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The Compleat Database: Education

The reason Abraham Lincoln's home-grown education was common among our ancestors – but not all of them. Harvard University was founded more than a century before the United States was founded. Northwestern Illinois University, in Illinois, dates back to a decade prior to the Civil War. So, why do we need to know about education while we're doing research?


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Be sure to include as much education information as possible to your database. Most databases provide fields for collecting at least two pieces of information: education and graduation. Honors are another piece of information to collect but, with most databases, that field has to be created.

Education tells us so much more than whether someone could probably read and write. Education records tell us where someone was at a given point in time, prior to the creation of the consolidation of schools. School consolidation, in many parts of the United States, was uncommon until the early 1900s.

Students who pursued a high school education often boarded in a larger city that had a high school. Search among the census enumerations and you are likely to find students staying in boarding homes. The 2010 U. S. Federal Census retains the tradition of enumerating students where they were living when the census was conducted. As a result, you may find teenagers missing from the enumeration of the rest of their family.

An example is Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. You may not have heard of Antioch College but you've surely heard of one its former presidents: Horace Mann. It is typical of many colleges at the time, with students boarding with faculty.

Search for a relationship of "boarder" and an occupation of "student." In 1880, John B. Weston was a professor of Greek living in Yellow Springs. He and his wife, who was also a teacher, rented rooms to three students that year. One was Stephen Weston, from Maine, who also happened to be a nephew of Professor Weston. An 18 year-old named Belle Loomis, from Ohio, was a student. William H. Gallup, from Illinois, also boarded with them.

Adding education information to a genealogical database gives us some idea why individuals disappear from the family tree. Sometimes they marry someone they met at school and don't return to their hometown. Other times, they remain where they went to college.

Using education as a research tool means casting a larger net. Some online sources will include the word "student" as a searchable keyword. If they don't, then search for boarder and narrow your search to their teenage years. Few students younger than age 12 boarded prior to the 1900s. But, keep an open mind. Some very young students boarded during their school years, if their family lived in sparsely populated areas.


It is sad that yearbooks have been abandoned by some schools. Older yearbooks often contain an astounding amount of family information, sometimes giving a student's hometown and the name of their parents.

Always search for yearbooks. The University of Illinois, among other schools, used to publish an alumni directory chock full of personal information. Colleges usually have a collection of yearbooks and directories in their library or archive.


Newspapers have historically published graduation information. Newspapers in smaller towns with fewer graduates often published detailed graduation announcements for each student. In more recent times, long lists of graduates from larger schools are lumped together.

Nevertheless, most people throughout the past two hundred years in the United States, have graduated high school at around age 18. A graduation date can help estimate a person's age, even though it is not evidence.

Individual graduation announcements typically include the graduate's plans. Look for announcements that mention where the student has just been employed, or where they are moving to for graduate school.


Honors don't really reveal much in terms of genealogy aside from adding dimension to an ancestor's life. But, they do document where a person was at a given time. Honors are usually published in the student's local newspaper. They also appear in yearbooks.


Don't overlook education as a genealogical research tool. Collect education information as you find it, and use it to narrow down your searches.

Coming soon...
  1. Life events
  2. Death data
  3. Property ownership
  4. Legal events
  5. Marital status
  6. Politics

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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