Use social history in genealogy research to understand the ordinary lives of your ancestors. Explore online and offline sources of social history.
Social history in genealogy research tells the stories of our ordinary ancestors’ lives.
[I like to think my ordinary ancestors were extraordinary in their own right.]
Social history tells the stories of how our ancestors lived, worked and played. Understanding how our ancestors lived on a day to day basis, we can begin to understand how they made their life decisions. Choices such as:
- What occupation they chose
- When and if they moved to a new location
- Where they moved to
- Who they married
Understanding the influences on our ancestors’ lives leads to more clues in our genealogy research.
Often times we overlook the clues social history offers us as genealogy researchers of an ancestor’s time period and place in history and the impact local and national events, trends and culture played on their decisions.
Benefits of Social History
Learning about what influenced our ancestors’ lives benefits us beyond our genealogy research. Here are just a few of the benefits:
- Adults and children discover they are part of something bigger.
- Younger generations can feel more connected by spending sharing a common story.
- New perspectives (and perhaps new understandings) are gained on an ancestor’s life.
- New clues for your genealogy research projects can be found.
What IS Social History, Anyway?
Social history tells the stories of ordinary individuals, but what does it actually include?
What does social history look like in the records and resources?
First, let’s talk about the customs your ancestors participated in. These were deeply ingrained in their lives and a large part of their social history. Their customs were shaped by their cultural heritage, their faith, and who they associated with.
For instance, if you know the customs your ancestors followed for celebrating birth, marriages and deaths, you can get an indication of their faith or cultural heritage. If you know their faith, you know which records to pursue. If you discover your ancestors – the community where your ancestor lived – was largely Catholic, your next step is to research the Catholic church records for possible clues to your ancestor.
Consider aspects of your ancestor’s daily life. What did an ordinary Tuesday look like for your ancestor? What activities made up their daily lives?
What type of occupation(s) your ancestors held. Where did they shop? Did they live in the city or in a rural setting? What language did they speak? What type of social functions might they have attended.
Epidemics & Natural Disasters
Consider the effects of illness and epidemics on your ancestors. Were family members lost? Were there local epidemics that affected your ancestors? Did the family move to an area known for its health benefits?
Lastly, think about life upheavals such wars or natural disasters. Was your ancestor displaced by a war? Or did you ancestor go off to fight in a war? How would this have affected his wife and those back home?
Check out Gendisasters.com for a large variety of newspaper articles on train wrecks, natural disasters, epidemics, and other events affecting your ancestors’ lives.
Records for Social History in Genealogy Research
I think you will be surprised by the variety of places you can find information pertaining to the social history surrounding your ancestors.
The local library can be a great place to start. Local, regional and state libraries all have sections on local history the family history researcher and writer will find helpful. Check their online databases, too!
Genealogy Tip: When performing on-site research in a county courthouse, include a stop at the local library to check out their local history section!
One of the first places to seek out the social history and everyday ordinary information on your ancestors is in what we tend to think of as traditional genealogy records. I’m talking about the census records, wills and estate records…….. Don’t forget to check those court records. Feuding families tended to air their dirty laundry in court. Reality TV today has nothing on our ancestors in those court records.
Traditional Genealogy Records
For instance in the census records, make sure you are paying attention to all of the headings. Look at the household – is it a multi-generational household. Are there servants – could that be an indication of wealth? You can learn how many children a woman gave birth to and how many are still living. In this case below. Sarah Dulaney had 9 children and 9 are still living. Did your ancestor experience the loss of a child or multiple children? Other years may indicate an occupation or if your ancestor owned or rented his home.
You get the idea. When you find your ancestor in a record, don’t just grab your ancestor and run. Spend time in the records and discover everything the record has to tell you about that ancestor.
Estate records can be quite illuminating. Learn about the contents of your ancestor’s household. Below is an example of just one page of the Calvin Maddox Chatham County estate sale in 1848. [Calvin’s estate sale was a multi-page document.] All of his household items – furniture, livestock, crops, and more were listed.. You can learn what type of wealth your ancestor had or did not have or how they made a living. Look at who bought items a the estate sale. These were your ancestor’s community including other family members.
Special collections are often overlooked by researchers, because we just aren’t sure how to use them or search within them. As researchers, we are missing out of potentially vital information on our ancestors. These collections area usually found in archives and university libraries and potentially contain:
- Personal or private records/papers and/or correspondence.
- Business dealings
- Records for running a plantation
- Letters among family members
Uncommon Sources To Include In Your Social History Genealogy Research
Now let’s start thinking a bit “outside of the genealogy box”. Many sources of social history can be found in uncommon genealogy records. Let’s take a look.
Store owners kept records and ledgers of their businesses. It is possible to find your ancestor listed among the IOUs or accounts payable/receivable for a merchant in their area.
Merchant records help define a community and its residents in a time and place. State archives, university special collections and local museums are the first places to look for them. A few can be found on Internet Archive.
Inquest records are another place to find unique information about your ancestor’s life. Often not online, you might find an index online. You can then pursue a copy of the original record or microfilm if you decide you want that.
In this example, the Missouri Digital Heritage has abstracts indexed of the coroner’s inquests. Mr. Thomas Murphy died in 1887 after being stabbed. He lingered for 21 days before eventually passing away due to tetanus. Including that type of detail we start to understand his last days and can include in the writing of his story.
Do not overlook the value of county histories in your genealogy research or as a source for social history.
This is an excerpt from the History of Gage, Nebraska by Hugh Jackson Dobbs written in 1918. The language is a bit flowery, but in this section he details the life of a pioneer newly arriving in Nebraska. He describes what an early house might have looked like. He goes on to talk about the location a house might be in – the bend of a stream – and the types of crops that pioneers were able to grow.
Dobbs’ log cabin description:
“…a log cabin…..generally comprising a single room, probably fourteen by sixteen feet in dimensions, of a single low story in height….”
You may not find your answer listed in a county history, but if they were an early pioneer to the plains, they would have faced similar challenges to establishing a home.
Use histories of the areas where your ancestor lived to share what daily life likely looked like for them. This is interesting to your readers and helps non-genealogists connect to an ancestor’s story. Start your search for local and family histories in Google Books.
Cultural museums feature exhibits and learning opportunities related to a particular group of people. One of my favorites and best examples, is the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side in New York City. Their aim is to share the stories of the immigrant experience. The museum does this in a unique way of allowing you to walk through history literally.
You can tour the actual tenement apartments/rooms as they are preserved from several times in history. One of the most popular tours is the neighbor walk where a guide walks you around the neighborhood literally where your ancestors may have walked, and shopped and worshiped.
My husband’s ancestors were immigrants arriving in New York City. Visiting the Tenement Museum gave us a unique perspective on his ancestors and sparked his interest in family history. While the names of my husbands ancestors are not found in the museum, we were able to learn the challenges and the daily life of his eastern European Jewish immigrant ancestors. We began to understand their challenges and why they lived there lived and why they migrated where he did.
I encourage you to explore the museums in the areas where your ancestors lived!
Oral Histories and First Person Narratives
Oral Histories or First Person Narrative Projects will give you a perspective on your ancestor’s life you will not find in the more formal records of genealogy. You will find projects collecting these first person narratives often in larger university collections.
DocSOUTH is one such project of the University Library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to tell the story of southern history – not just North Carolina. This online collection includes personal letters, oral history, maps, photographs…. The list is long and varied. Most of the items presented digitally are part of the Southern collections in the university’s libraries.
The thematic collections in DocSOUTH provide resources to learn about southern history, culture, and literature. Here you will find slave narratives, “The Homefront, 1861-1865”, and “First Person Narratives of the South”.
Another good source for first person narratives is the Federal Writer’s Project. The Federal Writer’s Project from 1936-1940 is part of a larger collection titled The U.S. Work Projects Administration Federal Writers’ Project and Historical Records Survey. 2900 documents chronicling the lives of Americans living at the turn of the century. Narratives tell of meeting Billy the Kid, surviving the 1871 Chicago fire, pioneer journeys West, of grueling factory work, and the immigrant experience.
Take time to explore the social aspects of your ancestors’ lives. Learn about what their lives were actually like and what may have influenced their major life decisions. You just may discover that clue to move your research forward.
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