Add Substance To Your Ancestors’ Lives

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By Sherry Lindsay,
Often, learning about ancestors and their lives can become a redundant list of names, places and dates. Perhaps there are a few additional pieces of information like profession, honors received, land purchased and sold, and other tidbits from various records that hold genealogical data.

For many people, these simple outlines of people’s lives are enough to keep the researcher completely captivated by his/her ancestors. Other people, though, need more substance to find their ancestors’ lives interesting or to feel emotionally connected to their ancestors. One of the best ways to add substance to your ancestors’ lives is to research the historic events that happened during their lives. Doing this transforms genealogy into family history.

There are numerous ways to learn about historical context, the primary way being to read literature written about the time periods during which your ancestors lived. You can also read about events that happened during their lifetimes, and more general histories about people who lived during that same time period.

In researching a family living in Chicago during the 1850s, I’ve read books about the development of Chicago, urban life during the time period, books about women during the time period, and online resources about the history of Catholicism and law in Chicago. All of these resources somehow related to the ancestors I was researching.

This sort of research has strengthened my understanding of my ancestors. While the vast majority of them left no sort of journal accounting for their day to day comings and goings and their general lifestyles, I can at least guess and begin to understand what their lifestyles were like. I’ve learned what was typical for people of their income status, religion, location and time.

Contextual research certainly doesn’t solve my complicated research queries, but sometimes it does lead me to resources I otherwise might not have checked.

For example, when I learned the St. Patrick’s Catholic Church was built in Chicago during the time of my ancestor and became the primary church for the Irish Catholics in the city, it helped me find the christening records for the rest of the children in a large family. I might have found the information otherwise by tediously searching the records for every other Catholic Church in the Chicago region, but instead I knew exactly where to go to obtain the records I needed.

I’ve also used contextual research to understand naming patterns, reasons for immigration and family size.

Contextual research is like the meat on what is otherwise merely a skeletal structure. It can provide clues for future places to research, an understanding of cultural patterns, and can create interest for family members that otherwise may find family history rather dull.

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