How To Pull the Stories From Your Ancestors
Your ancestors are telling their stories even when it feels like they are hiding from you in the records. Researching them feels more like a game of hide and seek than research sometimes.
Still…..I contend that our ancestors are telling us their stories in the records. In fact, they are often shouting them. We (read that as “I”) as researchers do not always listen.
We (again, read that as “I”) fail to hear what our ancestors are telling us through the records.
Why do we not “listen” to our ancestors?
We are in a hurry. (There is no condemnation here! I struggle, too!) When I just started out researching my ancestors, I was so excited about “collecting” ancestors and names for my tree. Once I had one generation filled out, I quickly moved onto the next one back. Because of that I missed learning about my ancestors themselves, and I missed important clues about the family’s history.
I created my own genealogical brick walls simply because I failed to get to know my ancestors.
I now approach my genealogical research a bit differently and encourage you to do the same.
Get to know your ancestors. “Visit” with them. As we say in the South, “Sit a spell.” I hear what you are saying. “What does this look like in terms of the research process?”
How To Pull the Stories From Your Ancestors
1. Gather the basic information. BMD (birth, marriage, death) records, census records, land records, will and estate records.
We are all familiar with these types of records. To get to know your ancestors, you need to really read the their documents.
2. Step away from your research.
Yes, this is a bit unconventional, but you’ll be glad you did. Go for a run/walk. Sit on the deck or in your favorite comfy chair. Wash the dishes, if you must.
Think about Why the records was created. Why was your ancestor is in that document?
Who else is named in that document?
When and Where is the record created? How does that fit into your ancestor’s timeline?
Pay attention to new revelations and new questions that arise.
3. Head back to your research and follow-up on any new questions or clues that came to light.
Let me show you what this process looked in the research of Langley Talbot and Sarah Blanks of Halifax County, VA (my GGGG Grandparents).
Step 1: Gathering the basics. The Background: Oral history, the Family Bible and the census records all supported Sarah Blanks (1800-1870) was the wife of Langley Talbot (1796-1880). Langley was the son of David G. Talbot of Campbell County, VA. Langley and Sarah had several children including John B Talbot (my GGG grandfather).
In 1850 in Campbell County, VA, David Talbot penned his will. In that will, Langley Talbot is named as his son. David Talbot went on to make a provision for “Langley’s children by Sarah Blanks born after 1823″. Huh? That’s an unusual way to refer to his grandchildren. But …. okay.
The will also indicated Langley had gambling problems. [David Talbot was very blunt in his feelings for his children and their spouses.]
I am ashamed to say I just read right over all of that and kept on going in my pursuit of Talbott ancestors. It was several years later when I read David Talbot’s will again.
This time I recognized the wording could indicate something unusual about Langley and Sarah’s relationship, but could not readily come up with any reason for the wording.
Step 2. Step away from the records. Since it was a beautiful spring day, I went for a run.
While I ran, I pondered Langley and Sarah. Did Langley have 1 or more other wives? Did he have children by mistresses? Was Sarah really his mistress? Could there be other unknown children by Sarah or other women? Where else could I search for evidence of a marriage or non-marriage? Just who was Sarah Blanks? So many possibilities….
Back home I made a research plan that involved a trip to the Halifax County, VA courthouse. I needed to get into the court records.
3. Go back to the records. The Halifax County, VA court orders solved the mystery of the will’s wording. A court order was discovered calling Langley Talbot and Sarah Blanks to appear before the grand just of Halifax County for living in open adultery within the past 12 months. The order was dated 1841. So, yikes! Langley and Sarah began a relationship approximately 1823 and by the 1850 will of David Talbot never actually married. Essentially, they had a common law marriage, though there was no such designation at that time.
Why did they never marry? The answer to that question is not clear, but…..
….Remember that Langley had gambling issues? Court records show Langley was sued a number of times over his debts. He eventually lost all his lands when the court seized and sold all of his properties to pay off his debts. He died shortly after being listed on the 1880 Halifax County indigent list.
If I had stopped at the information found in David G Talbot’s will, I would have missed Langley and Sarah’s story. I would have missed learning about their characters. I would have failed to continue my search for the rest of their children. I would still have had my direct line and my tree would have been correct, but I would have missed what made my ancestors interesting.
Oh….and don’t underestimate the power of Langley and Sarah’s story to pique the interest of both the younger and older generations in the family! Gambling issues and adultery….that raised a few eyebrows!
Other Articles of Interest!
- How To Use WorldCat For Your Genealogy Research
- 15 Places to Find the Genealogy Records You Need
- 5 Resources To Identify Your Ancestor’s Friends
Nancy L. Burnett Hoefer
Thank you for this post. I have an elusive ancestor – you gave me impetus to look further and for a direction I hadn’t thought of. I enjoy your blog.
Yay, Nancy! Be sure and share with us what you find. 🙂
Whoa! I have a few stories like that in my family, but yours sounds infinitely more interesting!
Emma, I’m sure your stories are just as interesting! I’ve decided reading court records from the 1800’s is sort of like watching reality TV.
Hi.I have been emailing a penpak/friend,now,in the “UK & she’s doing a search on her family and gave me the thought to do my own.My mom was one Nationality & my dad was another.So at the moment i’m pursuing my dad’s side and it’s so fascianating.Not just fun,but exciting and my passion always has been “History” and love Documentaries and so digging in to this is so awesome.I enjoy yr site and receiving yr “emails” with tips that i write down and so thank you for yr “tips & advice” on the emails you send out.Take care and who says “History is boring?”
Perhaps it was also a factor that you had learned enough in the ensuing years before your first and second reading, to recognize when something was worded oddly and sent up a red flag. That, of course, would be true for all of us. Don’t beat yourself up over the fact that you understand more about records and what they do and don’t say, than you did when you were beginning. Just be glad you went back for that second look.
You are so right, Janice. Thanks!