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Understanding Your 19th Century Ancestor’s Life

Doing genealogy is much more than collecting names and dates. Use social history to "put flesh on the bones" of your ancestor.


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One of the truisms in genealogy that I believe in wholeheartedly is that it is difficult to complete a family history narrative without understanding the life your ancestor lived. Not taking the time to learn more about the culture, the place, and the customs of their time is sort of like watching a film about an archeology dig where they discover an object and start guessing what it was used for. Could you imagine if hundreds of years from now, someone dug up your back yard and tried to guess what some of the objects they found were used for and then tied that in to what your life was like?

When compiling information on your ancestor, it's good to think like a social historian. Social historian's put the names and the dates they compile into historical context. Social history is that of examining the lives of everyday people. For example, you can't understand the life of a Civil War soldier without looking at the battles he was a part of, where he saw action, and who was in his regiment. That extra information is going to take your Civil War soldier from being just a guy with a birth and death date to an interesting person that your family will want to read about, even the non-genealogists.


So where do you begin in your quest to put your ancestor in historical context? Start with the research and artifacts/heirlooms you currently have. Letters, journals, newspaper clippings all help to bring an ancestor to life. Now, make a timeline of you ancestor's life. This will help you to visualize what you will need in putting together a social history. What was going on in the history of the United States when you ancestor was alive? What wars were going on? Could they have participated? What was the economical climate like? Who was President? What can you find out about his presidency that can help you better understand America, as your ancestor knew it? There are timeline programs on the Internet you can use such as the dMarie Time Capsule ( PBS's American Experience page has a technology timeline that can help you understand what was the newest in technology from 1752-1990 (


Back in the late 1960's Elliot Wigginton and his high school students did America a great service, they set out to record the customs, culture, and ways of the people who lived in the Southern Appalachians. What came out of those oral history interviews was a set of books called, Foxfire. Maybe you've seen them at garage sales or as library discards. These are wonderful books that describe activities that once were a part of everyday life for our ancestors. I have used one of the Foxfire books in describing how my ancestor built a log cabin, the Foxfire Book (the first in the series) details that process. Other subjects covered in the Foxfire series include hog dressing, moonshine, making tar, quilting, faith healing, shoemaking, music and other interesting topics.

Inspired by the Foxfire series, Pamela Wood began the Salt series, preserving the history and people of Southern Maine. These books include topics like, lobstering, rum running, and boat building. These books can help you describe what life was like in your ancestor's time and what activities they took part in. To find other books that may help you, try perusing the sociology and history section of your local bookstore. We need to go past the genealogy section and take advantage of other types of books that are not genealogical in nature but describe historical eras, customs, and activities that might help you understand an earlier time.

There are so many historical subjects and eras you can read about to get to know about your ancestor's life better. When you come across something you want to learn more about, try looking for a book about that subject in the children's section of the library. Children's history books are simple, easy to understand, and boil down the pertinent facts in a clear, concise manner. If you don't have a lot of time to learn about the Civil War, get a Civil War book written for kids. What better way to learn about historical events in your ancestor's time when you don't have a lot of time for research! Also, check out school book fairs at elementary schools. I always find great atlases and history books there.


Ok, so now you really think I've lost it, I'm telling you to look at ebay for social history. Well, it's one of the best places to look. Believe me, people are selling your family history and items pertaining to your family history on ebay. A few months ago, I found out too late that a Civil War letter from the brother of my 4th great grandmother had been up for auction on ebay. Imagine if I had known and was the successful bidder. I would have a great piece to add to my history on this soldier. Go to ebay, do searches on your ancestor's name, the place they lived and activities they may have been involved in, such as an occupation or a Civil War regiment. When you do a place search, start with the county and state your ancestor lived in, and then do a search under the name of the city and state. Now, you may be searching for a long time before you find anything but it is worth it. A while back I did a search for the Chatham Mills, my 3rd great grandfather's brother, Alexander Chatham, founded that mill in Elkin, North Carolina back in the late 1800's. A seller on ebay had an 1890's postcard from that mill. This artifact gives me something from the time period from the mill that will add to the narrative I am writing. Now if only I could find that letter from Captain John W Bell!

But My Ancestor's Left Nothing I Can Use

It can be difficult to write a life history for some ancestors. Some seem to have led somewhat boring lives. So what do you do in this instance, when there is absolutely nothing that you can find to help? They weren't in the military, they left little paperwork behind, no wills, no deeds, no probate, nothing. Start looking at where they lived. What can you find out about the history of where they lived? Check out county histories, call the reference librarian at the local library in that town, and write the local genealogy society. Find out what their town was like when your ancestor was alive. What was it like to live there? Look at the census and see who lives near them. Find out if their neighbors left journals or letters, maybe your ancestor is mentioned in one. Maybe information about them is at the town's library or nearby university. Check out National Union Catalogue of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC), for possible manuscripts written by your ancestor's neighbors. Also look through the subject headings of Cyndi's List ( and see what websites might be of help to you. Peruse subjects involving where your ancestor lived, their religion and their occupation. If you can't find anything that describes your ancestor's life, than write about what their life must have been like based on the historical era, town history and the lives of their neighbors.

To learn more about compiling a social history on your ancestor, you might want to pick up the book, Bringing your Family History to Life through Social History by Katherine Scott Sturdevant. This is a great book and gives family historians lots of ideas on how to "put flesh on the bones" of your ancestor. Sharon DeBartolo Carmack's, You Can Write Your Family History is also a great book to guide you in your quest to make your genealogy research more accessible to all of your family members. If you want some published examples to help guide you, think about family narratives you have read or heard about such as Alex Haley's, Roots, or Laura Ingalls Wilder's, Little House on the Prairie series. The new movie, Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio based on the book by Terry Ryan is a great example of a daughter writing about her ordinary mother's extraordinary life. Whatever you do, don't just stop at collecting birth and death dates for your ancestors, make their lives interesting for those who will inherit your research.

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.

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

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