Sunday, October 2, 2011

History and Geography in the Lives of Our Ancestors

Harriett Beecher Stowe wrote:  “Every individual is part and parcel of a great picture of the society in which he lives and acts, and his life cannot be painted without reproducing the picture of the world he lived in.”

Family history is so much more than just the names and dates on a pedigree chart or in a genealogy program on our computers.  I believe that "genealogy" involves basic vital information and goes straight back.  "Family History" encompasses the histories of those families.

For each ancestral family, 
Years ago, Curt Witcher spoke at a conference I was attending.  As usualy, his talk was inspiring and made me want to go right home and get started researching better.  The title of this particular presentation was, "Doing the History Eliminates the Mystery".

So true.

In the classes I teach, I try to emphasize just how important this can be.  Let me share some pointers:

1.  Learn all you can about the area your ancestors lived in and study this material.  Look at the time period, their nationality, the neighborhood.
  • County histories and “heritage books” may be particularly helpful, though the data may be incorrect.  Use the information as a springboard to take you to the original records containing primary sources.
  • The family may have followed general trends that pertained to the area.
    Obtain atlases and topographical maps to study the geography, and claim those maps as yours!  They may help you to determine why your ancestor traveled nearly 20 miles to go to a courthouse in a neighboring county, as opposed to 5 miles to the one in his own county.  Perhaps there was rough terrain and mou
    ntains that you can't see on an ordinary map.
  • How did the family arrive?  Were there watercourses?  Did they run a ferry on the river?  Could they have had a mill?  Did they come through mountains?  Did poor weather affect the crops and the economy, effecting a move?
  • Collect materials about libraries, archives and courthouses in the area, as well as their location and hours of operation.
2.  Check out the neighborhood and collateral relatives.
It might be wise to bypass indexes and go directly to the records themselves.  

  •  You are the one that knows your family and different spelling variations.
     Families did not live in alphabetical order.
     Study the family in the proximity of its neighbors.
     Whole communities were known to migrate.
     They witnessed each other’s deeds and wills, and attended          church together.
    Tax records and deeds often showed neighbors.
     Land was described by whose property it bordered
3.  Join a society in the ancestor’s geographic area.
  • If they have a website, visit it frequently.
    Many societies collect pedigree charts, family group records, or ancestor file cards from its members.
    Most societies publish a newsletter and accept free queries from members.
4.  Join a local society and be active.
  • Local societies offer learning opportunities and workshops.
5.  Consult with an expert in the geographic area where your ancestor lived, and/or hire a professional researcher.

Above all, avoid presentism!  This is when we place today's morals, values, manners, speech, routines, hygiene, etc. upon people who lived in another time and place. 

Step outside the normal routine of collecting documents.
Explore the area’s history.

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