By Jennifer Fallon
After hours of searching on findagrave.com, you finally managed to find your ancestors’ gravestones, complete with birth and death dates. Now what? That information can be difficult enough to find as it is. How do you make your relatives’ lives more real to you? Names and dates are important, but they are only small pieces of the larger landscape of their rich lives. In between their birth and death dates, your ancestors worked, played, worried, studied, and loved.
It’s easier than you might think to piece together a more complete and fascinating picture of your ancestors’ lives. Researching the historical context of their lives can give you a good idea of what they worried about, what they worked for, or how they lived through the good times and the bad times. Here are some suggestions for how you can get started learning more about your ancestors.
The Library of Congress provides an extensive list of online newspaper archives available across the United States. You can link directly to the Kentucky Digital Library, the New York Tribune Index, or almost any other newspaper archive in any state.
Many of these databases will provide you with information about when the local newspaper was published and how often it appeared. Type the names of your ancestors into the search fields, and you may be surprised by what you find. Most of the time, you can order these newspapers from your local library through their interlibrary loan services. Any fees for this service are usually minimal.
The newspapers of small communities often contain golden nuggets of information, such as how the residents reacted to the military drafts when war broke out or who won the local bake sale competition. You may even find ads for your local grocer or for cosmetic products that can give you a flavor of your ancestors’ preferences as well as a sense of their time period.
Around the turn of the last century, from 1895 to 1905, there was a surge across the United States in counties recording their histories. As a result, county histories from this period are about a dime a dozen. You can often get a taste for what life was like in your ancestors’ environment by reading about the history of their area. The people, places, and events of their lives will give you a good idea of what it was like for them in rural Ohio or urban Pennsylvania or wherever they lived.
You can also find these county histories by going to the FamilySearch catalog, under the Search tab on the FamilySearch home page. In the search box, type in the name of the place you wish to research, and you’ll be presented with available records, such as newspapers, vital records, and cemeteries. This search will tell you whether your county has a written history in the FamilySearch collection. You can also use the wiki pages under the Search tab to find more information about your ancestors’ hometowns.
Books.FamilySearch.org is also a useful resource and can direct you to libraries across the country that will help you find information about various counties in the United States and other areas.
Many public libraries have family history centers that have excellent tools for helping you find stories about your ancestors. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints operates close to 5,000 family history centers worldwide. Consider visiting one of these centers to get help with your research. Many of these centers have experienced staff who are happy to help you find what you need. Best of all, these services are free to the public.
Don’t wait until your relatives are in their advanced years to talk to them about their memories. Your older ancestors may become frustrated if you try to record their oral history because they may have difficulty remembering the details of their life. It’s never too early to learn about someone’s history, so start talking to family members when the memories are still clear.
When talking to relatives, ask them how they responded to significant historical events—wars, inventions, political movements. Ask open-ended questions, and invite them to talk about the memories behind photographs they share with you. Remember to keep the interview short—only an hour long unless they’re really on a roll.
Other types of online resources can help you get a feel for your family history as well. A new online resource called HistoryLines links directly to your family tree in FamilySearch and will automatically create a historical sketch of an ancestor’s life using the historical dates and places provided from your ancestor’s Family Tree details page. You can read about the same events that your ancestor was likely discovering in his or her newspaper—events such as the first manmade aircraft, the end of the Civil War, or the development of various lifesaving vaccines.
Simply sign into FamilySearch.org and allow the HistoryLines website to access your FamilySearch information. Then create biographies for anyone in your family tree.
No matter how you go about it, researching the lives of your ancestors is a lot easier than you might think. And for just a little bit of effort, you can paint a broad portrait of your ancestors’ lives and personalities that will bring them to life in ways that you didn’t think were possible.
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