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
- laws & crime
- health care, medicine, pandemics & epidemics
- natural disasters
- available resources & education
- time it took to send mail or get news
- rural vs. urban community
- the importance of manners
- perceptions of different classes
- gender roles
- social norms of the period
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).