Ancestors in a Sterile Environment

by Ruby Coleman

The most sterile environment your ancestors can be found in is on a genealogical form or in a computer database. Bringing them out of that environment surrounds them in reality. Your research should include viewing them:

  • as an individual
  • as an individual member of groups of people
  • as an individual in a specific location
  • as an individual in a time period

During the research phase, forget that a certain ancestor belongs to parents, has siblings, grandparents and other relatives. Look at them as individuals. Then consider that person as an individual member of groups of people. Those people are normally considered an immediate family. He or she had parents. They also had siblings, relatives, such as cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents. Also consider the people around them, such as friends, coworkers and neighbors. With whom did your ancestor associate and spend his or her time?

Next consider your ancestor as an individual in a specific location. If your ancestor never moved from childhood, through adulthood to death, this phase is simple. Make a list of places where your ancestor lived. Why did your ancestor move? What family members and extended family surrounded him or her at each location?

Place your ancestor in a time frame. This should be a chronological listing of where your ancestor was at specific, important times periods in his or her life. Consider the major events such as births, marriages and deaths. Also extend the time period to include local, county, state and national historical events.

From our vantage point as family historians in the early 21st century, we are able to view what is happening at various stages in our ancestorsŐ lives. Looking at households on the 1860 U.S. Census that contain eligible males, we realize that they were subject to military service within a short period of time. Considering their location, we speculate on which side of the Civil War they served. Migrations of families from the war-torn south can be calculated in the next decennial census when we find them pushing westward and in some cases toward the north.

The 1930 U.S. Census reveals a mobile society, more factory workers, more women in the labor force, plus changes in household structure. Families were not as traditional and households consisted of extended family groups. The stock market crash on 24 October 1929 precipitated the Great Depression. By 1932 a quarter of the working race or 13 million people were unemployed. Fortunately we have the finding aid of the 1930 U.S. Census to give us insight into the family structure, location and surroundings of our ancestors. All of that would change significantly with national and global events of the 1930s and 1940s.

Some of the most valuable aids we can use for locating more personal information on our ancestors are the census (both federal and state), letters, diaries, journals and newspaper articles.

The census is readily available to us on microfilm and available through rental programs such as at the National Archives. Census microfilm can also be found in many major libraries. Transcriptions can be found on Internet projects and digital images are becoming available on Internet.

Letters, diaries and journals normally can be found in homes. However, in some cases your research should extend to museums and other repositories. Always check the National Union Catalog Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC). This can be found in major libraries or more easily checked on Internet at

Newspapers can often be read on microfilm. Many state libraries or state historical societies contain microfilm collections of newspapers. The largest collection of United States newspaper microfilm can be found in the Library of Congress.

Broaden your research to fully understand your ancestor. Look backward and look beyond to find the answers. "No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main." - John Donne, Meditation XVII.

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