Understanding social and historical context can be critical at guarding against presentism and inaccurate assumptions in your genealogy research.
Understanding Social Context
Last year, I attended a genealogy-oriented writers’ workshop where we discussed crafting family histories and biographies. As a case study on which to practice, our instructor, Dr. Amy Harris (check her out on Instagram, @familyhistoryprof), presented us with her research into Mina, a Scottish woman of 1905 who had never married and, at 45, owned a shop, living on her own independently. She had been born to a mother who had her first baby at age 30. The class marveled at what a unique woman Jane must have been—so unusual that her mother had a child so late and that that child grew up to have a career!
Imagine everyone’s surprise, then, when the instructor—an expert in British social history—clarified that in the context of early twentieth-century Scotland, Jane’s life as an unmarried businesswoman was actually fairly normal. She shared with us that, unlike in many other European countries, urban women in Scotland married later than is often assumed during this period, so it actually was not too strange that Mina’s mother was 30 upon her first foray into parenthood. The instructor further noted that one-third of all Scottish women during this period never married and it was common for them to work outside the home; therefore, to be a working “spinster” in 1905 was also not much of an anomaly either. Finally, the instructor pointed out that all of these things would have been strange for an Italian woman of the same time. Italian women often married younger and were much less likely to work outside the home.
The takeaway from this experience was that the research conclusions we draw can easily be incorrect if we are not viewing the ancestor through the appropriate lenses of culture and history of the time and place they lived—not where and when we live.
Avoiding Assumptions in Genealogical Research
For enthusiastic hobbyists without much historical training, it can be easy to allow existing notions to influence the way we view and research historical people. Many times assumptions are made about the past based on historical fiction or even the stories of the elderly members of their own family, applying them broadly to all historical eras. It’s important to remember that though great-grandma born in 1920 might have been raised in a culture with certain specific morals and expectations, those were not necessarily the same social rules that were in place in the 1850s, for example.
Again, age at first marriage is a great example. My grandmother married in 1934 in Indiana and at 25, she was widely considered by her family and peers to be an “old maid.” This makes sense culturally, since in the 1930s the median age of first marriage for an American woman was around 21—and in fact, that age continued to dip over the following decades. Between 1890 and 2019, women in the United States consistently married youngest in the 1950s and 1960s! On the other hand, my grandmother’s own grandmother—an immigrant to Indiana from Germany—married in 1849 at age 26 and would not have been viewed by her society as similarly delayed. Western European women in the nineteenth century typically married for the first time between the ages of 24 and 27, with many men not marrying for the first time until close to 30. Need help finding a marrage record for your ancestor? Check out our article, Tying the Knot: Ancestral Marriage Records and Where You Might Find Them.
Exploring Historical Context
Historical context matters in a way that can directly impact our research as well. How might the following historical facts affect what records you know are or are not available? How might these realities shape your approach to your research?
Fact: Enslaved people in the United States were not named on the federal censuses until after Emancipation (1865).
Effect: Even though the United States has taken a census every decade since 1790, you won’t find your enslaved ancestors by name on any of those enumerations until 1870 (and even then, there was a known undercount that year, in which many Black individuals and families were missed). If your ancestors were free Blacks before the Civil War, however, you may find them on pre-1870 censuses and perhaps in deed books and other sources as well.
Fact: Before the Cable Act of 1922 in the United States, a woman’s naturalization status was tied to that of her husband.
Effect: If your ancestor immigrated in 1912 and her husband became a citizen by say 1920, you likely will not find a separate naturalization petition for her.
Fact: Portuguese surnames historically were somewhat fluid—certainly more so than in Anglo–American culture. A daughter might get her mother’s surname and a son his father’s—or maybe neither one! A child could have been given the surname of, say, his paternal grandfather.
Effect: It would be inappropriate to assume individuals were not siblings or that they had different parents on the basis of their differing surnames alone.
Fact: Illegitimacy (the bearing of a child out of wedlock) was more common in nineteenth-century Scotland than in England or Wales. Rates were also especially high in many parts of nineteenth-century Sweden.
Effect: It would be important to search for additional children born before a recorded marriage in places where high rates of illegitimacy are known (including to a different father), and to avoid assuming if a woman did not marry that she was not a mother.
How do I learn more about social and historical context?
In general, the best way to learn about the eras and societies in which our ancestors lived is to read, read, read! Books, scholarly journals, encyclopedias, and reputable websites are strongly recommended. Practice incorporating what you learn into your own family history reports and personal biographies. Take an educated critical eye to family stories, too, and determine whether they make sense within their time and place in history. A well-stocked library is a good genealogist’s friend!
If you need help evaluating evidence in your family history research, the team at Legacy Tree Genealogists is here to help! We’re experts at scouring every possible record source for clues to ensure our client’s genealogy is accurate and verifiable. Get started today by requesting your free quote.
“Figure MS-2: Median Age at First Marriage: 1890 to present,” U.S. Census Bureau, http://census.gov, accessed July 2020.
Catherine A. Fitch and Steven Ruggles, “Historical Trends in Marriage Formation, United States, 1850–1990,” University of Minnesota, http://users.hist.umn.edu/~ruggles/Articles/Fitch_and_Ruggles.pdf, accessed July 2020.
Richard Reid, “The 1870 United States Census and Black Underenumeration: A Test Case from North Carolina,” Histoire Sociale/Social History, vol XXVIII, no. 56 (November 1995), https://hssh.journals.yorku.ca/index.php/hssh/article/view/16645, accessed July 2020.
Alice Reid, Ros Davies, Eilidh Garrett, and Andrew Blaikie, “Vulnerability among illegitimate children in nineteenth century Scotland,” Annales de Démographie Historique, no. 111 (2006), https://www.cairn.info/revue-annales-de-demographie-historique-2006-1-page-89.htm#, accessed July 2020.