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Tuesday's Tip - Dead or Alive? (Beginner)

Bringing an Ancestor to Life

Bringing an Ancestor to Life

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 BooksInternet ArchiveHathiTrust 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.


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I have read several of your contributions and they all are excellent. But this one is particularly outstanding! Thank you for all the great ideas!

Thank you so much for your kind comments, Bill :)

Thank you for this most interesting article. Although our family website ( has some notes about our ancestors lives, I haven't gone out of my way to put down personal notes. However, that is about to change. Thank you again
J. Howard Albro

How can we follow this up researching ancestors in Europe, both western and eastern? This brings a whole new set of questions, sources, and methods. Help and guidelines would be wonderful.

This is an excellent question! I do a lot of research in Germany so I will use Germany as an example. You can find many German history books that are written in English.

There are also many German genealogy societies that you can contact by email. Many Germans speak English (I speak German so no problem there) but you can also use Google translate to help. They can give the specific information you need or at least give you a place to look.

There are German genealogy websites in English. Even if the website is in German you can use your browsers translation tool so that you can at least get the gist of it.

If you can make a genealogy friend in the country of interest you can help each other. For example, I have a distant cousin in Germany who is a genealogist. Her particular line migrated to the USA while mine stayed in Germany. We help each other all the time.

Another place you can get some background info on the general location and time period is reading biographies of famous people from that country. Here is a list of famous Germans and this website has many countries. You will be able to find a biography in English about most, it not all, of these people. What would be really nifty is if you have an ancestor that lived in the same time and same place as one of these famous people and then you can actually draw them into the story making a note that it is possible that your ancestor might have known Johannnes Brahms :)

You can also bring in information about the climate in that country, the natural resources, the types of trades that are common and why. All of that can be found on the internet.

You can talk about traditional dress of that country, traditional holidays and festival, traditional foods etc. All of this can be found in English.

Were their any wars or conflicts going on that could have affected your ancestors and how? You can find this type of information in English no problem.

If there is one specific country where you know that you will be doing a lot of research in, you might consider learning at least the basics of the language. Wikipedia has a list of online archives for newspapers in different countries. You can see that there are quite a few for Germany. Newspapers are one of my favorite resources for background information but you have to be able to read the text :)

These are all great suggestions and each one deserves more expansion and examples--for future columns? Thanks for mentioning sources like HathiTrust Trust and Internet Archive, two projects I was involved with in my professional career. Another one is the Digital Public Library of America which has books but also photographs, letters and diaries and other primary sources from almost every state, all free. The stories of people's lives is the most interesting part of genealogy for me.

So true and a very useful article with lots of helpful info. I find that historic sites can be very helpful also. Many of my ancestors were blacksmiths and I had the opportunity to try blacksmithing at an old forge. It gave me a greater appreciation of the skill required and the working conditions endures and pleasure in finding this connection with some of my ancestors. Thank you for this post.

I am just starting to put together my research and notes and letters for a German line of ancestors, so this is most helpful. I may have questions later.

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