Explore these free social history and genealogy resources to find your ancestors, bring the family stories to life and connect with past generations.
Social history is buzzing in the genealogy world these days. More and more genealogy researchers are understanding the importance of social history and how it applies to breaking down those genealogy brick walls.
Or at least, knocking out a brick or two. 🙂
I lost my great grandfather for a time in the records. James Abe White of Surry County, NC does not appear in the 1930 U. S. Census. His wife Stella is listed as the head of the household. If you didn’t know better, you might think Abe White had died or left the family, but neither is true. He was very much alive!
To solve this mystery, I had to learn and understand a bit about the farming life in the foothills of North Carolina. My dear Aunt Dorothy enlightened me. Farming was hard work and often at the mercy of the weather and the seasons. So, to earn extra money, Abe was doing what many men would do seasonally. He was off building roads in the neighboring state.
As a researcher, this makes complete sense, but I missed it for so long.
Losing my great grandfather taught me a valuable lesson. I must learn and understand the pressures of day to day life for my ancestors, if I want to be fully successful in finding and knowing them. I must understand their lives at this level to be able to share their stories with the rest of my family.
Now that I’ve convinced you to start exploring the social history around your ancestors and their lives, let’s talk about where to find social history.
I’m sharing TEN (10) FREE social history genealogy sites with you!
[After all, I am a frugal genealogist!]
10 FREE Social History Sites For Your Genealogy Research
A note for my non-U.S. researchers: Most of these are U. S. based examples, but use them as examples of the types of resources and sites that can be used. Explore what similar types of records the country where you ancestors lived might have.
Google books is one of my favorite resources for all types of books when I research, and it is an especially valuable resource for finding sources of social history. Look for county and state histories such as History of Halifax County [NC] by W. C. Allen or Old Churches, Ministers and Families of Virginia by William Meade. You may not find your ancestors named specifically, but you will learn about the area and what was important to its residents.
City directories, church histories, family histories and even historic magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar are also found on Google books and are good resources to learn about an area’s residents and the community make-up.
If you are new to Google Books, read this post: How To Find & Use Google Books For Genealogy Research.
2. The Internet Archive
You will want to explore the Internet Archive if you have not previously. Find a variety of books including yearbooks, family histories, state and county histories as well as city directories.
Find interesting articles on different time periods and regions through history at HistoryNet. This is a new-to-me site, and I might have gotten “lost” in reading articles on the wild west and others on civil rights.
I always come away with new information to apply to my ancestors lives!
4. State Archives Digital Collections
Most genealogy researchers are familiar with their state archives. But….you might be missing out on important social history resources if you just look at the traditional genealogy records.
The Florida Archives’ Florida Memory online collection is a rich source of information you can use to learn about issues and current events affecting your Floridian ancestors. Find articles on the early medical field to early Florida women holding office.
Explore what your state archives has for free online!
5. University Collections Online
The South Caroliniana Library is a premiere research archives and special collections repositories in South Carolina and the Southeast region. Located in Columbia, SC at the University of South Carolina, access many of their collections online. They have created nearly 300 digital collections! Find pertinent resources such as historical South Carolina newspapers and private family papers of citizens.
Explore what major universities in the areas where you research have available online.
6. Chronicling America
Newspapers are a must for any researcher seeking out the current issues and events affecting your ancestors. Chronicling America is the first place I go when I start my newspaper research.
Even if you are searching for a particular ancestor (as opposed to social history research), take a little extra time and just read the newspaper. If you find your ancestor written about in a newspaper, go ahead and read the rest of the paper! The current events and issues will be impacting his/her life as well.
7. The Federal Writer’s Project
The Federal Writer’s Project spans the years 1889 – 1942 and is part of a larger government project The U.S. Work Projects Administration Federal Writers’ Project and Historical Records Survey. It contains 2900 documents, spans 24 states and records the stories of ordinary men and women who lived at the turn of the 20th century.
Was your ancestor a factory worker? Learn about the working conditions.
Was your ancestor enslaved? Read the stories and memories of formerly enslaved African-Americans.
Other’s oral history form the same time and place of your ancestor will give you insight into your own ancestor.
8. The Library of Congress Digital Collections
From photographs to maps to personal recollections, the Library of Congress Digital Collection is another place to seek out how current issues and social history events played out in your ancestors’ lives. Here is just a sampling of what you can find:
- Colorado Folklife Project Collection
- Veterans History Project
- Voices Remembering Slavery: Freed People Tell Their Stories
- America at Work, America at Leisure: Motion Pictures from 1894 to 1915 – This is a fun collection to explore!
9. New York Public Library Digital Collections
Don’t miss out on the New York Public Library Digital Collections! This collection covers much more than the New York area, so even if you do not research ancestors in New York, put it on your list to check.
10. Bethlehem Digital History Project
The Bethlehem Digital History Project is an example of a site focused on a very specific group of people and town. [If you have Moravian ancestors from Bethlehem, PA, make sure you check out this site to learn about the influences on their lives.]
I encourage you to see what might exist locally that might pertain to the location and time period of your ancestors.
Off-Line Resources For Social History
Sometimes we just need to get away from the computer for a fresh perspective on our ancestors. When that happens, do not overlook off-line social history resources to learn more about your ancestors. Look into what the following might offer:
- The Local Library – Look for their local history section, and don’t forget to check the vertical files and back issues of the newspapers.
- State and County Museums – Their purpose is to preserve and educate the public on the life and times of our ancestors.
- Your Relatives – Remember my story above about my great grandfather?
Now It’s Your Turn!
Set aside time to learn about the current issues and the social influences impacting your ancestor. What customs did they celebrate and why? What political events impacted their lives? Did a natural disaster cause them to re-locate?
Once you understand the times surrounding your ancestor, go back to your research and see what new revelations you find.
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