One of my pet peeves is when a researcher reduces a person to a laundry list of vital statistics. I realize that only people from the deep south will understand this analogy but “grits without salt is WORSE than bland.” That is how I view family trees that don’t include biographical information. Our ancestors were real people who led interesting lives. It is the genealogist's job to tell their stories.
Researching the time period and the location is ESSENTIAL
You must take the time to research what was going on when your ancestor lived. It will help you understand why he did the things that he did. Local history books are a great resource, especially those that were written close to the time period you are working with. You will find these on Google Books, Internet Archive, HathiTrust Digital Library, Project Gutenberg, and Family History Books (FamilySearch). Many are out of copyright and can be read in their entirety. The newspaper is one of your best resources even if you never find your ancestor's name in print. Not only can you learn about your ancestor's specific community but also what was going on in the country at that time that might have been a concern to him.
Research their personal experiences
If your ancestor was a Union or Confederate soldier, read about the Civil War from their point of view. If you ancestor was a planter or a farmer, read books about what farming was like during that time period. If your family migrated across country read books about what it was like on the trail. Did the family attend church? Religion was an important part of many people’s lives and you want to include that if you can. Read up on their particular denomination and its history. I needed background information about childbearing in the 19th century for a biography I was writing. I read Brought to Bed: Childbearing in America, 1750-1950 by Judith Walzer Leavitt and Lyin-In: A History of Childbirth in America by Richard W. Wertz. I couldn't put these two books down and I have a newfound appreciation for what my female ancestors went through.
One of the best things I ever found was Memories: A Record of Personal Experience and Adventure During Four Years of War by Fannie A. Beers. Fannie was a nurse at Buckner Hospital in Gainesville, Alabama during the Civil War at the very same time my 3rd great-grandfather Mathew Patton was a patient there! She might have even taken care of him. She detailed the horrible conditions there and stated,
"Alas! alas! were these the brave men who had made forever glorious the name of Shiloh?"
My Mathew was wounded at the Battle of Shiloh and later died of his injuries. This quote from the book gives me goosebumps.
Topography and the community setting can enlighten you even further
Did your ancestor live in a city? A small town? Out in the middle of nowhere? In a valley surrounded by mountains? Was there a river or lake nearby? Knowing more about the area can give you insight on the type of house they may have lived in. You can look for some copyright free photographs of the area and sample houses from that time that you can add to your biography which will add interest.
Go the extra mile
If you see that your ancestor was a farmer on the federal census, try finding him on the agricultural schedule. Here is where you will find information about acreage, types of crops grown, kinds of animals raised etc. That will tell you a lot about his daily life. Construct maps showing where everyone lived in relation to everyone else based on land descriptions. Put together a timeline of your ancestor to make his life easy to follow (but you still need to have a narrative). Look through records that you really don’t think would apply to your family. I was in the Columbia County, Georgia courthouse awhile back and noticed they had arrest records, logs of police encounters, and lunacy books. Just thumbing through I saw people’s names that I knew. I was searching coroner’s reports for a specific person and found another person I wasn’t expecting. These unusual record sets will definitely spice up your narrative.
Read between the lines
Did your person of interest have extended family living with him in the census records? Elderly parents or newlywed children? That gives you some insight on the family dynamics. How much property did he own? This can give you a sense of wealth. Always pay attention to who went to school and who didn’t and who is listed as illiterate. This can mean many things. Were there no schools in the area? (check the other families living nearby). Was the family poor and needed the children to stay home to work? Did your person of interest have some sort of disability? Some families simply didn’t see the need for any formal education. When you have multiple possibilities you can discuss them in your narrative. One thing to look out for are children who didn’t go to school in earlier censuses but are listed as being able to read and write in the later ones. This can indicate children who were taught to read and write at home by their parents which was very common.
African-American specific research
If you are doing African-American research one of the best resources for background information are the Slave Narratives. The Federal Works Project (WPA) interviewed over 2300 former slaves in the 1930s. You will read firsthand knowledge which is eye-opening.
In the next article I will help you compile all of this great info into a narrative and then give you some ideas of where to go from there. Stay tuned!
Michele Simmons Lewis, CG® is part of the Legacy Family Tree team at MyHeritage. She handles the enhancement suggestions that come in from our users as well as writing for Legacy News. You can usually find her hanging out on the Legacy User Group Facebook page answering questions and posting tips.