People are incredibly interesting – every single person who ever lived has a story to tell.
When you scratch the surface of any human being you will find a rich range of events that go to make up who that person is: a variety of happy, sad, tragic, celebratory, inspirational and depressing – all sorts of emotive happenings that create a unique individual. So when you are finding your ancestors, why be content with just names and dates?
It seems a shame that some people who trace their ancestry are only content to collect a list of names and dates, their driving force to go back as far as possible in time. While I fully understand the satisfaction of going back another generation and finding new names to add to your tree, for me, and many others, it is the mixture of this and also finding out about the history of individuals that provides the full satisfaction and excitement of tracing ancestors.
Those names on your tree were once living, breathing human beings, affected by the times and environment they lived in, and subject to all the feelings and thoughts that we are all subject to. They all had ups and downs in their lives, just like you and me. Wouldn’t it be interesting and exciting to find out what those highs and lows were, and how much you might be able to relate to them?
We will never know exactly how a person reacted to the events that affected them, but we can make an informative guess at how they may have felt, for example, about leaving their home for a new country, the death of a child, or an inheritance from a rich uncle.
Census records, birth, marriage & death certificates, parish registers, wills, military records, trial documents, land records, apprenticeships, and many other documents can help you to piece together some of the important events in your ancestors’ lives.
The further back you go, the more difficult it is to find out details about your ancestors, especially if they were of the lower classes and left no documented trail. Very often all you have is a name in a parish register and very little else.
All the same, that is no reason to believe that you can know nothing about them. There are many ways you can find out how your ancestors lived and what their daily lives might have been like.
First of all, you can find out about the area they lived in. Most places, even the smallest village, will have information about its history, either on the internet, or in local pamphlets that could be acquired at a library or the parish church. Local record offices also very often hold published booklets about the local area. What was going on in this area when your ancestors lived there? How might it have affected them?
What was your ancestor’s occupation? If you are lucky enough to have an occupation given in the parish register, then it should be quite easy to find out the history of the trade or work your ancestor was involved in. The Society of Genealogists publish a range of books entitled My Ancestor Was… which can give you a lot of information about occupations, as well as where to find sources for research. Were they in the military?
Local museums often hold items that are related to local trades and industries and it is fun to speculate what kind of tools or household items they may have used.
Knowledge of general history is also extremely useful so you can find out what events might have had an effect on your ancestors’ lifestyles. If they lived in the mid-17th century, you may be able to find out (from where they lived) whether they might have been a Royalist or Parliamentarian during the English Civil War. If they were Irish immigrants in the mid-19th century, were they fleeing from the Irish famine caused by the failure of the potato crops? If they moved from the country to a town or city, were they part of that general movement in Britain caused by the industrial revolution?
Finding your ancestors can be so much more than just finding names and dates. Don’t give up on them if they were just a laborer or laborer’s wife without land or nothing to leave in a will. Their blood still runs in your veins.
They probably thought that there would be no reason for them to be remembered. Wouldn’t it be really nice to prove them wrong after all this time.