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Learn about Your Ancestors During Wartime through their Yearbooks


It probably wouldn't take much to convince you that searching for your ancestors in yearbooks is a good idea. My guess is that you already know they are a genealogical source that can include photographs, names, locations, dates, and other information about a person's school life.

That's all great. Yearbooks are an excellent source for learning about your 19th to 20th-century ancestors' younger years. But are they a source for anything outside of school life? 

I recently taught an institute course where we focused on American life during the years 1917-1930. A focus of the course was on understanding World War I and the relevant records. We discussed all types of military records, censuses, and other familiar genealogical records. But the surprise for me was something I purchased before the course that made me take a second look at yearbooks.

Yearbooks and War Time

What have you used yearbooks for? Have you considered their use in documenting wartime? Specifically, how did the war impact a school's students, staff, and faculty? Look at this edition of The Echo from the Milwaukee State Normal School, 1919. Yes, students, their photos, and quotes feature prominently on these pages. But the other topics include students' support of the war effort on the home front, those killed in the war, and those who served. Examples include:

Gold Star Honor Men. The Gold Star signifies someone who has died in military service. The school's yearbook shares photos of the dead and their bios, including when and where they were killed. It's here that other family members such as spouses are also listed.


The School Honor Rolls lists five pages of students who served, starting with the class of 1892. Name, rank, and where they served are listed.


The Faculty Honor Roll provides images and information about faculty who served, including two women. Ruth Stewart Milne, served as a first-class yeoman in the US Navy and Lilian E Webb worked with the YMCA in France.


Other related pages document the schools' SATC program (Student Army Training Corps), a panoramic photo of the students involved, and a page detailing patriotic activities.

Why Does This Matter?

Finding some information about ancestors during this time period can be challenging. This yearbook does more than document student life; it's documenting death and military service. On top of that, we have the person's FAN Club, which is beneficial to research. Using our World War I (or even other wars like World War II) yearbooks can include much more than just school information; it may provide what we need to find other records. And it includes alumni names. Yearbooks provide social history information we can use to understand our ancestral lives better as we seek to tell their stories.

Have you considered yearbooks for finding information beyond academic life? Please share your experience in the comments below.


Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.



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