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.

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.