Understanding Your Ancestors’ Stories:
Telling the Stories of Your Distant Ancestors
(first published in Family Chronicle, June 2007
Often when we think of telling or writing our ancestors’ stories, we think of those ancestors who lived in the recent past – such as grandparents. We may have known these people ourselves. These recent ancestors probably left behind valuable insights into their lives such as letters, journals, photographs, personal histories, or oral histories by them or others who knew them.
But what about those ancestors who lived hundreds of years ago? These ancestors may have left behind nothing besides basic facts in vital, census, or other impersonal documents. Are they destined to live on only as an entry in a family tree? Or is it possible to turn this scanty information into a meaningful story?
It may take a little more work to tell the stories of your distant ancestors– but it is possible. Without old photographs and letters at your fingertips, you’ll have to do a little more searching. You can start by digging deeper in the records that contain information about your ancestors specifically. Then, you might move to personal records of others who shared their experiences. And finally, you should turn to more general histories to recreate the historical context of your ancestors’ time period and location.
You may have already collected some information about your early ancestors. For a U.S. ancestor, you may have found his or her name listed in a U.S. census, perhaps in vital records, or maybe in church records. You might have already collected a birth, marriage, and death entry from a parish church book for a European ancestor. You can fill in the blanks on your family group sheets – but that’s about all you know.
But, is it all you can know from these original records? You may be surprised at how much information you can glean from these seemingly sparse records – if you dig deeper. With a little effort, you may start to see a story you never saw before.
Pull Out All the Information. Your first step may be a step backwards. Take out those original records of your ancestors again. Instead of just noting the birth date or marriage place this time, really study the record. Look for any clues – no matter how small they may seem. Does the record list an occupation? If so, you just gained an important insight into your ancestor’s daily life. Notice causes of deaths, names and titles of witnesses and relatives, the presence of signatures (or only the “X” mark), and any other marginal notes the record keeper may have made. All these things tell you something new about your ancestor.
Put the Events Together. Consider making a timeline of your ancestor’s life. If possible, include events in the lives of close relatives as well. Then look at the flow of events. You may realize that your ancestor became a land owner the year after his father died - perhaps indicating he inherited his father’s farm. You may see that three members of the family died of small pox within a month of each other. You might notice that the parents married unusually old or young, had their children close together or far apart, moved frequently, or changed economic status suddenly.
Look Around. Take note of people nearby your ancestor in the records. For one thing, you may find other family members there. Learning from the U.S. census records that your ancestor lived next door to her three sisters and their families provides an interesting insight into your ancestor’s life.
Paying attention to others in the records can provide additional clues too. You can learn what your ancestors’ community – and support network – were like. Did others of his or her ethnicity live nearby? You can also sometimes glimpse trends in the community. For example, if you find the same cause of death listed repeatedly, you may conclude that an epidemic swept through the area.
Try Unconventional Original Records. Besides digging deeper in the records you’ve already found, cast a wider net in your search. Don’t limit yourself to sources that contain new “genealogical” information about your family – or in other words, sources that can help you fill in a blank on your family group sheet. Think of other places your ancestors’ names might be included. Although you might not gain information for your charts, you can probably learn tidbits of information about what your ancestor was like.
You may already know that land records, probate records, court records, county or local histories, obituaries, compiled genealogies, pension records, and immigration records can contain a treasure of information about your ancestor. But, your ancestor could also be mentioned in less-often used records such as newspaper articles, school records, society membership lists, church committee meeting minutes, bank records, funeral home records, muster rolls, as well as payroll and other employment records.
Locating the Information. Much of the details you need might be found in records you already have. To find additional records, check the Family History Library Catalogue of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City online at www.familysearch.org for the locality in which you ancestor lived. Here, you may find a variety of records that are available to be ordered to your local Family History Center.
For society membership records, church minutes, or other specific records, you might have to go directly to the source. If you know what church your ancestor attended, where he or she worked, or what school he or she attended, contact the organization and ask what types of records they have available and how you might access them. Contact the historical society near where your ancestor lived for more ideas.
Looking for the Personal Accounts of Others
We all know what wonderful finds diaries, letters, autobiographies, and other personal records are. These can give us specific information about the events in our ancestors’ lives. The records can also take us beyond the dry facts to give us an understanding of the emotion of the events.
Unfortunately, the chances that your distant ancestor left diaries, letters, or other personal information are not great. But don’t despair. Just because your ancestor didn’t describe his or her experiences doesn’t eliminate all chances of gaining personal insights into them. But - you may need to rely on someone else’s personal insights.
Records of Friends and Family. Our ancestors shared many of the events and even emotions of their lives with those around them. Of course, the best substitute for personal information provided by your ancestor would be personal information provided by a family member or close friend. Because their life conditions and experiences were so similar, you’ll find that much of the record is directly relevant. Your ancestor may even be mentioned or described in the record.
Records of Acquaintances or Strangers. Records that provide wonderful information about your ancestors’ lives may also be written by people who were casual acquaintances or even complete strangers to your ancestors. Spend a few minutes brainstorming about what kinds of experiences others may have shared with your ancestor and then written about. Was your ancestor an immigrant? Perhaps someone who traveled on the same ship wrote letters home describing the ship voyage. Even a personal description from someone who traveled around the same time on another ship can help you understand your ancestors’ journey in general. Did someone from your ancestors’ hometown keep a journal that gives a good idea of what everyday life was like in this particular place? Did your ancestor fight in a battle that soldiers who fought along side him later wrote about in their personal histories?
Even if your ancestor didn’t leave behind records about noteworthy events in his or her life – someone else might have.
Locating the Information: Unfortunately, getting your hands on these records can be a challenge. Unless the family has made the journal or history publicly available, locating it remains almost impossible.
However, you may be surprised at how much of this personal information is available. There are several ways to locate it. You can start with an internet and library catalogue search for the battle, ship, etc. (start out as specifically as possible). If your ancestor participated in a well known event, read a book or paper on the subject. Pay attention to the footnotes. You may notice that the information in the paper comes from personal accounts written by your ancestor’s contemporaries.
Original sources like letters and journals are often kept at archives. Check with relevant archives (archives for your ancestor’s locality or that specialize in records of a particular type). Also try contacting the local historical or genealogical society. They may have or know of other sources.
Creating the Historical Context
Some of the most important information you can gather to help you tell your distant ancestors’ stories isn’t directly related to your individual ancestor at all. Instead, you have to take a broader look at the time and place in which they lived. You can use this information to create the historical context of your ancestors’ lives.
You can find a nearly an unlimited supply of books, articles, and other types of records that can help you create the historical context – with more available at each step you take further from the individuals and their lives. Using a combination of overview, large-scale sources and more narrowly focused sources enables you to tell the story most effectively.
Large-Scale Records. Before you can tell the stories of your distant ancestors, you must have a basic understanding of the timeline of important events that happened around them. If your ancestor lived in Missouri in the 1860s, your story wouldn’t be complete without mention of the Civil War. War, economic downturns, disease epidemics, important law changes and other large events of history impacted the daily lives of our ancestors.
But don’t limit your research to the major political events of history. Explore the social history of the area as much as possible. Understanding the little day to day parts of life such as farming schedules and chores, common foods, normal family interactions, religious beliefs and health care can tell you more about your ancestors’ lives that can knowing the names of all the rulers and the dates of all the battles.
You might want to do specific research on areas applicable to your ancestor. If you know your ancestor was a blacksmith, read a little about this occupation. If your ancestor lost three children to typhoid fever, you can easily do a quick search on the internet to learn about the causes, symptoms, and history of this disease.
Locality Specific Records. Once you gain a view of the big picture, bring your focus in for a closer look. You can start with state or province histories. Life in Utah, for example, was much different than life in Massachusetts in the 1850s. Here again you can learn of the outside events that affected your ancestors. Then, take a step closer with town or parish histories. These records can give you a sense of the flavor of your ancestors’ lives not available in larger, more general histories. You can learn about the size of the town, the important businesses and people, the economic conditions, and important local events. You might even be pleasantly surprised to find your ancestors mentioned specifically.
Locating the Information. Locating general sources is simple enough. Try a search at your local library. The narrower your geographic area becomes, the more difficult it is to find the information you need. For town and county histories of U.S. locations far from you, you might have to rely on interlibrary loan. Archives and genealogy libraries also have a collection of local histories – particularly older ones (which may actually be the most useful). You may also want to contact the local historical or genealogical society. They sometimes have unpublished histories or know where you can find further information.
For foreign localities, the task becomes trickier – particularly if you don’t read the language. Usually town and parish histories aren’t translated into English. Don’t be afraid to attempt contacting towns or churches in other countries (although sometimes just pinning down contact information can be a challenge). If language proves an insurmountable challenge, evaluate how crucial that particular information is. In order to proceed, you may have to hire someone to translate for you.
Also, don’t forget to try academic libraries and journals for papers or studies that provide insight into the places of interest to you. You may be surprised at how much you can learn without having to translate a word.
Drawing the Line Between Fact and Fiction
Often when you use the techniques above, you find yourself drawing more conclusions about your ancestors’ lives. As you read about conditions on the immigrant ships, or other traveler’s reactions to the journey, you may start to think you know how your ancestor felt. Your ancestor is becoming a real person to you. This is great – as long as you keep your facts straight!
There is nothing wrong with adding your interpretation to events. In many cases, it can be beneficial. However, try to stick to some guidelines. First, make your conclusions based on as many facts as possible. The more details you’ve accumulated and the more accurately you can paint the world around your ancestor, the less leaping between facts you have to do.
Perhaps most importantly, make sure you always keep clear what information comes from fact and what comes from your interpretations. There’s nothing wrong with extrapolating facts about the population in general to cover your ancestors – as long as you let the reader know what you’re doing. For example, perhaps you’ve read from a local history that troops from a battle were temporarily stationed in many of the villagers’ homes when your ancestors lived there. You can include this information in the history – adding that it’s likely that your ancestors had to house troops also. But be sure to indicate that this conclusion is only a probability – not a certainty.
Similarly, when imposing emotions or thoughts on your ancestors that you are only guessing at, make sure you make it clear that these are not documented facts. For example, if you know that your ancestor left her family behind and emigrated to the U.S. alone, you may speculate on her feelings or her reasons for making this decision. Speculations like these can add feeling to otherwise dry accounts. Just remember to indicate that these are your thoughts. Give any evidence you may have for these conclusions – such as letters of other emigrants in similar circumstances that indicated their feelings.
Don’t limit yourself to recording the stories of your grandparents or great-grandparents. With a little time and patience, you can tell an interesting (and truthful) account of your distant ancestors’ lives. And there’s a good chance you’ll find the challenge enjoyable too!