About "Good to Know: A Genealogist's Guide"

A multi-discipline approach to genealogy - A genealogist's way of working generally encompasses several different fields of study at once, thus the more well-rounded your genealogist is concerning various disciplines of study, the better that genealogist will be able to locate your ancestors, and maybe even tell you a little about what they were like.

This blog will discuss what types of things are "Good to Know" for a genealogist or for anyone researching his/her own family tree.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Part VI: Where's My Ancestor's Land?

A fair amount of people interested in their family tree want to know where their ancestor's land was, but not just where it was...where it is now.  Not that it moved or anything, but having a map of your ancestors land that was made in the 1820s doesn't necessarily mean you'll know where it is in 2011.  Understandably, descendants would like to stand on the same land their ancestors stood on, feel the soil, smell the air, see the trees their ancestors once set their eyes upon.  In a recent episode of Who Do You Think You Are? (American version), Spike Lee, when first introduced to the land where his ancestors lived, he actually gathered up some of the soil and put it in a bag to bring home to his children (FYI: you can find the full video of this episode here).  It's amazing how much a bag of dirt can mean to a person.

Unlike today, it was a regular occurrence for people to give birth at home rather than at a hospital.  Due to the lack of available health care facilities & the beliefs of the family, many people didn't leave their home to give birth.  Some people today would think it extremely unusual (not to mention risky) to give birth at home.  There's a time line of midwifery & childbirth in America that can help to get a good idea of what was practiced when.  Also, learning about what surrounded the childbirth experience in early America can help you visualize the differences between what they did then and what is practiced today.

It was common for a family member to die at home, instead of in a hospital, as well.  Prior to 1915, most people died at home...it still happens today, obviously, but deaths at the home are far more rare than they once were.  Early Americans sometimes even buried family members at the home: in a family plot in the yard.  Of course, nowadays, it's illegal in some places to bury family members on your land (check your local laws).  I believe it has something to do with public safety and health.

Figuring out where an ancestor's land is now isn't all that easy, but I recently tackled this job and wanted to share the process (FYI: If you want to skip the in-depth description of how I did this, step-by-step instructions are included at the end of this blog).  In this case, I was lucky enough to have found a map in the Orphans' Court records of New Castle County, Delaware.  This is the case of James Faris of Pencader Hundred, New Castle County, Delaware.  He was the son of William Faris who bequeathed a large plot of land to his son James.  The land in question was originally part of a huge plot of land called "The Welsh Tract", and part of that tract eventually came into possession of William Faris when he purchased the land from Jacob & Mary Clement on 16 Aug 1743 [NewCastleCoDEDeeds O:42].  Unfortunately, we will never be able to see this 1743 deed because it did not survive the test of time and no longer exists.  We know it did exist because of the reference in the 1810 deed of his son James [NewCastleCoDEDeed I3:7] when he sold a portion of the land.  When William died in 1786, he bequeathed this land to his son James.  Although James did sell some small portions of the land he received from his father, he kept the bulk of the lot until his death in 1826.  Figure A shows the land that was in James' possession at the time of his death.  This map was found in Orphans' Court records where the land was described in metes and bounds, neighbors were stated, landmarks given, land was valued (for the purposes of fair division or sale so that the proceeds can be split up among the heirs) & a portion of the land was set aside as "the widow's third" [NewCastleCountyDEOC N1:444-450].  The practice of the widow receiving a third of her deceased husband's land was referred to as "The Rule of One-Third".

I scanned the map from the microfilm (you can also use a photocopy) and opened the file in Photoshop (you can also use another photo editing software).  As I examined the map (see Figure A), I could see how the land was laid out as it was described in the metes and bounds of both the Orphans' Court records and James' deeds. 

If you don't have a map, you can use a deed platter.  You can also see if there is a map of the area that was made at the time your ancestors lived which shows the landowners.  An example of this style of map is the Atlas of the State of Delaware by D. G. Beers in 1868.

On 11 Mar 1801, James Faris & his wife, Elizabeth (Moody), sold 17 acres to James Beckum [NewCastleCoDEDeeds I3:9].  The land was described as having been the land of William Faris, now in possession of James, his son.  You can see James "Bakum" on the 1828 map as a neighbor (at bottom).

On 29 May 1810, James Faris & his wife, Elizabeth (Moody), sold 8 acres to Eleanor Thomas, Mary Thomas, Benjamin Thomas, Joseph Thomas & Aquilla Thomas, all of Cecil County, Maryland [NewCastleCoDEDeeds I3:7].  The Thomas' don't appear on the 1828 Orphans' Court map [Note: James' daughter married Aquilla Thomas].  They probably sold the land between 1810 and 1828.  This deed also referred to a 16 Aug 1743 deed where William Faris (grantee) purchased the land from the Clements (grantors). The deed I mentioned earlier that no longer exists.

On 26 Jan 1811, James Faris sold 4 acres of land to Joseph Graham [NewCastleCoDEDeeds T3:334].  This land bordered the land of Robert Moody.  If you look at the map, you can see "Widow Moody" (on the left of the map, probably widow of Robert Moody) & Graham (top left, above Moody) were neighbors in 1828.  Using this information, you can see where that land was that James sold that used to belong to his father William Faris.  If we platted the land in the three above deeds, we could expand this map even more to see what it looked like and what area it covered when James' father, William Faris, owned it.

In an 1847 deed, I found that James Faris (grandson of William Faris & son of James who died in 1826) and Jane, his wife, conveyed land to Levi Faris (James' brother & grandson of William Faris) through a Deed of Release on 4 May 1846.  In the 24 Mar 1847 deed, Levi Faris, of Philadelphia, sold the land (formerly belonging to his grandfather, William Faris) to John Hanna of Philadelphia [NewCastleCoDEDeeds U5:307].  Levi sold 130 acres of land in "Pen Caddy" [Pencader] Hundred which was described as bordering lands of Capt. William Barr, James Purnell, Andrew McIntyre, Samuel Hyatt & George Boulden.  This plot of land was further described as containing the New Castle and Frenchtown Railroad (something not mentioned in the 1828 Orphans' Court record because it didn't exist then) & the New Castle & Frenchtown Turnpike.  Levi also stated that the land was located 1 1/2 miles from the border of Maryland and Delaware. 

Now, I was tasked with finding land on the modern day map which was 1 1/2 miles from the Maryland/Delaware border and contained both the New Castle & Frenchtown Turnpike & the New Castle & Frenchtown Railroad.  Well, that wasn't going to happen since there is no such railroad on the modern day map & there is no New Castle & Frenchtown Turnpike either.  At least the Maryland/Delaware border was still there.  So, like anyone else might do in a situation like this, I turned to Google.  The Historical Marker Database website informed me of the New Castle & Frenchtown Railroad and how it ran parallel to the Turnpike, just south of it (which falls within the boundaries of the 1828 Orphans' Court map).  I also found out that the portion of the New Castle & Frenchtown Turnpike which ran from the Northeast to Southwest (the part which was featured in the Orphans' Court map) was now called "Frenchtown Road". 

Using the drawing tools in Photoshop, located all the landmarks I could and marked them on the map.  I made the New Castle & Frenchtown Turnpike (later Frenchtown Road) green, circled the house and other buildings in red and drew thick black lines over the boundary lines on the map. These markings will serve as an overlay to be used later (see Figure B).  I also checked the map & the description to make sure I knew which way was north.  Maps weren't always drawn so that north was pointing toward the top of the page.  Luckily, mine was orientated that way (see upper right corner of Figure B).

After drawing the boundary lines over the Orphans' Court map, I removed the map from the background so I was left with just the lines and markings I drew over it.  Then I saved the file in Photoshop.

Next, I needed to figure out exactly how big this plot of land is in today's measurements (e.g. feet & miles).  I used the description of the metes and bounds which used directions (North, South, East & West) as well as distances (in perches) to figure this out.  I wrote down all of the measurements and converted each one into feet (see Figure C).  I also separated the two plots for visualization purposes (see bottom of Figure C) with the help of the copy and paste features.

Because each plot was described separately, I knew some of the metes and bounds would be repeated due to overlap (e.g. the boundary between the two lots of land).  I typed these repeated measurements in blue.  [Note: the first blue measurement in Lot #1 is the last blue measurement in Lot #2...they went the opposite direction from beginning to end in the description.  There is also an error with one of them where the same boundary line was described as 16 perches in Lot #1 and 6 perches in Lot #2.  This is how it was written in the Orphans' Court record. I can't re ally call it a typo, but it looks like they just forgot the "1" in Lot #2.  It's probably supposed to be 16 perches.]

In the 5th line up from the bottom of the list of metes and bounds for Lot #2 (directly below the last blue entry), you'll see that the boundary described was exactly 20 perches long.  After converting 20 perches to feet, I found that it equaled 330 feet.  I used this information to figure out how big this lot of land was.  First, I printed out the outline and measured the length of that specific boundary which was described as equaling 20 perches (330 feet).  It was exactly 1 centimeter long (this 330 foot boundary line is at the north end of where the New Castle & Frenchtown Turnpike intersected with Lot #2).  Since 1 cm equaled 330 feet, every centimeter measured on that printout will be the same length.  Next, I drew a dotted line at the uppermost part of the outlined plot of land and another one at the bottommost part.  Then, I measured the distance between the two.  It measured exactly 16 centimeters which equals 5280 feet.  I was quite surprised that it would come out to equal that since 5280 feet = exactly one mile (see Figure D).

After figuring out that the distance from top to bottom of the land was exactly one mile, I needed a modern day map with a scale.  I grabbed an atlas of New Castle County, Delaware which provided a scale with the maps.  I photocopied that scale, scanned it into my computer (retaining it's aspect ratio), copied and pasted the overlay of the boundary lines from the Orphans' Court map and then shrunk the overlay until the two dotted lines lined up to equal one mile on the scale (see Figure E).  Now, the plot of land matched up with the scale of the modern day map.  This will enable me to overlay the plot of land on that modern day map to see where it fit.
I located approximately where the land was likely to be using information from deeds & the Orphans' Court records (e.g. landmarks).  I scanned the modern day map, opened it in Photoshop and marked the points of interest (Figure F above).  I drew a red dotted line parallel to the MD/DE border and 1 1/2 miles inside of Delaware & marked Frenchtown Road (formerly the New Castle & Frenchtown Turnpike) in green.  I knew the land would have to fit all three criteria.

Once I knew where the landmarks were on the modern day map, it was time to put the (to scale) overlay from the Orphans' Court on it (Figure E).  I copied and pasted the overlay so that the Frenchtown Road was lined up with the green line I used to mark the New Castle & Frenchtown Turnpike.  Then I moved the land up and down that road until the land lined up well with the 1 1/2 mile mark from the Maryland/Delaware border mentioned in Levi's deed (Figure G).  Since Levi was selling land in Lot #2 in that deed, I knew the 1 1/2 mile mark had to be located in that lot rather than Lot #1 which was the "Widow's Third" and was later sold by Levi's mother in 1850, Martha Ann, widow of James [NewCastleCoDEDeed F6:95].

Finally, since my client was from out of state, I got a larger map of Delaware to show exactly where the land was located within the state so my client would be able to easily locate the site where ancestors, William Faris & son James Faris, once lived (see Figure H).

Step-By-Step Instructions for Locating Land on Current Map:
1) Find a map of the land your ancestor owned or resided on If no map is present, find a document that describes the land, usually in metes and bounds.  Use a deed platter to plat the land and get the boundaries in the right places (Note: if you used the deed platter, you can skip steps 3-6).  If the land runs next to a creek or river, it may be helpful to plat the neighbors land as well.  The more landmarks you have that can stand the test of time, the better you'll be able to find the land on a modern day map.  Use landmarks in neighbor's land if necessary [Note: Depending on when your ancestors were residing on the land, you may even find a map made at the time of the region that had landowners names included on them such as the 1868 Atlas to the State of Delaware by D. G. Beers].
2) Note any landmarks described in deeds.  If no useful landmarks in your ancestor's land, check the neighbors.  Research landmarks to see if they exist today or to find out where they were/are located so you can find that location on a modern day map.  A Google search can help you find out where things used to be if they no longer exist.
3) Scan the map of your ancestor's land and open it in Photoshop or another photo editing software (see Figure A).
4) Use the drawing tools to draw the boundaries of the land around the map (see Figure B).
5) Remove the map from the background and keep the outline of the land boundaries.
6) Write down the metes and bounds of the land described in the original record & convert perches to feet (see Figure C).
7) Print out the outline of the boundaries for the land & locate where each boundary line is so that it matches up with the distance described in the record.  Often, these distances are included on the map next to the boundary lines.  You can write down the measurement in feet on each boundary line to make it easier when it comes to figuring out the scale.
8) Pick one of the boundary lines and measure it (see Figure D).  The distance + measurement will give you a scale (e.g. 1 cm = 200 feet, thus 4 cm = 800 feet).
9) Find a modern day map of the area w/ a scale providing information on what measurement = a mile.
10) Scan the scale on the modern day map into your computer.  Open in Photoshop.
11) Copy and Paste the outline of the boundary lines so they are next to the scale of the modern day map.
12) Scale the outline of the boundary lines to match the scale of the modern day map (see Figure E).
13) Search the modern day map for the landmarks mentioned in the records & scan that portion.  Use drawing tools to mark where the landmarks are located (see Figure F)
14) Copy and Paste scaled overlay of boundary lines over the modern day map so landmarks match up (see Figure G).

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Part V: Archaeology - A Supplement to Genealogy

Most kids want to grow up to be a firefighter, ballerina, veterinarian, actor, pro football player or a pop star.  Me?  I wanted to be an archaeologist.  Well, either that or a historian.  I'm sure Indiana Jones was partially responsible, but my father having been a genealogist likely had something to do with it as well. 

So, what is archaeology?
Archaeology is the
scientific & systematic study of
historic or prehistoric peoples and their cultures by analysis of their artifacts, inscriptions, monuments, and other such remains.

If you're a professional genealogist or are researching your own family tree, you can learn a lot from the field of archaeology.  In my last blog post, I compared genealogy to the field of criminal justice.  Archaeology can also be compared to criminal justice in much the same ways by simply substituting the written records found in genealogy to the artifacts uncovered in archaeology.  In fact, crime scenes are handled in a similar way to how archaeologists handle their dig sites.  At crime scenes, evidence is carefully handled, photographed, bagged and tagged.  That evidence is then analyzed & compared to other evidence on and off the scene in order to discern who handled it, why they handled it, what they used it for & what possible motive existed for the crime.  Artifacts are handled in much the same way with the addition of analyzing that artifact to ascertain how the existence of that artifact contributes to the knowledge of the people and culture of that period and, generally, the exclusion of trying to figure out a possible motive of a criminal.  I say "generally" because there are times when an archaeologist is looking at a possible crime scene or the remains of someone who was a murder victim (or a human sacrifice), even if it happened thousands of years ago.   
There is much to can learn from the field of archaeology in general, but if you are interested in learning more about the time period in which your known ancestors lived, you'll most likely be looking at the subcategory of archaeology called "historical archaeology".

Historical Archaeology is the scientific & systematic study of peoples and their culture from a time in which there was a written record.  The knowledge gained from the study of artifacts from this time is meant to be a supplement to what we have learned from the written record.  Genealogists study of a specific portion of the written record (that which helps us to identify our ancestors), thus historical archaeology is a supplement to genealogy.

In the field of genealogy, anything that can supplement the written record is extremely beneficial.  An example of how archaeologists use the written record that we genealogists know so well is when they excavate a site of a home.  They will look for deeds, probate records, court records & even newspaper articles that may give a description of that home and/or it's contents and help determine when people resided there. 

The written records can help a genealogist locate the site of the home their 
ancestor occupied, but they can also help to visualize the home and it's contents, even if there is no archaeological evidence available to the genealogist.  For instance, you may come across an "Inventory of Goods & Chattels" in a probate record.  This is a written record of the belongings of the deceased, completed by appraisers (usually 2 men) who probably knew the deceased and lived nearby.  If you were to make an inventory of goods and chattels for an estate, how might you go about doing it?  You'd probably walk from room to room writing down the contents: as you complete the list for one room, you'd go to the next, and so on.  Your ancestors' appraisers probably did it the same way.  If this was the case, the order those items were listed can help establish a layout of the home and which objects were likely associated with which rooms.  Knowing which objects were where can help you determine how they were used and which activities were likely to occur in which rooms.  So, even without the actual artifacts, such as the home or your ancestor's belongings, written records can be of great help to aide you in visualizing the home of your ancestor and what their day to day life might have been like.

Of course, there is something to be said about actually seeing artifacts people made and handled 100 or 200 years ago.  Simple day to day items from another time can give you a better understanding about how a family lived and can help you to put yourself in the shoes of your ancestors.  Artifacts can tell you a lot about how someone lived because every artifact had a purpose.  Look around your home for a moment.  Do you see anything that doesn't have a purpose?  Even if that purpose is simply decoration, there's a purpose for each item you have. 

So, what is an artifact?  An artifact is anything made, modified or used by a human culture.  While many think of archaeology as the study of stuff you find buried underground, there are a lot of artifacts above-ground, especially when you're studying more recent historical archaeology.  For instance, there are homes in America still standing (some even occupied presently) that were built and occupied in the 1700s.  It's not just homes, but other structures too.  When I went to high school, I would drive by the Brandywine Creek State Park where a stone wall bordered the road.  It was built by hand without anything but the expertise of how to choose certain shapes of stone for a perfect fit to hold the stones together.  I'd be hard pressed to find someone living today who could build a stone wall that would last for hundreds of years without some kind of mortar or other material to hold the stones together.  There are parts of that wall that have been destroyed in recent years due to cars crashing into it, but due to the expertise involved in building it, a repair job hasn't even been attempted.

What other artifacts are above ground?  Gravestones.  What archaeological 
information can you learn from a gravestone?  Well, there are a myriad of designs & symbols on the gravestones that have been used over the years that can help you to understand the culture and how people thought about death at the time the stone was carved and erected at the grave site.  There's also information on what tools were used to carve the stone, what kind of stone it was & where it came from, what shape it was carved into and even who the carver was.  This is all in addition to what you can learn from the actual written information on the gravestone (e.g. dates, names, epitaphs, etc).  Some consider a gravestone as a historical document and study it as they would any other written record.

Archaeologically speaking, gravestones are a particularly valuable artifact in that one aspect of them is controlled: the date.  Since most people were buried shortly after they died, the date of death on the stone was generally very close to when it was carved.  You may even find mention of the stone carver in probate records of the deceased.  When a certain aspect of an artifact is controlled, it makes for easier evaluation of the other aspects of that artifact.  For example, it helps archaeologists better determine the significance of the designs and symbols, the popularity of a particular design, how that design spread from one region to another and when it was no longer used or replaced with a different design.
Chronology is important in both genealogy and archaeology.  If you don't know when someone was born, it's hard to determine who might have been their son or daughter or which marriage record likely belongs to that person.  If archaeologists don't know when a building was built or occupied, it's virtually impossible to develop a meaningful analysis of what it means to find certain artifacts there.  Artifacts have a particular time period and cultural significance attached to them based on when and where they were invented and distributed, where they were unearthed, what people owned them & the waning and waxing popularity of the item over various regions.  Knowing what time period they were used and by which people within that society, has a profound effect on what it means to find it at a particular site.

Archaeologists use dating techniques to guide them in their analysis. 
Genealogists need dates just as much as archaeologists do.  If a genealogist doesn't have a date of birth, he might say a person was "born by" or "born before", using the earliest date from the records as a guide.  Archaeologists use "terminus ante quem" (the date before which) and "terminus post quem" (the date after which) when analyzing the artifacts found on site.  If you have a knowledge of when certain types of artifacts were invented or used in any specific region, it helps determine how one might date a site.  For instance, you might find ceramics which had a specific technique used for glazing that wasn't invented until the 1770s on a site.  This would mean that site was likely occupied into the 1770s.  Archaeologists review all the artifacts found at a site to determine the latest a person likely inhabited that area. 

Knowing more about the culture or what person may have occupied that home, helps as well.  The wealthier families were more likely to have what was "in fashion" at the time because they could afford the higher cost, while, at the same time, the less economically fortunate could only afford what was in fashion years earlier.  Using the same example of ceramics from the 1770s, the wealthier family probably had them when they were brand new while the poorer families likely acquired them long after they first appeared on the market.  Knowing which family occupied that home can help an archaeologist date the site.

Both archaeologists & genealogists are concerned about the ability of later researchers being able to look at and review their research with ease. Archaeologists use what is called a "datum point" (a fixed location near the site that is unlikely to disappear over the years) so later researchers can locate the same area they excavated.  Genealogists are careful to use source citations, documenting what sources they used so each piece of data can be easily located by a later researcher.  In this way, we find that archaeologists and genealogists are not just focused on the past, but they have a profound respect for the future of research in their respective fields.

Architecture is also studied by archaelogists.  Do you live in a house?  Does your house have a front porch?  As Deetz states in his book, "In Small Things Forgotten" (p.231), "It was a place to sit and swing, make ice cream, pick a tune ot two, and even store a broken wringer washing machine, and we owe it all to those anonymous people who brought it from West Africa".  Europeans didn't build their homes with porches, yet nowadays, millions of homes across the country have a front porch.  They were first seen in America on slave cabins and slowly spread throughout the country.  In this way, we can see how one culture had an influence on another.  Archaeologists see cultural influences in other artifacts as well.  Since many dates in historical archaeology are known as to when one culture came into contact with another, these influences, marked by what types of artifacts were found on site, can help to date the occupation of homes being excavated.

You may have an artifact in your own home: something handed down from generation to generation which can lend itself to a better understanding of the people & culture of the time.  Perhaps you have a pocket watch from a gg-grandfather or an old painting of your ancestor hanging on your wall.  Technically, those are also artifacts.

Although I doubt you'll be digging up the skeletal remains of your ancestors, there is an amazing amount of information that can be acquired from examining the bones of an individual.  You can learn the more obvious, such as their gender, age and, in some cases, what killed them.  There's a reason doctors use x-rays to look at your bones.  Injuries, diseases and other conditions can be discovered by looking at the bones.  You can even see old injuries someone may have had during their lifetime that have healed, or were healing at the time of death.  Some diseases can give a clue as to if a society or individual had contact with other societies.  [Note: If you're interested in learning about what happened when two or more societies interacted with one another in history, which society suffered from that contact and why, I highly recommend the book "Guns, Germs & Steel" by Jared Diamond.]

With testing techniques performed on the bones that are now available, you can even tell if they were likely from the same area where they were buried or what their diet was.  Through examination of the burial, you can learn what that culture's views on death were by how they were buried, where they were buried, the position of the body, and what items were buried with them.  You may not be digging up an ancestor to find out these things, but archaeologists have found the skeletal remains of thousands of individuals over the years.  They may have already examined the remains of someone from the same time and region as your ancestor.
In conclusion, there is a strong relationship between the written record and the artifacts left behind by our ancestors.  Studying one or the other doesn't come close to what you can learn from combining the two.  In my last blog post, I talked about how getting to know someone in another occupation could be beneficial to both, using the field of criminal justice as an example.  Genealogists would also greatly benefit from the knowledge archaeologists have acquired from studying artifacts that have been left behind and archaeologists can benefit from the knowledge genealogists have of the written record.

If you're a genealogist, or researching your own family tree, I would highly suggest visiting an archaeological dig, and if you can find a society, college or other group that will let you, see if you can participate in a dig or just observe and ask questions. 
Archaeology Links:
The Society for Historical Archaeology
The Process of Archaeology via Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center
Society for American Archaeology
Center for the Study of Architecture

Books on Archaeology and Related Topics:
"In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life" by James Deetz (an American classic & a great intro to the field)

"A Guide to the Artifacts of Colonial America" by Ivor Noel Hume
"Doing Historical Archaeology: Exercises Using Documentary, Oral, and Material Evidence" by Russell J. Barber
"Uncommon Ground: Archaeology and Early African America 1650-1800" by Leland Ferguson
"Jamestown: The Buried Truth" by William M. Kelso
"Flowerdew Hundred: The Archaeology of a Virginia Plantation, 1619-1864" by James Deetz
"Time Detectives: How Archaeologists Use Technology to Recapture the Past" by Brian Fagan
"Here Lies Virginia: An Archaeologist's View of Colonial Life and History" by Ivor Noel Hume
"Martin's Hundred: The Discovery of a Lost Colonial Virginia Settlement" by Ivor Noel Hume
"The Practical Archaeologist: How We Know What We Know about the Past" by Jane McIntosh
"The Archaeology of Disease" by Charlotte Roberts & Keith Manchester
"Guns, Germs & Steel" by Jared Diamond

Archaeology & Artifacts on Television:
"Antiques Roadshow" on PBS
"Pawn Stars" on History Channel
"Ancient Discoveries" on History Channel
"American Pickers" on History Channel
"Bone Detectives" on Discovery Channel (focus on ancient human remains) [Reruns on Green Channel]
"The Naked Archaeologist" on History International Channel (focus on Biblical archaeology)
"Skeleton Stories" on Discovery Health Channel (focus on forensics)
"Guns, Germs & Steel" on PBS
There are also occasional specials on channels such as PBS, History Channel, History International, Discovery Channel, etc.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Part IV: Get to Know Another Occupation

When I started doing genealogical research, I was working on a degree in criminal justice.  In fact, my final few credits for my degree was an internship.  I figured I could do a genealogy internship.  I went to the head of the Criminal Justice Department with a prepared proposal stating how genealogy had a lot in common with studying law and how genealogy is mainly focused on researching the legal documents that remain after that person has died.  It worked, and I completed my internship and got my criminal justice degree with honors.  

While doing the internship, I discovered I had a knack for this "genealogy thing".  After all, I grew up with a genealogist father, so it was already something that pretty much surrounded me (some of it literally surrounded me as there is a huge printout covering the entire dining room wall containing the work my father completed on our family tree). 

The more I learned from my father concerning when to look where and what records were available, the more I loved it.  I also noticed the overwhelming amount of similarities there were between genealogy and criminal justice: it's not just what I told the head of the criminal justice department about.  For instance, there are several types of evidence from witness statements to documentary evidence & forensics while, in genealogy, there's witness accounts (such as a bible record written by an ancestor at the time), there's documents such as deeds & wills and there's DNA testing.  In criminal justice, there's an unknown criminal that police attempt to locate using what evidence they've gathered and, in genealogy, there's an unknown ancestor we search for using what data has been provided by the descendant & uncovered through research.  Both the genealogist and those on the case to find a criminal need to build a case using the evidence they gathered.  Although the burden of proof is much stronger in the criminal justice system, the way of thinking and analyzing the evidence is very similar. 

The Case
When presented with a case, the detectives/investigators need to be completely unbiased, just like a genealogist.  They can't begin an investigation with the goal of proving what they want to be proven or placing guilt on the guy they want to be guilty, they have to be open to the possibilities and must strive to reach the truth, not just the truth they want.  The same is true in genealogy.  One example would be if you wanted a genealogist to find you a Revolutionary War ancestor so you could get into the DAR or the SAR.  The genealogist couldn't just look and accept only the evidence pointing toward that conclusion, they have to take everything into account, whether it points to a Revolutionary War ancestor or not.  The police might want a certain person to be guilty of a crime, but if some of the evidence doesn't support that, they have to admit that and reassess.  In either occupation, we can't let our wishes and hopes get in the way of the facts.  Genealogists, detectives & investigators must go where the evidence leads them, not to what any preconceived notion they might have had will take them. 

Reliability of the Evidence
At a crime scene, there are usually pieces of evidence that can be gathered to aide in finding the culprit.  Genealogists are much like crime scene investigators (CSIs) and police detectives in this way.  We gather what evidence has survived the test of time in order to find that unknown relative, and just as the police and CSIs, we must evaluate the evidence as to it's reliability.  
A police detective might get several eyewitness statements that conflict each other.  Not every eyewitness is reliable.  When it comes to forensics though, the results found (like DNA) are pretty much irrefutable.  What isn't irrefutable is how they interpret those results.  They may say, "Well we found suspect X's DNA on the scene, so he must have killed the victim".  Interpretation is always done by humans, and humans are imperfect.  Just because his DNA was at the scene, it doesn't mean suspect X was the murderer, or even at the scene for that matter.  All there is absolute proof of is that his DNA was at the scene.  Who knows how it got there.  Perhaps someone was attempting to frame suspect X. 

Thinking this way can be a great help when searching for our ancestors.  Interpreting evidence without thinking of all the possibilities can easily lead you reach a faulty conclusion.  It's a a mistake many have made in genealogy as well as the criminal justice system.  Although it's unlikely for an  innocent man end up on death row because of a faulty conclusion made in genealogy, it's still good to be careful to avoid making faulty assumptions of what the evidence tells us.  It makes us better genealogists. 

When I come to a specific conclusion through analysis of the data, I face it head on.  I act like I am in a debate and was just told this conclusion by my competitor.  Then, I try to poke holes in my analysis of the evidence trying to think of any way possible that it could be wrong.  If I can poke holes in my conclusions, I go back to the research and close those holes up. 

What happens if the CSI does not document where the evidence came from?  Well, the chain of evidence is not maintained for one.  It also likely can't be used to prove the case and it won't hold up in court.  If the case wasn't solved and goes cold, when the next detective picks up where they left off, the evidence gathered without proper documentation gives them nothing.  The same happens with genealogy.  If we don't have source citations, whatever we gather cannot be used to prove our case.  Also, if another genealogist wants to pick up where I left off, they'd have proof of nothing because they can't check the sources if there are no source citations.  This is particularly true when it comes to joining a genealogy related organization such as the DAR, SAR or The Cincinnati Society.  They require source citation because they will be checking your work.  They have to make sure the work was done correctly and the conclusions you came to make sense.  If you don't have source citations, you won't get in to any of these organizations. 

Criminal justice is just one example that is filled with people who have several different occupations: detectives, investigators, forensic technicians, criminologists, crime scene investigators, etc.  When you get to the court/trial stage in the criminal justice system, there's also people such as the prosecutor, defense attorney, judge & court reporter.  

My suggestion is to get to know someone who has one of these occupations so you can learn what it is they do and how they think.  Personally, I know that my background in criminal justice has been an invaluable resource that has greatly added to my ability to do genealogical research and analysis.  What are some other occupations that could help you in the field of genealogy?  How about getting to know an archaeologist, one who's focus is in the area and time period in which your ancestors lived?  I'm sure they would have a great deal of insight into what the day to day life of your ancestors would've been like.  They've probably had the opportunity to hold in their hands, artifacts from that time, set foot inside the fallen walls of a home built by someone similar to your ancestor, sifted through their 200 year old garbage.  You can learn a lot about people by what they threw out.

Another occupation would be a sociologist (mentioned in my previous post).  A sociologist could give you great insight into how your ancestors thought and what decisions they might have made.  How about getting to know a historian who's focus is on the area and time of your ancestors or an anthropologist?  How about someone who has studied the history of transportation, medicine, meteorology, politics, theology, law, economics, fashion, photography or technology?  There's a whole world of occupations out there that, when the knowledge of which is combined with your knowledge as a genealogist, can really add to how you go about your research and analysis & how you look at the way your ancestors lived.  With social networking being what it is now, it's also fairly easy to find someone who has one of these occupations.  There's also courses on several different subjects you could take at your local college or university, or even free on iTunes U.

Helping Each Other 
Getting to know others in different occupations can actually be beneficial in another way.  After learning more about each others' professions, you might be able to find ways that your knowledge of your own profession can be of help to the profession you're learning about.  For example, I've thought of a few things that could help the field of criminal justice, using my knowledge in genealogy, and vice versa.

Genealogy helping Criminal Justice
It's obvious that DNA is deeply intertwined with both genealogy & criminal justice.  Sometimes, you can combine methods used in the two.  For instance, police sometimes find themselves with their alleged criminal's DNA: evidence found at the scene of a crime that has been confirmed through other pieces of evidence to have belonged to the person who committed that crime.  The problem is when none of their databases has that suspect's DNA in their systems.  If they have nothing to match it to, they can't catch their suspect.  Also, when there are no eyewitnesses for the crime, they have no idea what that suspect looks like.  

In genealogy, we know about certain inherited traits & how certain parts of DNA can help tell us what other people in the world share those parts of DNA with us.  Going back to the police's DNA conundrum, why not take the DNA they found at the scene and use it to help describe what their suspect looks like.  Granted, it won't tell you if he/she has long or short hair, but it will give them more than what they had prior.  An excellent special on PBS called "African-American Lives" (also "African American Lives 2") hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. helped identify where in the world their guest's DNA could be traced back to (e.g. Sub-Saharan Africa).  If the DNA the police have in evidence indicates that their suspect's DNA also originates from Sub-Saharan Africa, it's likely the suspect is black.  There are also other inherited traits they could look at: likelihood of a cleft chin, detached earlobes, red hair, etc.  Finally, there is the concept of checking to see if the suspect's DNA is likely related to someone who is known to the police.  You know all those DNA web sites where you can swab your mouth and send it in and you can check to see if anyone else shared your DNA?  Why not use this concept in the criminal justice system?  Maybe a family member is in one of those DNA databases the police have in their system.  If they can find a relative (who knows the suspect), you're that much closer to getting that suspect in custody.

Criminal Justice helping Genealogy
Facial Recognition Software is currently used by many in the Criminal Justice arena as well as some businesses that need strict security (e.g. casinos).  Why not use facial recognition software to help with genealogy?  Here's my idea: a facial recognition program integrated into the image search of a search engine (e.g. Google).  You could scan a photo of an ancestor, upload it to the web, then the web can search for the face that's in your photograph throughout the entire internet.  Perhaps you don't know who's in that photo or there are more photos of that same person somewhere else on the web that might identify the subject.  Wouldn't it be nice to know who that person was and have more pictures of them to share with your family?  How about incorporating aging software as well?  The criminal justice system uses aging software with missing children cases to see what that child might look like 5 years later if they still have not located him/her.  If aging software is incorporated into a search engine along side facial recognition software, you could scan a photo of your 35 year old ancestor, upload it to the web, locate and positively identify a photo of that same person at 5 years old or even 75 years old.  Neat, huh?

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Part III: Sociology & Behaviorism

Sociology is the study of society.  This social science investigates human social activity and behavior.  In this article, I will focus on the decision-making processes of an individual (e.g. your ancestor) within a society and how circumstances of the time period, region & culture can influence how people made decisions. I will also discuss how knowing more about those circumstances (which I will discuss later in the series) will help you figure out the likely decisions of your ancestors.  These "circumstances" also include the concept of punishments and rewards (types of reinforcement, e.g. Behaviorism).

Decisions are made several times a day, from what you'll have for breakfast to whether you'll move your family to another state for a job opportunity.  We decide what to do, where to go, who to talk to and what about.  Everyone makes decisions, including our ancestors.  How do you make a decision?  Generally speaking, people make decisions by doing a cost-benefit analysis to figure out which decision would be the best choice.  Sometimes it takes hours, days or weeks to make a decision while mulling over all the possible pros and cons, while other times, it is almost instantaneous and like a reflex where we aren't even aware we have done it. 

People living in the 1800s, 1700s, 1600s & earlier made decisions the same way we do today.  We might make different decisions, but that's because the circumstances surrounding your decisions are different than those that would surround the decisions of your ancestors.  The more you discover about the circumstances, the better you'll be able to figure out what their likely decisions were.  Knowing what decisions they would have made can actually be pretty beneficial in genealogical research...especially if you're attempting to write about your ancestors and need to fill in the blanks in the time line of their lives: those spaces left between all that data you've collected.  The better the comprehension of the circumstances, the more complete your ancestor's life story will be.

As I mentioned earlier, people make decisions based on a cost-benefit analysis: if one decision would have been more costly to them (not only financially, but perhaps due to the value their time, due to religious concerns or how others in the community might have reacted), they would have been more likely to go for the least costly choice.  There's an aspect of psychology involved as well.  It may not be an actual cost or benefit, but a perceived cost or benefit.  It's what that person would've believed to have been negative or positive that would've influenced their decisions as well.  There's also the influence of whether a decision would yield positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement from parents, spouses, friends, society or their church.  
There's also the possibility that they will decide to take the course that is the lesser of two evils.  The more a genealogist knows about how they might have lived their daily lives the better. 

Your ancestors used the same thought processes as we do today, but since the decisions they made were largely impacted by the circumstances that surrounded them, it's good to know what those circumstances were at that time.  Some of the circumstances would involve such things as:

  • economics & employment opportunities
  • transportation
  • laws & crime
  • health care, medicine, pandemics & epidemics
  • natural disasters
  • available resources & education
  • time it took to send mail or get news
  • religion
  • superstitions
  • rural vs. urban community
  • the importance of manners
  • perceptions of different classes
  • gender roles
  • social norms of the period
People also make decisions based on the information available to them.  Keep in mind, that information might not be correct, it could be lacking, withheld or just plain misinformation.  We do the same thing, but today, we have far more information and it's all at our fingertips with the world wide web.  Of course, just as in the 18th or 17th century, we have to deal with misinformation too.

Below are some examples of situations you might come across in your genealogical research as well as questions you could ask yourself concerning what the likely outcomes or causes of said decisions were.

Example A: Buying & Selling
Let's say you come across a deed where John Smith & Mary his wife were selling two acres of land to Joseph Marcer for $1 in 1835.  Basically, they are giving this land to Mr. Marcer, but need a dollar amount for the transfer of property.  Now, let's say you have land.  Who would you sell a few acres of land to for just a dollar?  My guess is that the person you'd likely choose to get that land for only $1 would be related to you or married into your family.  Well, they did that back in 1835 too.  If you ever find a deed where it was sold for a $1, the grantor(s) and the grantee(s) were probably related.  In this example, I would check to see if Joseph Marcer married a Smith.  John and Mary Smith could have been selling their land to their daughter's husband (women weren't generally grantees in deeds when they were married).  Another possibility is that Joseph Marcer was the son of Mary Smith from a previous marriage to a Marcer.

Example B: Moving
Think about why you might move.  Are you going off to school in another town?   Are you getting married and want to start a family of your own in a new home?  Did you get a job offer or hear there was work in the next city over?  Has a family member gotten ill and you went to help care for them?  Are you making more money now and can afford a nicer place?  Are you running out of room in your home and you have another child on the way?  Believe it or not, these are the same reasons they moved 200 years ago. 

Did your ancestor leave the family home?  Check the deed books...he probably bought land when he left.  He probably got married too.  Did your ancestor suddenly move back to his hometown?  Maybe one of his parents died and he returned to be executor.  Try checking the will books or probate records. 

So, if you notice your ancestor moved, or left the home of their parents, think about reasons you would move and then look into them in relation to your ancestor to see if you can discern which one it might have been.  You'd be amazed at how much you can find out when you take this approach.

Example C: Commute
The majority of people today travel about a half an hour to get to work.  According to the Census data, in 2000, 78% of the population had a commute of about 1/2 an hour, while in 1990, it was 82%.  The average travel time to work in 1980, 1990 & 2000 was between 21 and 25 mins.

It appears that a half an hour or less is the amount of time the majority of people are willing to spend to travel to work.  As the majority of people won't travel more than a half an hour today, I believe the same would've been true in the past.  With slower modes of transportation people probably did not to take longer trips, but to worked closer to home to stay within the half-hour commute time.  A half hour today was still a half hour 200 years ago.  As the horse and buggy turned into the Model T, work got further away, yet the commute time remained relatively the same: about a half an hour.  So, if you know where your ancestor lived & if you know the form of transportation they had, you can calculate to find the half hour radius.

Example D: Marriage
Knowing what people's views were on marriage can help you in your research too.  Most of us have read "The Scarlet Letter", but did you know that, in the 1800s, some women remarried while still executing the will of their recently deceased husband...and in which case, the new husband would usually be co-executor.  Views on marriage have drastically changed through the centuries. 
Was it frowned upon to marry a person of a different religion?  How were women viewed if they didn't marry?  What age were most girls when they first married? 

You may find a marriage record for your ancestor when she was 25 years old.  Was this her first marriage or her second?  Was the name on the marriage record her maiden name or the surname of her last husband?  Knowing how society viewed marriage and what the social norms were at the time your ancestor lived are good to know.

Example E: Children
The "nuclear family" has been long considered to contain approximately 2.5 children.  In my genealogical research, I regularly find families with at least six children and I've even found one with fourteen.  It's actually rare to find a family from the 1700s or 1800s with less than 3 children.  So, why so many children?  One pretty well known answer is that the more children they had, the more help they had for the farm.  Were your ancestors farmers?  How many children did your ancestors have?

Was your ancestor well educated?  Was he a tradesman, perhaps a cordwainer or a blacksmith?  Would he have apprenticed his children to learn a trade or would he have sent them to school?  Which one was most beneficial to the family unit?  Did he want his children to follow in his footsteps? Did your ancestor go to college?  If not, would he have likely wanted his children to be the first in the family to get a college degree? These are some questions you might ask yourself as you research your family tree.

Example F: Death
I've found in my research that men had far more wills than women.  On occasion, you will find a woman with a will, but they are few and far between in the 1700s and 1800s.  If women had money, they were more likely to have a will.  Why?  Well, back then, it was usually understood that the man owned everything and the woman did not.  You may notice this in deeds as well.  Knowing the historical gender roles will help you to know where and who to look for when seeking information (e.g. search deed index for the husband's name even when it was the wife's land).

Contrary to what many may believe, if your ancestor died, they didn't necessarily have an obituary.  My father (also a genealogist) actually counted all the deaths in a particular year early in the 1900s and than counted the number of obituaries.  It turns out that only about 1/3 of all deceased had an obituary.  Unless your ancestor wealthy or was a well known figure in the community (e.g. politician), I wouldn't count on him/her having an obituary.

Another example of how society thought about gender roles: Did you know that children were considered orphans when just one parent died, and of those who went to Orphans' Court, most did so due to the death of their father and not their mother. 

Example G: When the Men were away from home
Most of us know what happened when the men returned from war following WWII: there was a baby boom about 9 months later.  We can also understand why.  Would this happen now?  Would there be as many children born?  Well, we have different circumstances now.  As I mentioned earlier, the circumstances are what influence our decisions.  One thing that was different back then (and for earlier wars) was that women had very little information available to them concerning reproduction and birth control.  If that information was not there for them, they were probably more likely to become pregnant. There were actually laws that forbid the information from being distributed to the public as they considered such things as indecent and obscene rather than think of it as important and necessary medical information (e.g. Comstock Laws of 1873).

Part II: Terminology & Abbreviations

Besides knowing legal terminology, there are other terms that would be helpful to know when you are researching your family tree.  People living hundreds of years ago spoke and wrote with wildly different words than the general population of today.  Depending on how far back you have traced your ancestry, some of those words, most of us have probably never even heard of.  They may use antiquated words or archaic expressions that are no longer in use today.  Let's take occupations for example: we have heard of such occupations as lawyer, farmer, blacksmith, tailor, carpenter, surveyor and doctor.  Other occupations aren't so easy to figure out.  We can pretty much guess what a druggist, tanner, wigmaker or a tobacconist was, but do you know what people in the following occupations did?:

hostler, cooper, brickbearer, dowser, sawyer,
drover, yeoman, ditcher, carder, webster, drayman,
chandler, grubber, daguerreotypist, limeburner,
forgeman, nailer, chiffonier, ginner, tinker, spinner,
winder, cordwainer, milliner, apothecary

- If you find yourself in need of a definition of a legal term, rather than spending a ton on the most recent version of Black's Law Dictionary,
check out the one on google books.  It's free, searchable & downloadable.
Yes, it was published in 1910, but when you're looking up a term from an 1880 deed, you don't really need the 2009 edition.
- If you're interested in learning more about what kinds of jobs were around in different eras of history,
there is a good series playing on the Discovery Channel called "The Worst Jobs in History".
It's educational and quite humorous.
- If you're interested in learning some archaic words, try "Forgotten English" by Jeffrey Kacirk

Below is a list of some of the abbreviations you may come across in your research.  It is by no means a complete list.
If you know of more that you would like to be included on one of these lists, feel free to contact me so I can add them.
Abbreviations of Terms:
a (land) - acres
ackn - acknowledged
adminr - administrator (male)/administratrix (female)
afsd - aforesaid
approx. - approximately
atty - attorney
br (land/waterway) - branch
co - county
cr (land/waterway) - creek
dau(s) - daughter(s)
dau/o - daughter of
d.b.n. - de bonis non
dec'd or decd - deceased
dep - deputy
e (land) - east
esqr - Esquire (Lawyer)
exec or execr- executor/executrix
f - female
ft - feet
gent - gentleman/gentlemen
Junr or Jr - Junior
m - male
mi (land) - miles
n (land) - north
prob - probated
pt/o - part of
purch - purchased
rd - road
s (land) - south
s/o - son of
sd - said
Senr or Sr - Senior
tr - tract
twp - township
unk - unknown
uxor - wife
w (land) - west
w/o - wife of
wit(s) - witness(s)
Abbreviations of Names:
Abm, Abra. or Abrm - Abraham
Alxr - Alexander
And or Andw - Andrew
Benj. or Benja - Benjamin
Chas or Chs - Charles
Chrisr or Xpher - Christopher
Cors - Cornelius
Danl - Daniel
Edwd or Ed. - Edward
Eliz. or Elizth - Elizabeth
Eph or Ephm - Ephraim
Ez. or Ezkl - Ezekiel
Gabl - Gabriel
Geo - George
Hen or Heny - Henry
Jas or Jas - James
Jer., Jereh or Jerh - Jeremiah
Jno - John
Jona - Jonathan
Jos. - Joseph
Josh. - Joshua
Josh - Josiah
Marg. - Margaret
Maths - Matthias
Mattw or Matthw - Matthew
Mich or Michl - Michael
Nathl or Nathanl - Nathaniel
Nicho, Nich or Nicols - Nicholas
Rich or Richd - Richard
Robt - Robert
Saml - Samuel
Sar. - Sarah
Solo - Solomon
Stephn or Stepn - Stephen
Theo. - Theodore
Tho, Ths or Thos - Thomas
Wm or Willm- William
Zacha or Zach - Zachariah

Part I: Historical Events

It's a good idea for a genealogist to know the history of the eras and the regions they research, but it's also good to know something about all those historical events that weren't taught in history class.  There are several events which took place that were not taught in school or they were taught in school, but the effects they had on those who lived through them was not a focus.  For example, most of us learned about the when, where and why the Civil War took place, but you might not have learned about the "Great Chicago Fire" of 1871...unless perhaps you lived in Chicago.  You may have learned about the "Salem Witch Trials", but it might just have been a chapter or a few paragraphs.  Did you learn if people moved away to keep safe from the "witches" or perhaps to keep from being accused?  What happened when it was over?

There are many intricacies of history that none of us were taught because they weren't in the textbooks or were glossed over for other, bigger historical events that had more impact on the society at large or that would end up on the test at the end of the year.  What's great about "today" is that you can learn about anything you want easier than you ever could before.  The information is out there and the internet can be a wonderful thing for a genealogist.

So, why would something like the "Great Chicago Fire" be "good to know" for a genealogist?  Well, if your ancestor was a carpenter on the east coast who suddenly moved to Chicago in early 1872, the reconstruction effort that took place after the fire would've been a good reason for a carpenter to have moved there.  They didn't just need carpenters either, they needed several different types of people with specific skill sets to help in the rebuilding and reconstruction effort.  They would've needed architects to design the buildings, clowers to make nails, sawyers, etc. It wasn't just those who were rebuilding (or planning the rebuilding) who were needed either, someone had to give them much needed support: cooks, cordwainers, tailors, shopkeepers, etc.

Regardless, knowing more than just the data will enable you to see your ancestor (or the ancestor of your client) in a way not many were able to before.  Personally, I thought it was pretty neat to know why my ancestor (Thomas Goodfellow) moved to Chicago.  It added a whole new narrative to to my ancestry. 
I mean, instead of just learning he moved from one place to another, I'm learning why.  He was that carpenter I mentioned and he was one of many who helped to rebuild one of our largest cities. That's neat.

It's not so much the events in and of themselves that is "good to know," but it's how people reacted to those events and the effects of those events that is "good to know" for a genealogist or anyone researching their ancestry.  In the case of the Great Chicago Fire example above, it wasn't so much the event that was important, but how my ancestor reacted to it: moving there to help rebuild the city.

Natural Disasters
You might know why an ancestor's entire family moved away from Galveston, TX at the tail end of 1900 if you also knew why 6,000 - 12,000 people died there in September.  If a genealogist were looking back on us from 100 years in the future, it would be good to know about Hurricane Katrina, as it was a reason for a large migration of people away from the areas worst struck by mother nature.  There were also several people who migrated to the area following the disaster: those who helped in the rebuilding process like in the case of Chicago.  Was your ancestor one who lived in Galveston prior to the hurricane or moved there after?

So much of genealogy is dates, names and times and so little tells us what those ancestors were actually like.  By incorporating what was occurring in history at the times they made decisions (e.g. to move, to buy or sell land, to take office, etc) we can get a glimpse of perhaps what their personality was like.  We can learn a lot about people by the decisions they make.  If we know what was going on at the time, we can put those decisions into context.

Did your ancestor live in the Mid-Atlantic states in 1888?  Did they survive one the worst blizzards in recorded U.S. history?  If they died in March, they might have been one of it's hundreds of victims, and it probably wouldn't have said "blizzard" under "cause of death" on their death certificate.  Was your ancestor one of those who helped build the subway or worked for the telephone/telegraph companies to put the lines underground in New York?  The blizzard of 1888 (a.k.a. "The Great White Hurricane") was the reason for why the city decided to put the phone, telegraph and a transportation system underground, away from the elements.  The blizzard took out so much above ground that it crippled the city.  They didn't want a repeat of that. [FYI: Some other disasters that affected New York.]

If your ancestor lived in San Francisco in 1906, they would've likely witnessed the horror that occurred the morning of April 18th.  The earthquake, estimated to be slightly over an 8.2 on the Richter Scale wasn't the worst part of that day and the days that followed, it was the fires.  Arnold Genthe became well known for his photography of the aftermath in San Francisco.  [FYI: Due to a lack of water, the firefighters resorted to dynamite.]

If you know what happened from 1845 to 1852 (hint: something to do with potatoes), you might understand why your ancestor would have left Ireland to come to America.  When widespread famine occurs it makes sense to move away from where there is little or no food and toward a place there is food.  Close to one million Irish came to America during the famine.  Was your ancestor one of them?  In this case, there was more than a single event: there was the famine and how the Irish reacted to it and there was the emigration to America and how those already in America reacted to the immigrants.  There was also the reaction of the towns and cities where the Irish immigrants settled and how they reacted to a population surge.

Pandemics and Epidemics
There were also outbreaks of diseases: both epidemics and pandemics that effected people.  There were multiple cholera pandemics that occurred in several parts of the world, including the United States. 
Did your ancestor suddenly lose several family members in 1883-1887?  If so, it might have been due to cholera, which was at pandemic levels in the Americas at that time (More on Cholera).

In 1793, the "Yellow Fever" epidemic hit the United States, and in Philadelphia alone, an estimated 5,000 people died (out of a population of 45,000, that's over 10%).  During the Civil War, both sides of the fighting soldiers were struck with
Malaria...about 1.2 million of them.  Many have heard of the H1N1 flu virus, but did you know we've been hit with it before?  In 1918 and 1919, it was called the "Spanish Flu" and 675,000 people died of it in the U.S.
Harvard's "Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics"
List of epidemics by country

The above is just a taste of some historical events that took place that had an effect on the people who lived through them.  There are many more.  Part of the reason for writing this was to get others to be open to the possibilities of what they could learn when they delve just a little bit deeper and where that new information could take them in the world of genealogical research.