As you build your family tree, you will soon become proficient in finding birth, marriage, and death details of your ancestors. But to enrich your family tree, you will need to go past this basic information. Here are some ideas on digging deeper, and finding those interesting details that make your ancestors come alive! Remember that every document or piece of information you find can be mined for more clues to follow.
What can you find about the education of your ancestors? You may have little difficulty in finding out the education experiences of your parents, possibly of your grandparents too. You may even have a school photo of your parents in school, or at graduation. But further back could be rather tricky.
If your grandparents (as children) are listed on a census as “scholar” or “at school”, you have a clue to follow. Looking at the address (left side of the census page), see if you can find it on a map of the town. Is there a school nearby? Search for a history of that nearby school. Also look for a history of the town and see if there are schools listed. Contact the Archives of the town and write requesting any information there may be available about an early school in the decade your grandparents attended school, and in their area. Ask if there are records available, or photographs, or histories. Always offer to pay for copies mailing costs. Keep track of your searches, and of your correspondence, so that you can follow up.
From a letter I sent back East, I was able to receive the record of my greatgrandfather from a college he attended briefly, from the archivist of the college. It turns out he was very bad at math and had to drop out after his first year even though he did very well in his other subjects. Hmmm. I know that I have a math disability – and I wonder if he did, as well. He ended up publishing a community newspaper, and did extremely well. The archivist of the college also sent me photos of the college building (there was only one), and the residence building, as well as a brief history.
Another relative from Nova Scotia attended a particular university in Ireland in the late 1800s and became a physician. Apparently his parents had come originally from Ireland, and this helped him be accepted at this university. By writing to the archivist/librarian of the university, I was able to get his record, plus a copy of a hand-written letter from his aunt in Dublin attesting to the fact that his parents – her brother and wife – were Irish. Who knew this was done? I would never have thought to ask for such records. But I have found that librarians love to dig and delve into records if asked politely. And I always add interesting Canadian stamps to my letters of request – someone in the area will like to save stamps, I’m sure!
Take the time to try to find out information such as the items discussed above, in relation to your ancestors’ education. And read the census column which lists whether or not a person could read, and could write. My great grandparents’ marriage record shows only an “X” as “their mark” witnessed by the minister who married them, so clearly they were not able to read or write. However, a census 10 years later, has their eldest two sons attending school “scholars”, so it is clear that education was becoming more common.
Look to see when children began to work at paid jobs. My father’s father’s family shows that children as young as 13 years old were working as “jute weaver”, for example. In fact, the census lists all members in the family as working except the wives, and the youngest children.
Read down the occupations of neighbors on the census page as well, to get a sense of the social context of your ancestor family. There are often directories of businessmen, available on the web, or in local libraries. See if you can find advertisements or listings of your ancestors based on the census information. For one family I was able to find both home and office addresses of the father, who was a physician. By checking this information out on a map, I could see that his home was only two blocks away. This gives me an image of his walking from home to work each morning! Searching on historical library sites, I was also able to find a photograph of the street approximately 10 years later. While it is not exactly contemporary with my ancestor, it still provides me with a context of his life.
Do these suggestions give you ideas of how to look for further information and records of your ancestors’ lives? RootsBasic for Beginners in Genealogy is a very useful booklet with practical forms to help you in your family tree research (see web link). By digging deeper and thinking outside the box, you will enrich your family tree adding value for generations to come.