a great feeling to know where and when they lived. But out of context, the information great as it isl can leave us wanting more. We want to know what their lives were like. What was happening in their world? What was the basis for any moves, military involvement, sudden or untimely deaths? Historical context can make their stories come to life.

Here are a few steps to take, when you want to venture down this road.

  1. Build a Personal Timeline – I’ve mentioned this before, but I hardly can touch an ancestor without starting a timeline. Include every event that touched their lives – even the ones not related to their birth to death story. Include their birth, marriage, and death events. Include their children’s births, marriages and deaths. Include any moves, where they lived at each point above. Include the deaths of their siblings and/or parents. Where were they at these life changing moments? Include occupations and/or employers.

Personal Date-Specific Information – This type of information is found in almost any genealogy source. Birth, marriage and death records. Census and city directories. Probate records and land records. All of these offer more dates and events to your ancestor’s story.

  1. Add Historical Events to the Timeline– Now weave in to your timeline any major events that were happening on the local, regional, national or international stage during their lifetimes.
    1. Include any wars and economic events like the Great Depression.
    2. Look for health epidemics. (Twenty-five percent of Wichita, Kansas died from an influenza outbreak the year my Dad’s sister was eight. She was one of the casualties.)
    3. If your family lived during the settling of the West, include when the pertinent states became territories, then states. When was the town founded? When did the land office (for land grants) open?
    4. What was happening with transportation? Were they in the era of wagons, trains, steam engines, aerospace?
    5. What was going on with their faith community?  Did they belong to an organized religion?

Historical Context Information – This information is best found in those “other” books in the library that don’t contain lists of dates and are so often overlooked. State, county, and town histories have a wealth of information specific to where your ancestor lived that you won’t find elsewhere. But don’t stop there. There are histories on any mode of transportation you like, and histories on any church community you can name. (The commemorative edition of The Catholic Advance, the Wichita Diocese’s Jubilee Celebration was a goldmine of information on the founding of the first parishes, of which my ancestors helped build one.) The books can be found local libraries in their “Local History” section or at state archives.  One of the best locations to find local history is in the town or county itself.   The best information on Archie, Missouri will be at the Archie Library or Archie historical society. Further, the archives can provide period materials to further shed real world light on their lives.  Don’t forget for even more local history treasures.

  1. Collate the Information – This is where the real detective and story teller in you comes out. Spread out all of your treasures on the dining room table, and let them tell you the story. Look for consistencies, inconsistencies, and questions.  Go back to your personal timeline and log all of the historical data chronologically in a spreadsheet interwoven with the personal data.  The story will start to unfold. Both questionable dates and inconsistencies will pop out immediately.
  • Why didn’t the baby move with them? Did the child die?
  • How did they get to this town if the trains weren’t available for another 20 years?
  • What must it have been like for a young girl to come to America by herself? Was there someone waiting for her? Why was her destination city where she went?  Were friends or family there?
  • Where were their loyalties in the Civil War? Does the story help explain their choices?
  • He was “of age,” but didn’t serve in the war. Why?
  1. Document the Story – The final step is to create the narrative based on your findings. Write the story, collect the pictures, and don’t forget to source everything! You – and the next generation  – will be glad you did.

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