Learn About Your Ancestors

Posted on Apr 04, 2012

Learn about the historical and social context of ancestors life’s.  Names and dates of ancestors are basically boring pieces of information. Only when you can put your ancestors in historical and social context will they become meaningful.  Types of information that help us learn more about our families include:

  • Location and physical characteristics (climate and land forms affect development)
  • Cultural characteristics (celebrations, food, religion, literature, language)
  • Historical background (type of government, meaning behind flag, etc.)
  • Major industries, production, and use of land
  • Opportunities, problems and unrest (why people wanted to leave)

- Adoption

- Criminal incarceration/Deportment

- Natural disasters

- Economic problems

- Famine

- Financial opportunity

- Following family and friends

- Forced relocation of Native Americans

- Not a first son

- Political strife/Turmoil/Oppression

- Religious or Ethnic persecution

- Slavery


Read the history of countries, states, counties, cities, towns, and villages.

Gain a feel for the areas where your ancestors lived. Search the internet, libraries, and bookstores for histories written about the locations and time periods your family lived in.


Maps provide help for tracking facts about ancestors.

Old and new maps can help track down facts about ancestors.  In the United States, birth, death, property, and some other kinds of records are normally kept by the county governments. If you can name the place where an ancestor lived, new or old maps of that place may also show the county seat where useful data about your kin can be obtained.


Old maps can be particularly useful in this regard because pinpointing the name of the place where an ancestor lived can be like trying to hit a moving target. Many towns, counties, cities, and even countries have experienced numerous name changes over the years.


Search out historical resources.  History associated with our ancestors are easily found. Pick a topic and begin your search.  Places used most often are:

  • Archived newspapers
  • Chambers of commerce
  • Historical societies and associations
  • Company’s histories
  • History networks
  • Libraries (universities, state, regional, and local)
  • Internet
  • Living history museums (e.g., Plymouth Plantation shows Plymouth as it was in the 17th century: it is a centuries-old Wampanoag home site, a welcoming bench covered in furs, bluefish roasting slowly over an bed of hot coals, and a man dressed in traditional deerskin clothing.)
  • Historic sites (state and national parks, monuments)
  • Museums
  • Personal journals


Study drawings, paintings, and photographs of the time period.  Images of our ancestors and times of our ancestors give us clues to the lives of our families.   A simple exercise would be to take a photograph of your family from the early 1900’s, study the image, and record your thoughts and observations.  Consider the following:

  • Look at the physical aspect of the photo (e.g., house, people, clothes, animals, surroundings).
  • What does the photograph tell you? (e.g., family economic status, priorities, relationships, expressions, emotions).
  • What was the time period in which the photo was taken?
  • Look for identifiers such as house numbers, license numbers, and types of uniforms.  They can give clues of where to look such as the license bureau, occupation/employment records.
  • What is the name and location of the photographer or studio? (Usually printed on the front or back of the photo).  The location of the photographer or studio does not necessarily mean your ancestor lived in that town. Photographers had traveling studios and would often travel around taking photographs which were pasted on cards with their studio information. Your ancestor may have made a trip to a larger community to shop, attend a function and have photographs taken. Certainly the studio name and location is a good clue for beginning your research in those areas.


Labels: genlessons

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