If you’ve ever tried to write a family story based only on the information you can find in a family group sheet or pedigree chart, you know that the limited information makes for a pretty short, dull family history! Our ancestors, of course, were more than a list of names and dates. They were real people with full lives. To tell their stories, we need to dig deeper and look further. Here are a few simple ideas to help you add details to their stories.
Pull Out All the Information
Often when we are first gathering information about our families, we look for the basics: birth, marriage, and death dates and places. By spending a little more time with the records, we can sometimes discover other hidden gems to help us fill in our ancestors’ stories.
One clue included in many records is an occupation. Knowing your ancestor’s occupation can help you understand his daily routine and even his socioeconomic status. On my family tree, I have a lot of farmers, a blacksmith, and a bricklayer or two (among other things). I also have an ancestor in the mid-1800s in England who worked as a “carman.” A little additional research on these occupations can fill in the story even more. What was it like to be a farmer in Sweden in the mid-1800s or a blacksmith in the late 1700s in England? And what exactly was a carman anyway?
Other common pieces of information in records are causes of death, names and occupations of witnesses, and an indication of whether a child was legitimate. Sometimes, you might find other notes in the records. A pastor once wrote in one of my ancestor’s marriage records that my ancestor was marrying for the fourth time and that he had divorced his first wife of twenty years (something scandalous!). Pay attention to the details, and you never know what you might find!
Try Unconventional Records
If you’ve been doing family history research for a while, you’ve probably used census records, vital records, and church records. Records like these are likely to contain the names, dates, and places that are so important to genealogy. But when you’re looking to add details to your story, it might be time to try records you’ve never considered before. Other types of records might not be as likely to give a marriage date, but they might provide some interesting details about your ancestors that help fill in their stories. Here are a few records to try:
- Financial records
- School records
- Employment records
- Minutes of meetings they attended
- Records of societies they belonged to