Genealogical Tip #4: It's the Stories, Stupid.

June 6, 2016

Back with Tip #1, we discussed letting go of some of the need to control your ancestors and their stories.  This post’s suggestion is about learning to make the most of those stories.


Tip #4: Place your ancestors in an historical context.


I’ve had students fight me on this in the past.  They don’t want to spend their time and effort on what they feel is ephemeral and unimportant information; they want names, dates, and places, and that’s it.  They want to trace their ancestors straight back a thousand years and leave it at that.  “Why does it matter,” they question, “what was happening around my ancestors? All I want to know is who they were.”


“Exactly,” I reply.  “And how do you expect to know who they were if you don’t understand the world in which they were living?” Except that I don’t actually say that because I’m not nearly that smooth in real life, so what comes out has a lot more stuttering and circuitous rambling until I finally reach the point I’m trying to make… but it’s close enough. 


Story is everything.  Names and dates are all very well and good, but what can those names and dates possibly mean to anyone in a vacuum? How much can they realistically mean to even their descendents? “My fifth-great-grandmother was born in England in 1793!” one might proclaim.  Okay, cool, that’s nice, but with all due respect… so what? We all had ancestors born around then, and they all lived long enough to propagate at least once.  I’m not lucky enough to know the names of any of my ancestors that far back, but I can assure you that they existed.  Any ancestor is just a completely random person without their story.


Take Great-Great-Great-Great-Grandma from England from the last paragraph.  What kind of community did she live in? Was she Anglican or something else? What would life have been like for a young women in her place and time? Were there any larger historical events that would have affected her life? Might her family have made any big decisions based on those events? What specific information can you find about her life that separates her from the people around her and makes her a real person who lived and laughed and cried? If given an “either or” choice, would you choose to learn just her name and the dates of her birth, marriage, and death, or would you decide that you’d rather know, in addition to the bare bones facts, that she was the result of an illicit affair between a member of the landed gentry and one of the servants who worked in his family’s house, and that the two were unable to marry due to his station in life, but that he financially supported his illegitimate daughter? Those are the things that make learning about your family history worth the trouble.  


Did she spend her time in a posh Jane Austen-style sitting room or in a debtor's prison? Original painting: William Hogarth, part of the "A Rake's Progress" series, 1730s. 


In case you still aren’t convinced, though; in case you still think that names, dates, and places are all you really care about, consider this: understanding the history that surrounded your ancestor’s lives will help you find leads in your research.


 Let me take you back to high school U.S. History class and remind you of a couple of terms you probably haven’t thought about since then: Push Factors and Pull Factors.  Both of these terms refer to situations that power migration.  A push factor is something that might drive a person to leave their home and go somewhere else.  Common push factors include economic or political instability, war, drought or famine, and religious persecution.  Conversely, a pull factor is something that might attract a person to go to a new city/state/province/country.  For those of you who remember An American Tail, the words “There are no cats in America!” should be echoing through your heads right now.  The promise of a better life or the opportunity to rejoin family members who had already emigrated were powerful incentives.  Often, when someone immigrated, it was due to a combination of push and pull factors. 


 Unfortunately for my immune system, the Mousekewitz family was sadly misinformed.


Let’s imagine that one of your ancestors came to America in 1849, but you don’t know much else about him.  If you find that he landed in New York and then traveled to California within months, then three things are a pretty safe bet: first, that his major pull factor was the Gold Rush of 1849, secondly, that he most likely came from Europe or Eurasia, and finally, that he had enough money readily available to him that he didn’t have to find a job and save up enough money to pay for passage out west, so he may have been a man of some means.  If you didn’t know about the historical context, you might have no idea why he would have gone to California at this point in time, and you would miss out on a valuable source of records and knowledge. Since you’re an educated person who knows about the Gold Rush (after all, you read my blog), however, you’d know to look for him in Californian mining records, which can be a wealth of information. 


Now, without changing the established facts of the story, let’s add in that the ship’s passenger manifest lists his occupation as farmer and his place of last residence as a small town outside of Castlebar, Ireland.  What does that add to the story? What does that tell you about why he left Europe when he did? And does that affect your view of his financial situation? Again, by being the incredibly brilliant historian you are (and probably really, really ridiculously good-looking too), you’ve immediately realized that 1849 was the tail end of several years of extreme famine in Ireland (the Potato Famine of 1845-1849), and you might even be a specialist in Irish history and are aware that Castlebar was in one of the hardest-hit areas.  Besides likely having relatives who perished in the Famine, your farmer ancestor was probably in a pretty bad spot financially… and you should now start wondering from where he got the money to not only cross the ocean, but to also immediately turn around from there and travel across the United States.  Maybe you should start looking into bank records, wills or probate records, or even newspaper articles about bank robberies.  After all, that money had to come from somewhere.



I’m reminded of the old game show, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? In it, young adults would be given some facts about where the infamous criminal had fled.  It always struck me that, if you really wanted to catch Carmen Sandiego, you needed to understand not just where she had gone, but where she wanted to go and what she probably wanted to steal there.  It would be the only way to get one step ahead of her, rather than eternally being one quiz show question behind.

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