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Bringing Your Family History to Life

How do you step back into time and see the world through the eyes of your ancestor who was born in the 1700s or 1800s?


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Okay. You've been working on your family tree for some time now and you've compiled a fair amount of information. You've even started toying with the idea of writing a family history. You've got facts, figures, dates and places, and perhaps even an oral tradition or two. But how, you ask yourself, do you bring that information to life? How do you step back into time and see the world through the eyes of your ancestor who was born in the 1700s or 1800s? The answer is hidden at your local library—or even on the Internet, if you know where to look and what to look for.

Since before Gutenberg invented the printing press, people have written letters, journals and diaries. Even if you don't have access to your own family's precious writings, the writings of others can show you what it was like to live in another era. Don't try to add flavor and spice based on old movies. Go for facts by the people who were there at the time. Diaries are especially useful. They are so useful, in fact, that entire books have been written just to catalog the available diaries for various categories.

For example:

  - Huff, Cynthia. British Women's Diaries: a Descriptive Bibliography of Selected Nineteenth-Century Women's Manuscript Diaries

An Internet search for bibliographies and diaries will yield a large source of titles you can review and obtain at your local library or through an interlibrary loan. If you are looking for information on a particular state or region of the country, add that area to your search parameters.

- An excellent free source for early American history written in first-hand accounts is a website called "1st-hand-history," at The website is provided through a non-profit organization that describes the content as follows:

"Have a look at what really happened in the early days of America. This is probably not the same history that you learned in school. What you will see here is unvarnished and raw, directly from the 1700s, 1800s and early 1900s. It is real people talking with and about each other, expressing their thoughts, feelings, and ambitions. Here is the real pioneer spirit at its best and worst."

Although much of the website is devoted to texts on Native American history and ethnology, there are numerous books at this website on the Pacific Northwest and Oregon in particular. If your family followed the Oregon Trail, this is a website you need to visit. If you have Native American ancestors, it is a must. The books listed have been photocopied and are provided in .jpg format so you will be viewing exact duplicates of the books, page by page. If you happened to have ancestors in the Natick, Massachusetts area in the early 1600s, you'll find the History of Natick there as well.

- Another free source for online texts is Project Gutenberg, at Project Gutenberg is the Internet's oldest producer of free electronic books (eBooks or eTexts). There are now more than 6,000 books available and many are first-hand information.

I do recommend that you read several different diaries or first-hand accounts so you can build a picture in your mind that has multiple perspectives as well as varying experiences. If you are lucky enough to find a dairy or two that was written in the same time and place where your ancestors lived, you just might get lucky enough to find their names mentioned. If that happens, you've just added another primary source to your genealogical documentation.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2005.

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

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