November 26th, 2012

Biographies – Building Bridges to the Past

Many beginning genealogists overlook biographies as a source as they figure their ancestor wasn’t famous or important enough to have one written about them. That may well be true, but if not the subject of a biography, your ancestor may have been mentioned in one, or even its writer. Furthermore, though not the subject of a full blown biography, there could be a biographical sketch of your ancestor somewhere; a shorter, more concise description of their life. County histories are often a source of biographical information, and should never be overlooked as a source of this type of free ancestry record.

I have found out much about my ancestors in biographies, even though none on my relatives were famous. They were socially prominent in their communities however, some large and some small, and I would never have got to know them on the level I have if I had overlooked biographies as a source. More than a source of vital data such as birth, death and marriage dates, biographies can reveal more intimate details about your ancestor; who their friends were, what they were passionate about, what they did for a living, and how well they did it. They don’t just provide data about our ancestors; they reveal their personality, which is the true essence of genealogy – getting to really know our ancestors.

What is a Biography?

Many beginning family historians might not fully understand what a biography is. A biography is a work written about a particular person by someone else. It can be in the form a memoir, summarising their accomplishments and illuminating their personality (a biographical sketch), or can be in the form of a more detailed personal history. Facts are gathered about the subject through interviews with the subject themselves as well as family members, friends and associates, as well as through historical documents, newspaper clippings and other publications. An autobiography is the story of a person’s life written by the person themselves.

Usually biographies are written about someone who is famous or otherwise distinguished, and most commonly published as a book. They are by no means limited to the rich and famous though, and it is quite possible your ancestors biography may have been published somewhere. Centuries ago towns and cities were smaller, much less populated than they are today, and the chances of your ancestor playing a more socially prominent role increase accordingly. As mentioned earlier, even if a biography has not been written about them, they may feature in someone else’s.

Where to Look for Biographies

As it is with any genealogical information, home is the best place to begin looking for biographies and related publications. By related publications I mean memoirs, personal histories; even diaries and letters may be pieced together to form a biography. Your search should extend to the homes of your relatives as well, as they may have personal documents and memorabilia that may be missing pieces of the puzzle. Even if you don’t find a biography, the information you do find may point to schools, workplaces, fraternal organizations, societies, clubs, and other groups that publish them.

Once you’ve exhausted your search of home sources, local libraries are an excellent follow-up source, especially ones in the area where your ancestor lived. Within the library you will want to check local histories from the period your relative lived in. City, county and town directories may all point to possible locations of a biography, and may even contain one. A much overlooked source within libraries is their vertical files. Vertical files are collections of source material that can contain clippings, newspaper obituaries, and other printed material on subjects of a specific interest. If you know your ancestor was a farmer or member of a specific organization for instance, you would look in vertical files related to that subject.

Beyond the library your search can continue in the records of schools, fraternal organizations, clubs, and military organizations for example. State archives and libraries are also a valuable source as they often contain bibliographical collections. Within these collections are a variety of books and biographical sketches that many people, prominent and otherwise, are mentioned. Local history societies and genealogical societies may also prove helpful, as they specialize in collecting information about the people within their communities.

Regardless of whether the information you find on your ancestor can be considered a biography or not, it is still precious genealogical data. Like all valuable family history information, it should be recorded accurately and in an organized fashion. We have designed some Free Downloadable Genealogy Forms to help you with all of your family history research. As always, we are committed to providing you with free genealogy resources, and invite you to download one now to begin your own family history project.