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Adding Historical Context to Your Ancestor's Life

Nothing hits me in the gut more than knowing that a direct ancestor of mine spearheaded an Indian massacre. In January 1863, Colonel Patrick E. Connor and his regiment wreaked havoc at Bear Creek in southeastern Idaho, resulting in hundreds of casualties for the Shoshoni Indian Tribe and their families. Being descended from a decorated war hero, to whom I owe my middle name, does not generate the feelings of pride or excitement it once did. However, the relationship of Americans and indigenous tribes was complex to say the least. Without disregarding the atrocities committed by General Connor, Americans settling out west were victims of raids and brutality by the Western tribes as well. This article is not meant to debate the ethics of one side against the other, but rather to briefly demonstrate how research, thus adding historical context, gives us a fuller understanding of our ancestor’s lives and their actions.

Whether we're dealing with the more light-hearted fare of day-to-day life or events that taint our family history, adding historical context is an important process to bring us closer to our ancestors. The world of genealogy is catching on to this with great interest; more and more researchers are looking for ways to add “meat on the bones” and to bring to light the time-period of their ancestors and what their experiences were like. When we research the history around our ancestors, they become more than names on a branch, but people with a story to tell, that can captivate you, your family, and future generations. My experience in genealogy has proven repeatedly, that our history textbooks from grade school overlooked the amazing history retold through the stories of everyday people.

Image source: Library of Congress

We often find clues in our sources that probe us to ask, “Why did they do that?” or “Why did this happen to them?” At our disposal are voluminous resources that we can use to answer, or at least come closer to answering, these questions.


Newspapers are a great primary source for investigating historical events and they help to demonstrate the character of a particular community. Not only do they provide primary accounts of important moments in our ancestors’ lives, but they also capture the opinions and sentiments your ancestor may have held towards particular social issues. The first place I’d look for links to online newspapers databases is FamilySearch Wiki’s article, "Digital Historical Newspapers” or Cyndi’s List. Also, visit Kenneth Mark's Ancestor Hunt website which provides tremendous resources for newspaper research. There are also over 15 "always free" classes on newspaper research by Tom Kemp inn the Legacy Family Tree Webinars library.


A lot of great study has been devoted to understanding life at the workplace. Try researching the history of a specific job like coal miner or a particular company, i.e. the Boston & Maine Railroad Company, to find collections and sources that provide insight into the day-to-day life of your ancestor at work.


If your ancestor was a veteran, there are abundant websites and records documenting the activities of your ancestor’s company or regiment to help better understand their experience on the battlefield. I would start by searching your ancestor’s regiment or company because there is a very high chance somebody created a webpage on it, or you can go deeper using records of the National Archives. The document below shows Colonel Connor’s own account of the Massacre at Bear Creek, extracted from a large series of reports and correspondence published as The War of the Rebellion.




29 Jan 1863 – Engagement on the Bear River, Utah Ter. [1]   
29 Jan 1863 – Engagement on the Bear River, Utah Ter. [1]



Accessing the articles written by scholars and historians is a great way to add historical context. Less focused on genealogical research, scholarly articles can provide fuller understanding on a variety of historical subjects, i.e. the witchcraft hysteria in New England or social conditions of Irish-Americans in urban communities. These academics have gone to great lengths to pull together a variety of primary and secondary sources to give a more balanced view of history. Pertinent databases include JSTOR, Google Scholar, and Academic Search Complete by EBSCOhost. Some are free, while others require subscription access. Check your local library or university to inquire about what research databases are available within their network.


Even if family treasures like diaries and letters do not exist in your family, consider reading those of other families that relate to your research. The farther back in time we are researching, the more important these primary sources become in determining what might have been our ancestor’s thoughts, feelings, and aspirations in their day to day lives. Many have been published and edited with commentary, like The Prendergast Letters: Correspondence from Famine-Era Ireland or One Colonial Women’s World: The Life and Writings of Mehetabel Chandler Coit, while others still lie in the stacks of archives. To track down some of these, try the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections or ArchiveGrid by WorldCat. These are excellent catalogs to begin archival research.


Add some fun to your family history journey and enjoy a visit to a museum! Particularly in ones that offer living history settings, like Plimoth Plantation, the past surely does come alive. Museum guides, re-enactors, and collections on display provide a window into life as it once was. Something about experiencing history first hand cannot be recreated in any type of source or record. As a bonus, visiting a museum is a great field trip for the whole family to take, so everyone can better understand and appreciate the lives of our ancestors, but most importantly, all of the great work you as genealogists do in preserving the legacy!

Hear are a few examples of digital libraries and archives that could help with providing historical context, along with resources that provide links to some of these repositories.

"American Memory.Library of Congress.

Colonial North American Project.Harvard University Library.

Documenting the American South.University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill.

Digital Collections.Library of Congress.

Nancy E. Loe. “States on Sunday Archives.” Sassy Jane Genealogy. A growing collection of free digital archives by State.

Primary Source Sets.” Digital Public Library of America.

Staff Writers. “250 Plus Killer Digital Libraries and Archives.Open Education Database (, posted 25 Mar 2013.


[1] United States. War Dept; The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. (Washington, D.C.: Govt. Printing Office, 1900), 187.


Jake Fletcher is a genealogist and blogger. Jake has been researching and writing about genealogy since 2008 on his research blog Travelogues of a Genealogist. He currently volunteers as a research assistant at the National Archives in Waltham, Massachusetts and is Vice President of the New England Association of Professional Genealogists (NEAPG).


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You know you see providers moving towards this as in Ancestry's rather feeble attempt in their "Life Story" it would be wonderful if it worked as intended but it and the map feature are so inaccurate that I fear they lead the novice down rabbit holes which then become the norm in all the FaceBook trees that flood so many onliune communities such as Ancestry, FamilySearch, MyHeritage etc. etc. It would be wonderful if someone somewhere would create timelines by geographical location more specifically. In adding "hisorical context" to ones profile of an ancestor it is paramount that the context be true. It is often forgotten that just because a specific event took place at such and such a time that your ancestor lived that it doesn't nessisarily follow that it had any impact whatsoever to that ancestors life. For one thing most forget that the further back we go in time the more unlikely that an individual would eve be aware in real time of an event taking placed. In direct proportion to how far from their location it took place there would be a lag of time before they even became aware of it. And, their awareness would have been limited and shaped by the nature in which it arrived. Take for example a distant relation of mine who struggled as a homesteader way back in the woods who years after the war starting come to find that he's lost two siblings in the war of Independence/Revolution. I mean by this the victors saw the events in a much different manner than the British did and the resulting reporting of and potential impact on my ancestor would have been much different. After all... they didn't have either the WWW or email eh... lol At present I feel if Ancestry say is going to add such a feature they should be doing it in a more responsible fashion and help it be an effective and accurate addition to my understanding of my ancestor's life and not just a little bit of glitter that is going to mislead the novice into grabbing it as embellishment on their trees and further complicate my research and that of others who are attempting to do as accurate a rendition of their heritage as possible. I'd love to see a webinar or better yet a series of same on this topic in the future to help those of us who would love to do this well be better equipped to do so.

Great article !! I am very interested in the social history of the times my ancestors lived. I need to do more of this as I travel around my family tree. Thanks for reminding me !!

Once you have gathered such historical and social history where do you enter it in Legacy?

I did this very thing with a book, "From New York to Indiana: A History of the Ira Barber Family Beginning in 1786" (available for preview at, I wrote on my family history. Each chapter is a next generation of family and highlights a bit of the history that affected my ancestors living at that time. I liked the comment about "meat on a bone" as that is what I feel it does by adding a dimension beyond simply the family chart.

Jim Barber

Talk about adding context to my family history! Today I started researching in JSTOR -- yet again -- about the economic circumstances that explained why my gr-gr-grandfather had carried mortgages on dozens of farms throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many of which he carried long after the farmer stopped making loan payments. That search gave me a reason -- often loans on farm land were considered too risky by commercial banks so farmers had to turn to other sources -- and the vocabulary -- farm-loan agencies -- to start a wider search. All of which led to the 1916 beginning of the Farm Credit System, which created a way for rural families to get loans. This program generated a lot of paper, some of which is available at Not expecting anything specific about even the county where my ancestor lived and loaned, I searched on "Nebraska" and was amazed to find two letters written by a collateral member of my family. The first was addressed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936 about the foreclosure on her farm. The second went to Henry Wallace, Secretary of Agriculture, in 1940 about "securing a loan on the farm" -- seemingly the same farm, so the first letter may have had its intended effect if she still owned the farm. However, references are made to a nephew who gave bad advice about taking out a mortgage, with the possible intention of getting the land for himself when it was repossessed. Although other less-than-evenhanded real-estate transactions are talked about in the family, I've never heard of this one. Best of all, the letters have been digitized in both their original form and in the typed copy that was submitted to the addressee by an assistant. Research gold!

I agree with this article all should have a history of their ancestors upto the last line.

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