7 Resources to Add Context to Ancestors’ Lives

In the quest to document our ancestors’ lives, researchers sometimes forget that people didn’t just live in the neat little package of vital records – namely birth, marriage and death.

News and public events happenings weren’t instantaneous knowledge as we have today, but our ancestors were definitely affected by social, economic, religious and political occurrences, regardless of the time period in which they lived.

While it’s probably not likely to find a particular ancestor by name in the many resources available, it is more than possible to learn in-depth about the circumstances affecting his/her daily life.

First, here is a quick and easy list of several free online resources:

  1. Wikipedia
  2. FamilySearch Research Wiki
  3. GenWiki
  4. World History Encyclopedia
  5. Encyclopedia.com
  6. Brittanica.com
  7. Infoplease: An Online Encyclopedia

Now, let’s look at a few examples of how these can be used for family history research.

My father’s family settled in Passaic, New Jersey around the turn of the 20th century. As with most Eastern European immigrants, they worked in the textile mills. Conditions were harsh, but they needed the meager pay to live. Then came the Passaic Textile Strike in 1926. What was that and how would it have affected my family members? A quick look at Wikipedia brought up the story.

One branch of my colonial American ancestors were Huguenots. Henry Burt married Eulalia Marche in England and they immigrated to Massachusetts in the 1630s. To learn more about the Huguenots’ origins, who they were and what happened to them, visit the FamilySearch Research Wiki.

GenWiki is a relatively unknown website, but it has some great records. In some ways, it reminds me of USGenWeb. Let’s say I have family members who lived in Buena Vista County, Iowa and one of them was a farmer who served in the Civil War. What kinds of records will help tell his life story? In this case, one image is worth 1000 words:

In this list, I’d be checking out the Civil War records, the Directories, the Maps and the History categories. It turned out that one of the Military Record files was a newspaper clipping about the Civil War veterans’ reunion in 1876!

One more example and I think you’ll have the idea. One of my Scottish ancestors fought in the Battle of Dunbar in Scotland in 1650 against Oliver Cromwell’s forces. The Scots lost, badly, and the results were brutal. This led to the transportation of many Scots to the New World. Because I have two Scottish ancestors who were transported, I’d like to learn more about the Battle of Dunbar. World History Encyclopedia has a concise article about the battle.

The goal of this article is to remind everyone to think outside the typical genealogical box when researching out ancestors. Use resources like the FamilySearch Research Wiki in new ways . Look for the social, political, religious and economic stories to provide the context that changes our ancestors from “hatched, matched and dispatched” into living beings.

2 thoughts on “7 Resources to Add Context to Ancestors’ Lives”

  1. Very good reminder that context puts family history into perspective and helps us understand what ancestors did as well as why (sometimes).

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