Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Look at the bigger picture in your research

A narrow view of genealogy is just that; narrow. Too often, I see family group records and pedigrees viewed as a list of names and dates. The vast majority of the online family trees have nothing more; no sources, no photos, no stories, nothing to indicate that these genealogical name collectors have done anything more than fill in the blanks. This is not necessarily a reflection on the utility of the online genealogy programs, but rather a narrowing of the scope of genealogy as a name collecting activity rather than focusing on genealogy as family history.

But even with those who see their family history as made up of stories and photographs (when available), there is even a more important dimension; establishing the family in the historical, cultural and social background of time when they lived. A family does not pop into existence and then disappear upon death. Everyone lives in and with the background of their culture. How did they survive? Where did they work, play or go to church? What type of physical circumstances did they live in? Were they rich, poor or middle class? Did they live on a farm or in a huge city? The number of questions is likely endless but they illustrate the importance of knowing about the background of the times.

More importantly, genealogical end-of-lines are frequently caused by this lack of understanding of the context of the family. It is interesting to me as a quiz people about their families, how little they know about the history and the social context of their lives. Even some highly expert genealogists overlook simple facts such as when there were wars going on and whether or not there was an stressful economic climate such as a depression.

The only way to get this kind of insight into the lives of your ancestors is to spend time reading and studying local, regional, state or province and finally, national histories. You really need a basic understanding of the history of the country where your people lived. If they immigrated, why did they leave their home country to move to another? Were they forced to leave or did they voluntarily travel to another country?

You may not see the utility of learning all of this background information until you go through the process of learning. Lack of knowledge does not cause any visible symptoms. Many times I find the frustration people have in finding their ancestors is due to a lack of understanding of the local history. When they know how, why and when people settled in a certain area, this knowledge suggests ways to research and find the people who lived there. Otherwise, the researcher is overlooking whole categories of sources for information about their family.

Every country and political subdivision has its own list of books or publications giving the background and history of the area. For example, some of my ancestors lived in Pennsylvania and likely I still have relatives in that area. I did a search in for "History of Pennsylvania" and there were over 167,000 books and publications, many of these local histories. By being a little more specific to Bucks County, I found over 1,200, including the following book, completely digitized and free, on

Davis, W. W. H., Warren S. Ely, and John W. Jordan. History of Bucks County, Pennsylvania From the Discovery of the Delaware to the Present Time. New York: Lewis Pub. Co, 1905. <>.

Get busy and learn that history!

1 comment:

  1. I think you make a great point. For me that research comes naturally, maybe it is because I have always been driven to find out more than just dates when researching my family. Without the local history you mention it's hard to really know who our ancestors were. It's the meat on the bones!