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, April 29, 2011

Part VII: Profiling Your Ancestors

[FYI: You may notice there are links for two identical words. The words are the same, but the links are different.]

As someone who holds a degree in criminal justice, it will come as no surprise that I am inextricably drawn to crime dramas like "CSI", "NCIS" & "Criminal Minds".  I also happen to know that genealogists work in much the same ways as those in the criminal justice field & even some of the characters in TV crime dramas.  I've written about several of these similarities in an earlier post, "Pt. IV: Get to Know Another Occupation".

Knowing what your ancestors were like
can not only help with your genealogical research, it can also enhance your written family history.  Analyzing what the data you've collected on your ancestor means in respect to dates, ages and parentage is good, but what kind of person were they, what talents did they have, what events affected them and how?

"Profiling" is a method used by the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit (aka. BAU) on "Criminal Minds" to help find their "unsub" (aka. "unknown subject"): the person or persons who committed the crime(s) they're investigating.  They use profiling to learn more about the criminal.  As you well know, there are plenty of "unsubs" in genealogical research.  Finding out who they were is just part of the puzzle.  As family history detectives, we want to find out as much as we can about them, so why not use the same method we see on "Criminal Minds" and profile our ancestors?  You don't need a psychology degree in order to do this, just common sense and the willingness to learn about that which affected your ancestor's life.

The BAU is able to create profiles from their analysis of what is known about the 
circumstances surrounding the crime(s), the crime scene(s), the unsub(s) and the victim(s) (aka. victimology).  At the start of the show, the team learns what they can at headquarters from the case file, which often contains very little information on which to create a profile. Through the course of the show they eventually have enough information to form a more complete profile which they can then present to the local authorities in order to apprehend the unsub.  The profile includes not just information and analysis about the unsub(s), but also their analysis of the crime(s), the victim(s), the timeline and the circumstances.  Professional genealogists often begin with very little information in their "case file" (information provided by the client) and on their "unsub" (the ancestor they're requested to research) as well.  However, unlike the BAU, genealogists generally focus only on those records or documents that mention the ancestor or his family by name.  If genealogists were to broaden the range and scope of their research and analysis beyond the ancestors themselves to include the events, time period, social norms, daily life and other circumstances affecting their ancestors, they could use the product of that additional research and analysis to create profiles of their ancestors.  Broadening the range & scope of the research in this manner provides the genealogist with the necessary context to create a profile. 

The Search:
So, how does the BAU
find their unsub?  The same way we find our ancestors: by looking at the records available to them.  The BAU doesn't just examine the records, they analyze them so they can figure out the significance of each, how each recorded event (e.g. divorce, conviction, debt, etc) impacted the unsub's life and how the events as a whole shaped that unsub's world view.  They analyze these documents to learn more about their unsub so they can put themselves in the unsub's shoes.  By doing this, the BAU is more able to predict his behavior and find a way to secure an arrest. If genealogists were to do the same, they'd also be able to gain enough insight into their ancestor to put themselves in their shoes.

So, how does the BAU find these records?  Well, luckily, the BAU has the wise and
wonderful Penelope Garcia (played by Kirsten Vangsness) as their technical analyst.  If a record exists out there, Penelope can find it.  If you're a fan of the show, you may notice how many of the records she searches through are the same types of records genealogists research, such as deeds, marriage records, divorce records, court records, military records and newspapers.  As she obtains more and more search criteria (e.g. where they live, likely employment, marital status, aliases, etc), she eventually narrows down the suspect pool to just one.  Sound familiar?

With every tidbit of information genealogists find, we obtain new search criterea as well.  With each new criteria, we set the parameters for our search and eliminate all other possibilities (aka. "the process of elimination").  Whether you work in the field of criminal justice or genealogy, the process of elimination is an effective tool that you will use time and time again.  Penelope's talent, to not only know just what she's searching for and where to find it, but how to most efficiently and effectlively search for it, is one that is a highly prized and sought-after talent of genealogists as well.

Using Timelines:
The team often uses timelines to help them find, comprehend, profile and predict the actions and behaviors of their unsub.  Timelines are also an effective tool used by real law enforcement officers, detectives, CSIs and attornies in the courtroom.  They are a terrific tool for genealogists as well.  Why use a timeline?  Because until you put all the records & events in chronological order you may not realize exactly what your ancestors experienced and how those events may have affected them.  You may not realize how some events overlapped with others or happened at the same time, compounding the effects on your ancestor.  This timeline can not only include your ancestor's personal & familial events, but also global, national and local events that likely had an impact on them as well.  For example, you may know your ancestor lost four of her five children, but you may not have realized that they all died within five years, three of which was while her husband was off fighting a war and all of this happened during a localized yellow fever epidemic.  Put all these events together and you have an incredibly tragic convergence of events.  Had each happened years apart from one another, your ancestor would likely have experienced them quite differently.  Since our goal is to put ourselves in our ancestor's shoes, knowing not only what events affected their lives, but how thechronology of those events affected them is important as well.  Knowing the details of the timeline can help you form more accurate hypotheses concerning the recorded actions of your ancestors (e.g. moved out of the area struck by the epidemic, apprenticed their surviving child due to inability to care for them from the overwhelming grief).

What to Research: 
Wouldn't it be nice to be able to include the "whys" and not just the "whats" when writing your family history?  On "Criminal Minds", the BAU tries to find answers to a myriad of questions so they can form their profile.  They use that profile to figure out who their unsub is, what his motivation was and his modus operandi (aka. "M.O." or the unsub's "signature").  So, what kinds of questions do they want answers to for the profile?  Many questions will concern the unsub(s), the crime(s), the victim(s), the timeline & the circumstances.  Why do they research all these aspects?  Because if they focused only on the unsub, they wouldn't get very far.  Knowing what kind of crime they comitted or victims they chose can shed light on the unsub's motives, behaviors and actions.  Did the unsub use a knife in an up close and personal murder or did he use a gun, distancing himself from the victim?  Is the unsub targeting women in their 30s who look eerily similar to his ex-wife or does he target only those who are of a particular race in a crime of hatred?  Are all his bludgening victims currently abusing their children and look like the unsub's deceased father?  Does the unsub take wedding rings from all his victims as a sort of trophy?  What do these questions reveal about the unsub?  Many of these questions bring up even more questions, but at the same time, they also give you clues as to where to look for certain types of records.  Why go over so many questions about the unsub, their M.O., the crime & victim?  Can you imaging trying to solve a murder if you didn't consider all of these things?

In genealogy, we want to find out all we can about our ancestor, but just like the BAU, we can find out more about that ancestor if we look not only at the ancestor himself, but at the events he lived through, what impact they may have had on his life, his occupation, daily life and the social norms of the time period?  When you broaden your search to include various circumstances & events, your analysis will be all the more accurate and those shoes of his will fit better.  We've all heard the saying, "the whole is greater than the sum of it's parts".  This rings true not only in the field of criminal justice, but in genealogy as well.  We can analyze each bit of information individually, but also analyze what information and analyses we've collected as a whole to unearth even more information about our ancestors. 

In order to better understand your ancestor, it would be good to learn about the circumstances surrounding his life (I discussed some examples of these in my first blog, "Pt. I: Historical Events"; I also discussed the behavioral aspects in "Pt. III: Sociology & Behavioralism").  You may know what events your ancestor lived through, but did you put them into context with the social norms of the time period?  You may know what it takes to be a doctor in today's society, but how would that occupation differ if your ancestor was a doctor in 1823?  Each thing, person and event described in the records are best understood when we know the circumstances, and thus their context.

We all know what the "social norms" of today are, which is why the BAU team doesn't need to do any research in this area, but what were the social norms during your ancestor's lifetime?  If you know the social norms, you'll be able to put your ancestor's behavior and actions (gleaned from the analysis of the records) into context.  I have learned more about the social norms of the time by reading about them (see
my "Recommended Reading List").  There's also a great deal of information on the internet.  At the end of this blog is a list of links and books I have found while preparing this blog that may be of help to you.

Both the BAU and genealogists benefit from looking into events that had an impact the unsub's/ancestor's life.  These events likely had a role in shaping their personality and world view and may help explain why they behaved or acted as they did.  As I stated earlier, the BAU doesn't need to take into account the social norms of yesteryear, so when the team uncovers an event that affected their unsub, they are already viewing that event in context with the time period. When a genealogist researches events that affected their ancestor, they have the added step of needing to put those events into their proper context by researching the circumstances and social norms of the time.

Just as the BAU would handicap their profile by analyzing only the unsub and not the crime, a genealogist would also be handicapped if their focus was only on the ancestor and not the historical global, national or local events.  Consider a biography written about someone who lived in New Orleans for the past 62 years.  The biographer would be remiss not to mention Hurricane Katrina. 

If we learn about what happened in and around an event, we can better be able to figure out its effect on the
people who lived through it.  Many events affect more than just the local area.  Was there a presidential election?  How did your ancestor's state vote?  What were the issues of the campaign?  The issues of a campaign tell you what the current concerns of the day are, such as in the most recent election.  So, knowing the campaign issues (especially those issues the winner ran on) will help you understand what the majority of Americans (or at least the majority of the Electoral College) believed was important at the time your ancestor lived.

Another thing to consider is your ancestor's age and gender during the event.  Events affect children quite differently than they would a fully grown adult and males differently than females.  Imagine witnessing the horror on 9/11 as a young and impressionable 12 year old versus a retired 75 year old.  Let's say your ancestor witnessed a war braking out in his country.  The 12 year old might go through his adolescence without a father figure while the 72 year old might deal with outliving his son who died in battle.  A male might join the cause and choose to fight for his country while a female might have to deal with twice the amount of work and responsibilities at home while her husband was away.  Not sure how events could've effected people?  Try looking for someone who experienced the same event (or one similar to it) and has a biography, autobiography or surviving letters & journals that gave accounts of that event.  Just as in the field of criminal justice, first-hand accounts, written at the time of the event, are far better evidence than 2nd hand accounts written later by people who were not witnesses (aka. "hearsay"). 

Occupations, Roles, Talents & Traits:
Unless you have your ancestor's journal, personal letters, or other papers that directly state his personality or talents, it's unlikely you'll know what they were without a profile.  Even obituaries aren't really reliable evidence as to what a person was like as many people tend to inflate certain positive traits out of courtesy for the deceased's friends and family.  Afterall, it's really bad form to bash someone right after they've died...even if they were a jerk.

Because there is a lack of data on a person's personality in the existing records, genealogists must figure these things out for themselves. 
Was your ancestor a doctor in 1740 in Philadelphia?  Check out the local historical society to learn about what that city was like and what events took place when your ancestor lived there.  What were the educational requirements for becoming a doctor?  You can imagine what talents a doctor would need based on what we know of doctors today?  Here's where that extra research comes in.  If you look into 1740, you'll find that when your ancestor was a doctor, no one had any idea what "germs" were and most believed illness came from "bad air" or an imbalance in the humors of the body.  You'll also notice that the first hospital in America didn't show up until 1751.  Knowing the profession is one thing, putting it into context with the time period is another. 

The more information you are able to put in context, the better you'll be able to fully comprehend what you have and the better you will be able to judge what their personality was like and why they did what they did. 
What kind of personality traits or talents would your ancestor have needed for that particular occupation?  Would it have required someone who was able to pay attention to detail, was unafraid of public speaking, had good hand-eye coordination, was able to read and write, etc?  How would his occupation have affected his life, his health and his family?  Was he a farmer who had to do back-breaking work every day?  Would this man be likely to develop arthritis at an early age?  Was your ancestor a slave?  How would the uncertainty and anxiety over never knowing when that day would come when he would be sold and separated from his wife and children affect his mental health...his heart?  How might the parents in a family of slaves deal with the ever-constantly looming event when their child reaches that age where he is told he is a slave?

What if your ancestor didn't have an "occupation" per se?  You can still form ideas as to what they were like by looking at some of the same things I've already mentioned: events, daily life, social norms and customs.  Consider a woman in the early 1800s.  What would have been expected of her as a wife and mother?  What sort of things would she have needed to do every day to keep the house and care for her children?  Perhaps she would've had to spin and weave just to get the thread and fabric to sew so she could clothe her family.  She may have had to milk the cows every morning, make cheese & churn butter.  Do you know what kind of time and effort goes into churning butter?  I don't, but I'm pretty sure it wouldn't be that hard to find out.  Just preparing dinner for her family would've been a huge task as pretty much everything was made from scratch and any meat was probably from whatever animal she decided to slaughter in the yard or what remained of the heavily salted meat that was preserved.  If we want chicken for dinner, we go to the fridge.  If your ancestor wanted chicken for dinner, they'd reach for the axe.

When it comes to your ancestor's childhood (or lack thereof), there are several questions you could research. Did your ancestor go to school?  What level of education might he have attained?  Did he ever learn to read or write?  Did his parents apperntice him to learn a trade?  How young was he when he was apprenticed?  Was he the only child in the family to be apprenticed?  Did he choose the same occupation in adulthood that he learned in his apprenticeshp? Does this trade run in his family?  

Some children actually did have jobs.  A large number of children were employed for low wages. This helped their family economically, but at the same time, the types of jobs children had put their lives, bodies and health in danger.  They might work at a textile factory, threading machines or crawling under large mechanical equipment to clean remnants left over from production off the floor.  Children's were well suited for these jobs because they 
had small hands, small fingers and their bodies could fit into tight spaces.  Children as young as 4 or 5 years of age had jobs in various industries.  How might the long hours, hazardous working conditions and repetitive motions affect a child of 5 years old?  What would their view of the world be when they never had the opportunity to experience childhood?

Ready to start profiling?
Good Luck!

Equations to Remember:
Things, People & Events + Circumstances = Context
Context of Things, People & Events + Analysis = Profile

Useful Books & Links:
Historyorb.com - Historical Events by Year
History for Genealogists: Using Chronological Time Lines to Find and Understand Your Ancestors by Judy Jacobson
OurTimeLines.com - creates personalized timelines for your genealogical research

Medicine, Disease & Health Care

National Association of Public Hospitals and Health Systems - History of Public Hospitals in the United States
Beginnings of Hospitals in the United States - Pt. I Pt. II by John E. Ransom [pdfs]
The Story of the Creation of the Nation's First Hospital
Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington
Harvard University Library Open Collections Program - Contagion : Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics

Timeline of Epidemics
Death Investigation in America: Coroners, Medical Examiners, and the Pursuit of Medical Certainty by Jeffrey M. Jentzen

Colonial Occupations
Colonial Craftsmen: And the Beginnings of American Industry by Edwin Tunis 
Female Occupations: Women's Employment from 1840-1950 by Margaret Ward (specifically aimed at the family historian)
Children Bound to Labor: The Pauper Apprentice System in Early America by Ruth Wallis Herndon & John E. Murray (Editors)

GenDisasters - Events that Touched our Ancestor's Lives

Presidential Elections
History of Presidential Elections including popular and electoral votes in each election, states won, issues in the election and voter turnout

Sociology, Anthropology & Archaeology
Domestic Manners of the Americans Vol. I & Vol. II by Fanny Trollope
Pilgrim Hall - America's Museum of Pilgrim Posessions
Uncommon Ground: Archaeology & Early African America 1650-1800 by Leland Ferguson
Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle … by Carol Berkin The Face of Our Past: Images of Black Women from Colonial America to the Present by Kathleen Thompson, Hilary MacAustin & Darlene Clark Hine
Women & the Law of Property in Early America (Studies in Legal History) by Marylynn Salmon
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925 by Herbert G. Gutman
Voices From Slavery: 100 Authentic Slave Narratives by Norman R. Yetman
Good To Know blog post - "Recommended Reading List"


  1. So glad I saw this post as it is absolutely perfect! I wonder if I am drawn to all the shows you mention BECAUSE I am a genealogist! I have all of them DVRd and never miss an episode of a single one! Since I started blogging and actually writing the stories of my ancestors I have found myself profiling much more than I ever did when I was just collecting the facts and *filling in the blanks*.

    Wonderful, wonderful post Heather!! Now I'm going to check out those cool links!

  2. Wonderfully clever......I'll want to become a one-woman BAU..... investigator and researcher. Love it....

  3. I absolutely LOVE this post. My family always joke that I should have been a detective! Now I know why I watch so many crime shows. Thankyou for such a creative 'profile' of the genealogist as a profiler, regards Sharn

  4. Love it too. Gives me something to think about. Will ponder a bit and check out the links then try an apply. Thanks.

  5. Very informative, thanks for sharing.

  6. As an educator, I love to find places where I can learn more about how to "do genealogy better". And this post fits the bill perfectly. Thank you, Heather, for sharing your knowledge in a way that others can learn from it.

  7. I just discovered a great free online resource for searching archived USA based small town newspapers (news, photos, obituaries, etc) via the website of archiving company Small Town Paper’s website. It’s definitely worth checking out!

  8. Just discovered this post, thank you very informative