Category Archives: Social History & Culture

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
  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.

Paraskevidekatriaphobia & Ancestral Superstitions

Do you suffer from paraskevidekatriaphobia? Phobias are a common question on cruise trivias and most of them don’t seem to have Greek or Latin roots by which the meaning can be figured out.

In the case of paraskevidekatriaphobia, though, it is possible to decipher the meaning of this phobia, which I believe has few true sufferers!

The word is made from several Greek roots. Paraskevi translates to FRIDAY, deka is the root of TEN, and tri is a root for THREE.

Yep, paraskevidekatriaphobia is a fear of Friday the 13th, which occurs only once this year – yep, you guessed it – tomorrow, 13 August 2021.

Superstitions are deep rooted in various cultures and it is fair to say that our colonial ancestors definitely lived in a superstitious society.

I think we’ve all heard superstitions like finding a penny brings good luck, don’t let a black cat cross in front of you and don’t open an umbrella in the house.

However, there are many MANY more that (thankfully) have died out.

Here is a sampling of some of the more unusual superstitions that I came across while researching this topic:

1. Put an old shoe in the wall of your house to ward off evil spirits.
2. If tea grounds are floating in your cup, company is coming.
3. If you dream about a funeral, a wedding will happen and if you dream of a wedding, there will be a funeral.
4. If a fish bone is stuck in your throat, pull your big toe and it will come right out.
5. The number of white marks seen on a person’s fingernails equals the number of lies the person has told.
6. If you put a sock and shoe on one foot and then a sock and shoe on the other foot (instead of putting on both socks and then both shoes), you will have an accident.
7. Wear a red string around your neck to prevent rheumatism.
8. If you have weak eyes, put holes in your ears. This will improve your vision.
9. A baby who doesn’t fall downstairs once before he/she is one year old will grow up to be a fool.
10. A woman who stirs batter from left to right is a good cook, but if she stirs it from right to left, she’s a bad cook.
11. If your eyebrows grow together, you are or will become rich.
12. If 13 people sit at one table, one person will die within the year.
13. Female witches could only harm other females.
14. To get rid of your wart, wait until you see someone riding a horse, look at the person and say “I wish you had my wart.” Yours will be gone and that person will now have it.
15. If you drop a piece of buttered bread on the floor and it lands with butter touching the floor, you will have bad luck.
15. Count the number of white horses you see up to 99. The next person of the opposite sex with whom you shake hands will be the person you marry.

I’m not a superstitious person at all, but tomorrow I hope everyone finds at least one penny to bring them good luck. 🙂


Digging Deeper into Early Town Histories

I’m in the midst of writing a number of posts about our ancestors, their social history and cultural influences and realized that it was the perfect time to remind genealogists of the importance of historical details about the towns in which ancestors settled.

Unlike Europe, where our families left towns that had existed for centuries before them, colonial settlers arrived to a vast wasteland, so to speak, and built brand new towns.

Whether your ancestor was an original settler or a latecomer, understanding a town’s beginnings and history gives context to your ancestor’s life.

What is really great about town histories is that they are often found in county histories, which have been published from the late 1800s right into modern times. Many of them are out of copyright and can be digitally accessed through Google Books.

Another great resource is FamilySearch Books, which has partnered with other libraries.

A third website is HathiTrust Digital Library.

One more option is Internet Archive.

All you need to do is enter the name of the town or county to locate histories. County histories always have sections that included individual town histories.

Many smaller towns that have celebrated centennials and other anniversaries have published town histories at the time of the celebration. Some of these are in the public domain, while others remain under copyright.

Of course, there are way more recent books, which are under copyright restrictions, which can be borrowed from libraries or purchased.

Not only was I able to find a digital copy of History of Passaic and Its Environs by William Winfield Scott from 1911, I also found Bob Rosenthal’s book. Wonderful Passaic,  about his life growing up in Passaic, which overlapped my life.

Reading these two books imparts an understanding of the truly diverse ethnic origins of immigrants who lived in Passaic from the 1600s into the 20th century.

I have never been to the Miramichi River area in New Brunswick, Canada, but one of my Loyalists was an original settler. Bill MacKinnon’s book, Over the Portage, is on my book shelf:

From Bill, I’ve learned about the founding of settlements on the Miramichi and, as a bonus, discovered a list of the original applicants for land, which even includes the LOT NUMBERS assigned to each! Appendix IV has a list of the 1809 grantees, which is actually a biographical sketch of the head of household and his family. Another bonus!

Understanding the social history of our ancestors’ lives isn’t possible without having a good grasp on the history of the place in which they lived.

It is more than well worth your time to search for town and county histories and this is one area of genealogical research where finding resources couldn’t be any easier.