Have you ever watched TV genealogy shows such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” or “Ancestors In The Attic”? If so, you will have seen how details of an ancestor are interwoven with the history of the family, the place, the country or the world. History is your friend when you are doing genealogy research. These interesting historical details help make an ancestor’s life vivid, more exciting and personal. But, how do you find this kind of information, when you are just a beginner? Here are several ways to research your family history, in order to place your ancestors in a larger context.
Make a timeline for an ancestor’s family.
Why? This timeline will help you see what kinds of local, national, or world events may have been occurring. Take a piece of paper, write down known dates down the left side for your ancestors in a particular area. Now you need to add on the right side the various famines, wars, religious battles, political events, scientific discoveries, epidemics, and other examples of historical events which may have occurred during that time. This exercise will help show you more about your ancestors’ lives, and perhaps help you understand why they moved, or the challenges they faced. Where do you find this kind of data? Search on cyndislist.com for some examples of such historical web links. Or, simply use ‘search’ on any internet browser and add the detail you desire, ‘epidemics 1750-1850’, for example. Search engines may take you to a very useful list of dates and places of wars, famines, and more. Take time to search out this kind of information about your ancestors.
Look for diaries, memoirs, letters, manuscripts, and any legal documents.
Why? You may be surprised to find details of your ancestor(s) in unusual places: someone else’s diary, or in letters from one neighbor to a far-away parent discussing your ancestor’s life challenges or events. Or, there may be legal documents re criminal behavior, or civil lawsuits, wills, and other items of interest. Check in Archives of the town/region or country of your ancestor, or in the holdings of a central library or possibly the regional university. Ask or email a librarian to help you search through catalogs of the collections the library holds, and specifically the best ways to research them. Find out if and how the collections may be searched online, if you are unable to visit in person. Librarians live to be asked!
Review archived newspapers.
Why? Social events, epidemics, wars, politics, associations’ news, land sales, births, marriages, and deaths, travel news: all of these items and more may be found in the historical newspaper in your ancestor’s town. Find out what was happening in the town or region. Many old newspapers are now available online for searching and viewing, often for free, and of course, are freely available at archives of cities, counties, colleges, museums, universities. Check on cyndislist.com if you think you know the place or name of the newspaper you want to search.
Join your local genealogical society.
Why? For a small membership fee (generally under $50), you will have access to the knowledge and resources of the members and the society. Often they have a genealogy library, and put on workshops and educational events for the public and members. Societies may have several professional genealogists, or expert amateurs. For example, a local society may have an expert on old English handwriting and wills, or an expert on German genealogy. They may also have specific groups of members who meet to help each other in a particular area: French-Canadian, Scandinavian, Italian, etc. Invaluable resources may be found in your local genealogical society.
Look for a surname society or family association.
Why? Some specific surnames – a specific individual, usually – are remarkable for a particular reason: a Mayflower Pilgrim, a very early settler in Connecticut, the first governor of a state, or simply because it is a very unusual surname. For example, my Terwilliger ancestors: Terwilliger was a “made-up” surname for a Dutch immigrant’s descendants after they had been in the north-eastern area of the USA. Finding the association gave me a great deal of information, photos, gravestones, and details. Another line, the Graves line, has a very detailed family association, now using DNA testing to prove relationships between the various Graves immigrants to the US and their possible English relatives. Search online with your surname + family association, or on the Guild of One Name Studies for your surname. Check every surname in your family tree.
These five suggestions are only a few of the ways you may be able to add historical information to your family tree. By doing some of these activities, you may well come across the details which will make your family tree come alive to not only you, but also to your other relatives. Your family tree will become a treasured legacy for future generations. Enjoy your searches.