Thursday, May 16, 2019

Comprehending Context in Genealogy

It's been quite an experience, looking at excerpts from the diaries, memoirs, and letters recording the aftermath of the Civil War. As one reader, Kathy, remarked, "I never learned about these kinds of events in my history classes." True, these details, while huge in the eyes of the people enduring them, represent only a small portion of the wide expanse of both world and even national history, and it is not surprising that we don't often hear reports such as these.

In addition to sheer curiosity over that time period in American history, I had another reason for lingering over these details of the past couple weeks. I would never have discovered them, had I not been in pursuit of the day-to-day history of specific members of my ancestry. Having discovered that my third great-grandparents, Ozey and Sarah Taliaferro Broyles, had at one time lived in a home which is not only still standing, but beautifully restored and serving as a museum, I wanted to know more. Handily, the historic foundation supporting the Ashtabula restoration happened to sell a book—and though it is long out of print, I found a used copy and purchased it.

It seems every little bit we wrestle from the silence of our family history becomes a stepping stone allowing us yet another tiny step forward. The book, once I received it and started reading, turned out to mention several other resources for the local history of Pendleton, South Carolina. One by one, I am assembling a personal library of out-of-print diaries and memoirs of the contemporaries of my third great-grandparents as I find the resources cited in the Ashtabula book.

I am also learning the value of Internet Archive, Hathi Trust, Google Books, Project Gutenberg, and other repositories of free books in the public domain, for that is my first stop when a note in the Ashtabula book gives me the name of such out-of-print volumes. And when it is not a book format I'm seeking, I try for manuscripts at the National Union Catalog of Manuscripts, or entries at state archives, or even putting Google search through its paces to see what can be found. And I learn to read footnotes.

It's these hidden resources from bygone ages—letters, diaries, newspaper entries, unpublished manuscripts, memoirs—that provide the day-to-day details of life in our ancestors' village that bring those forebears to life, even if I can't locate those stodgy old documents which verify their existence. These are the kind of resources which reinforce the mantra about seeking out the "FAN Club"—the friends, associates and neighbors of our ancestors. When our ancestors' neighbor writes the book on "Our Village," who do you think that neighbor will be talking about?

For my part, the daily nitty-gritty of my third great-grandparents' lives which I can't discern from their death certificate—or even from their probate records—I can find in abundance, if I can locate a book or even a letter from that same time period in that same tiny village.

More than that, if I am fortunate enough to uncover such rich resources, I can learn about the turn of events sandwiched in, locally, between the major upheavals in life that we call history. I can learn about the Civil War from the history books. Likewise about Reconstruction. But who knew that there was such angst among my third great-grandparents' neighbors, even before the Reconstruction era officially began and life became so radically different for my southern ancestors? These little vignettes help bring clarity to attitudes held broadly among people from specific regions, and may possibly even explain why people chose to make the changes in their lives that they did. The context provided by these old resources helps us to understand our ancestors, not just recite the dates linked to their major life stages.

Resources like these that we've reviewed in the past couple weeks are among the tools sometimes neglected by family history researchers. Accessing old newspapers often requires a subscription, adding cost, or at least the know-how to seek out the free resources and serendipity to have ancestors living in the very towns where their newspapers subsequently can be accessed for free.

Likewise—perhaps even more challenging—the quest to find hundred-year-old books on local history, particularly of a personal nature like published collections of letters or journals can be off-putting. But the effort to find these items affords us the very peek into our ancestors' lives that we crave. What we can find in these personal treasures are the very glimpses of those people now long gone that put their lives in context for us. With tools like these, we can, indeed, begin to recreate the lives of the men and women peopling the generations of our personal past. 


  1. Thanks, Jacqui - you have opened my eyes to lots of different resources to seek out. Not sure I'll get it done, but you are showing me the way.

    1. Kathy, there is always more that can be read and studied than the earnest student has time and capacity to handle. That's why some of us are committed lifelong learners: we always need just a little more time!


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