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Guide 2 Genealogy   >   Historical Context

 

Historical Context


Tracing your family tree depends upon many factors. Perhaps the most important being that you look in the right time period. Sometimes you must look earlier or later than you might have anticipated. Furthermore, to a great extent, the particular historical era that you are researching will determine the types of records that you are able to find and use.

You also need to recognize just how many geography influenced your ancestors' migrations and lifestyles. Identifying all the localities where your ancestors as well as their descendants lived will help you find their records. Targeting the places where your ancestors settled (or paused on their way elsewhere) is a vital step in successful research. However, wars, famines, and financial woes all contribute to migrations and create targeting difficulties for genealogists.

If you can't find the place where your ancestors came from, you can try looking at the people who lived around them. Finding out where their in-laws, neighbors, and associates came from may reveal where your ancestors originated, or at least give you some clues. In the past, Census records were recorded door-to-door and consequently may reveal your ancestors' neighbors.

If you know about the shifts in political boundaries and jurisdictions for the areas where your ancestors lived, it will help you determine who kept records about them. That way, you will be looking in the correct place for these records. Researching in Kentucky is very different from researching in Kansas, because each area had different laws and created different records.

To start with, you need to know when that state and county were formed, and when they started keeping records (not always the same thing). You should aim to chart the jurisdictional history of every county where your ancestors resided - and often for their neighboring counties, too.

For example, Campbell County, Tennessee, was formed in 1806. Several of my ancestors signed petitions for the formation of that new county. To find records of them before 1806, I have to look in the county that had prior jurisdiction for their community. This was Anderson County, which was formed in 1801. Before 1801, I have to look in Knox County, which was formed in 1792. And so on.

One particular challenge is that you need to recognize the different ways in which your ancestors' names were spelled and written. If your ancestors' names changed for one reason or another, that event can hold up progress on your family tree indefinitely. Even when names did not change, it can be very easy to miss your ancestors name in a record if it was spelled phonetically (common in the past), or if you can't decipher the handwriting. These problems can be further compounded when original records are extracted, alphabetized, and then published in electronic formats.

At some point in your genealogical research, it's highly like that you will need some foreign language skills. While it isn't usually necessary to be fluent, the chances are that you will need a basic knowledge of your ancestor's language (such as the words for christening and grandmother), dialect (which may indicate where they came from), and alphabet (enough to recognize their name when you see it in records written in that language). Of course, if the language challenges get too much, you always have the option of hiring some professional help.

In a similar vein, as you look back further in time, the more archaic the language of records will become even if the records that you are reviewing are in English, you will probably require specialized dictionary. If a doctor's diary, an obituary, or other death record says that your ancestor died of "dropsy", you will want to know what it means.

During your research, it is important to recognize the impact on your ancestors' lives of such things as the Industrial Revolution, changes in transportation, and developments in medical science. Changes in technology brought about changes in your ancestors' lives. As a result of the Industrial Revolution, many people moved from rural areas to cities. The history of technology affects where you look for records of your ancestors in other ways, as well.

For example, the principle of propinquity states that your ancestors could only marry someone they could meet:-
  • Before the twentieth century, this meant a man and a woman who married usually lived within walking distance of each other.

  • If a man owned a horse (something tax records often tell you), the man may have meet his bride in a somewhat larger area.

  • When the railroad came to town or a road was built through the area, the area in which a man might find his bride grew larger still.

  • Of course there were people who lived on transportation routes (such as canals, rivers, and seaports) or had occupations that involved travel (such as sailors, circuit judges, and itinerant preachers), who were exceptions, but even in these cases, they were exceptions based on the history of technology.
To sum up, even though genealogy is primarily about personal and family history, you can not remove it, or your researches, from the wider geographical, politcal, and historical context of the past.


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