If you’ve ever tried to write a family story based only on the information you can find in a family group sheet or pedigree chart, you know that the limited information makes for a pretty short, dull family history! Our ancestors, of course, were more than a list of names and dates. They were real people with full lives. To tell their stories, we need to dig deeper and look further. Here are a few simple ideas to help you add details to their stories.
Pull Out All the Information
Often when we are first gathering information about our families, we look for the basics: birth, marriage, and death dates and places. By spending a little more time with the records, we can sometimes discover other hidden gems to help us fill in our ancestors’ stories.
One clue included in many records is an occupation. Knowing your ancestor’s occupation can help you understand his daily routine and even his socioeconomic status. On my family tree, I have a lot of farmers, a blacksmith, and a bricklayer or two (among other things). I also have an ancestor in the mid-1800s in England who worked as a “carman.” A little additional research on these occupations can fill in the story even more. What was it like to be a farmer in Sweden in the mid-1800s or a blacksmith in the late 1700s in England? And what exactly was a carman anyway?
Other common pieces of information in records are causes of death, names and occupations of witnesses, and an indication of whether a child was legitimate. Sometimes, you might find other notes in the records. A pastor once wrote in one of my ancestor’s marriage records that my ancestor was marrying for the fourth time and that he had divorced his first wife of twenty years (something scandalous!). Pay attention to the details, and you never know what you might find!
Try Unconventional Records
If you’ve been doing family history research for a while, you’ve probably used census records, vital records, and church records. Records like these are likely to contain the names, dates, and places that are so important to genealogy. But when you’re looking to add details to your story, it might be time to try records you’ve never considered before. Other types of records might not be as likely to give a marriage date, but they might provide some interesting details about your ancestors that help fill in their stories. Here are a few records to try:
- Financial records
- School records
- Employment records
- Minutes of meetings they attended
- Records of societies they belonged to
Rely on Personal Accounts of Others
If your ancestor left behind a diary, letters, an autobiography, or another personal account, you are fortunate indeed! But what if your ancestor didn’t leave behind anything like this? (And unfortunately, after going back a few generations, you find that this is the most likely scenario!) Short of switching to the fiction genre and inventing a good, dramatic story line, is there any hope of taking your family history to the next level? Yes! While your ancestor may not have written anything, other people did—and their personal accounts can still shed light on your ancestors’ experiences.
Start with people who were closest to your ancestor. If a family member or neighbor left behind personal accounts, these will be invaluable, of course. However, personal accounts written by people who never met your ancestor can still be useful. Broaden your search to include accounts by people who shared experiences with your ancestors such as those who immigrated at the same time or fought in the same war. Their descriptions of what these experiences were like will still largely apply to your ancestor.
How do you find these personal accounts? Here are a few places to look:
- National Union Catalogue of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC)
- Eyewitness to History
- Soldiers and Sailors Database
- Immigration to the United States, 1789–1930, Harvard University Library, Open Collections Program
- For Latter-day Saint ancestors, try the Mormon Immigration Index and Mormon Overland Pioneer Travel
Draw on Social and Local Histories
While our ancestors might be the center of their own paintings, they didn’t exist against a blank canvas. A full, rich background is around them—if you take the time to fill it in. A little knowledge of the time and place they lived can go a long way. Of course, you can always start with general history books or articles. But drilling down a little more specifically might work even better. Local histories can give glimpses into your ancestors’ lives that you can’t get from a larger-scale view. They might even contain information specifically about your ancestor. Even without specific information, they often tell about the make-up of the town and important events that shaped the lives of people who lived there. They can even include photos.
A great place to start is to look for a town or county history on the Family History Books page of FamilySearch.org. Here you can find 200,000 digitized family history publications, including many town and county histories.
Don’t be afraid to contact local family history or genealogical societies. People there often know about great resources. And this suggestion doesn’t just apply to locations in the United States. I’ve found parish or town histories for every place my family lived in Germany, Sweden, and England. One trick I’ve found to be useful is contacting the parish directly. Sometimes parish histories are nothing more than papers stapled together and kept in a filing cabinet in the basement of a church. You’ll never know they exist if you only try online databases.
These little extra steps can make a big difference in enabling you to discover your family’s story—instead of just their vital statistics!
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