News & Opinion

Historical Context for Genealogy Research: What Your Ancestor’s Surroundings Say About Them

by on June 4, 2014

When conducting genealogical research on your family, understanding the life and times of your ancestors is more than just who they were and when they were born and died. Situating your ancestors in history, both local and national, can help clue you in to more about their daily lives and about some of the decisions they may have faced during their time. In addition, knowing about the historical context that these men and women faced can provide vital clues that can help you unearth more information about them than by just conducting random searches.

What is historical context? Historical context is the elements that permeate the lives of every living person; the local history of where they were born, the events that may have shaped their lives, and the living conditions that often can provide some measure of explanation about who they were as people. For example, if you know in advance that the local county courthouse burned down and that many records were destroyed, you will know that you will have to find other avenues to locate records and documents that you might need.

So how do you situate your ancestors in historical context? Start with your local public library. Many public libraries keep reference materials about the location in which they are found that can include history, prominent citizens, city directories, genealogy books about first families in the area, and many other tidbits that can be of use to your research. Don’t forget to keep records of what sources you have looked at as you go! Make notes of where you found the book(s) so you can always retrace your steps should the unthinkable happen and your research gets lost or destroyed.

If you don’t have access to the public library in the area you are researching, try the local historical societies. These treasure troves of information can lead to resources you never knew existed! A simple Google search can reveal numerous historical societies. Do not be afraid to reach out to them for assistance, especially if you are working in the South. The United States South can prove to be quite difficult to conduct research in beyond a certain point. Due to the widespread destruction caused by the American Civil War, many sources of records were lost. This can be quite a frustrating experience, but by using local historical societies you can begin to piece together the history of the area. Many small historical societies are run by individuals with direct connections to the people, places, and things that you may want to know, so do not be afraid to ask questions. You never know when someone will tell you that they knew so-and-so who happened to know your grandfather. This happened to me during my own genealogical research, and the resulting information proved to be quite useful indeed. Genealogy research is a lot like detective work—you have to piece together the past in order to understand the motives and actions of your ancestors. While this can be a painstaking process, the rewards are worth it.

In my next article, we will be looking at the United States Census records including what they show, how to read them and where to find them. Keep researching—the answers are out there!


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