March 19th, 2014

Don’t Just Find Genealogical Facts – Analyze Them!

Of course when we’re researching our ancestors, our initial goal is to find fact about them and their life. Unfortunately, many beginning genealogists stop with those facts. They write them down into their family tree or family group records and file them away, never learning much about their ancestor except their vital statistics. There is so much underlying information in any facts we find however, we just need to understand how to analyze the data so that it unveils the story beneath.

For example, let’s say your great-grandfather was a cattle rancher in the early days of Wyoming. Rather than simply write that down as “occupation” beside his name in your family group sheet, why not dig a little deeper and research what was involved in cattle ranching in Wyoming in the 19th century. Were there licenses to be applied for, brand registration of some sort? Maybe your great-grandfather took out a loan to finance his business. In that case, there may be bank records that exist.

Such documents can not only help you to find other documents that may lead to other ancestors, but help to paint a picture of the type of man your relative was, and some of the challenges he or she may have faced in their lifetime. Thus, when you are telling someone about your ancestor, or writing about them, you can do so in much more detail, bringing them alive with that extra information.

  • Build a Timeline. A really effective method of putting your ancestor’s life into context is to create a timeline for their life alongside a parallel timeline for local, national, and world history. Understanding that your ancestor survived the Great Famine of Ireland, or struggled through the Great Depression, not only provides you with a deeper knowledge of them, but of the time period as well.
  • Make Use of Maps. Maps can be both useful and fun to incorporate into a genealogy project. Not only can they provide you with an appreciation of the area in which your ancestor lived, but you can also map out their travels if they were immigrants. Pay attention to where they may have stopped during their journey, as they may have stayed with other relatives. One way to find out for sure is to check census records in the area for the time period that your ancestors were there.
  • Use Historical Photographs. Whenever you are researching an ancestor in a particular area it is a good idea to at least have a look at a few historical photographs of the area, and the era. Sometimes the only clue you might have will be a photograph. In such a case, look closely at the clothes they wear, as fashion can indicate what era the photograph was taken in, and can give you a date range in which to search for records.

Finding genealogical facts is fun, but expanding on those facts to explore your ancestor’s personality and life circumstances is what genealogy is really all about. After all, we set out to find where and who we came from in order to better understand who we are. A book full of data won’t do much to answer that, but sifting through that data to uncover the person behind it most certainly will. Happy ancestor hunting!