We explore the importance of family history in helping you find belonging, and how records can help you discover the meaningful details of your ancestors’ lives.
Family can mean different things to different people. For some, it means to be with people who understand and accept you unconditionally. For others, it is strictly those to whom they have a biological connection. Some of us don’t have ideal families, while others couldn’t imagine their life without family. Most often, though, it’s a mixture of each of these types of relationships.
When I think about my most ideal family relationships, I think of my dad’s Germans-from-Russia Mennonite cousins, double cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents… you get the idea. It’s a big family with lots of endogamous connections—I mean, my grandparents are first cousins once removed, and they didn’t even know each other before they were young adults and started dating. My favorite memories are of huge family reunions at a park with homemade ice cream, more kinds of pies than I could count, and a million and one family stories. I loved the stories and the food!
The Importance of Family History
But what if you don’t have a close, large family? What if you don’t know your family stories? What if you’ve lost the connection you once felt? Family history research can help you learn about your roots, your cultural connections, ethnic identity–and can play an important role in helping you find belonging.
Bringing Family History to Life
While genealogical research requires learning about the births, marriages, and deaths of various ancestors, the most important aspects of these records, created only as a byproduct of our ancestors living their lives, is that every detail on a record tells a piece of a person’s story. Below are some examples of common genealogical records, and the important details that may be gleaned from them:
Physical Description vs. Photograph
Military draft cards, passenger lists, and naturalization papers are three different record types that include a physical description of a person, which is the next best thing to finding an actual photograph. Many passenger lists also include the name of the person’s nearest relation back home and the name of someone they were joining in the United States. Naturalization papers include names of witnesses who could personally attest to how long an ancestor had lived in this country and in a particular town. These relatives and friends were ones with whom people frequently associated. Learning about them would add to the illustration of your ancestor’s life.
Census: More than a Locator Tool
In addition to showing exactly where an ancestor lived, censuses are full of other interesting facts. Depending on the census year, these records might include relationships, details about how many children a couple had versus how many children were living, how long a couple had been married, when a person arrived in the United States and his or her citizenship status, a person’s occupational information, and even whether an individual owned or rented a home. These fascinating details can paint a picture of day-to-day life. Don’t forget to browse the surrounding entries: These people were your ancestors’ neighbors, friends, and in some cases, extended family members.
What Church Did My Ancestors Attend?
Religion is a sometimes-overlooked piece of this puzzle. Before governments began keeping records of common people, the only records that included everyone were church records—parish registers of infant baptisms, marriages, and burials. These also help fill in some of the blanks in the family story.
Finding Complete Family Groups
Yes, family size played into the dynamics of our ancestors’ lives, but organizing complete family groups is also important because every birth or baptism record created for a child can give details, not just about that child, but also about the age, status, occupation, and residence of the child’s parents. Did they move around a lot? Did they stick to one profession? Did they lie about their ages? Were they married more than once? The answers to each of these questions help fill in the picture of who our ancestors were.
Society columns containing the juiciest of the local gossip; obituaries that shared the exploits or accomplishments of our dear departed; local court cases, some over property line disputes and others much more scandalous—each of these types of articles showed up in your ancestors’ local newspapers. Sometimes they were even the subject of the article. So dig deep if you want to find those family stories! Don’t just search for John Smith’s name—search for his wife, his children, his siblings, anyone whose life choices might have affected his. And remember, if the family lived in a German-speaking community, for example, then the chances are high that the best source of this type of information is going to be the local German-language newspaper. Don’t overlook it just because it’s written in a foreign language. Embrace the cultural and ethnic diversity and get help with the language if you need it!
Town and County Histories
Town and county histories feature biographies of prominent citizens, which might include ancestors if they were founding members or prominent members of the local community. These resources can tell you whether your ancestor was ever involved in local government. But even if your ancestors were “just farmers,” these histories shed light on the community in which they lived Was the town small or large? Were the farmers an afterthought or were they the backbone of the community? What were the local holiday celebrations like? Can you imagine your ancestor attending the Independence Day (Fourth of July) celebration based on a description of the festivities? This type of information puts our ancestors in context of what was going on around them at the time.
Local historians often have access to the collections of records from which the town and county histories were compiled. They often have information and stories about the local families who have been there for a long time, and even historical photographs of the area or of your ancestor’s home. You can usually find this person by contacting the local library or genealogical society.
Walking Where They Walked
Once your ancestor’s life is put in context, it is an amazing treat to be able to walk a day in his or her shoes. Visiting an ancestor’s home in person, walking Main Street in his or her town, or taking a genealogy tour to their homeland are things that will bring home to you the amazing lives your ancestors lived there.
If you are seeking connection, and want to learn who an ancestor really was, don’t be satisfied with only finding a name, a date, and a place. Seek out every record created by (or for) your ancestor. Reflect upon the importance of family history and what every detail in each record meant for your ancestor in his or her story… and what it means for you.
Our team of professional genealogists are experienced at pouring over every record and shred of evidence to weave together the details of your ancestors’ lives into a meaningful narrative that will be cherished for generations to come. Get started today by requesting your free quote.