If you are doing genealogical research, you’re a bit like a geologist searching for precious metals. You’re drilling back into the past looking for connections among generations of ancestors over time. The bore hole is deep, but narrow. When you write a family history book that focus on people connected by blood is only part of the story. A family historian seeks not only to establish such kinship connections but to relate ancestors to contemporaries beyond the family. The result connects your ancestors to the times and places in which they lived as well as to each other. Your family history puts the lives of the people in your pedigree chart or family group sheet into a historical context.
To do that you should ask questions broader than those found in the vital records. What was it like to live in that time and place? Your ancestors’ lives were unique, but their experiences were also shared. Social trends, economic conditions and political events influenced their lives.
Let’s look at some examples of the kind of questions each of these things might provoke as you think about ancestors’ lives:
- Were ancestors part of the wave of Irish who came to the United States during the great potato famine in the late 1840s?
- Did ancestors live in the burned-over district of upstate New York during the 1820s-1830s as the fervent religious revivals of the Second Great Awakening swept over the area?
- Was one of your female ancestors a part of the wave of women who joined Rosie the Riveter during World War II as they moved into the workforce for the first time?
- What was it like to ancestors who were loyalists to the British crown in the American Revolution?
- What was it like for ancestors in the Kansas in the 1850s as Jayhawkers and Bushwackers battled over slavery in the new territory?
- How were your ancestors and their neighbors effected by the major policy shifts of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program during the Great Depression?
- Did your ancestors participate in the great migration from farms to cities in the last 19th and early 20th centuries?
- How were your ancestors’ experiences shaped by the impact of the Great Depression?
- Did you have ancestors who were effected by the rise of labor unions and organized labor?
Each of these questions explores a type of experience that your ancestors might have shared with large groups of people. Exploring these kinds of widely shared experiences and combining them with the knowledge you have acquired of your specific ancestors will give the readers of your family history a context they can use to understand what it was like to be alive in their ancestors’ day and how that experience fits into the broader sweep of history. Younger family readers who read it to explore their own identity will be far better to answer the question, “Who were these people?” That should be an important goal for any family historian.