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.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

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.


  1. The pandemics and epidemics are indeed good to know. I have even come across notes in census records regarding this.

  2. I just found a website that can help with this too. You can search by date, state or disaster. GenDisasters: http://www3.gendisasters.com/taxonomy_menu/2

  3. You might not know about the big fire about the same time as the great chicago fire was going on at Peschtigo, wisconsin. I only learned it cause I was looking into the chicago fire a few years back.
    I completely agree with you about History and genealogy. Novels, written around, it ect.

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