Why social history?

Many family historians are most interested in finding new names, with accompanying dates and places, to add more branches to the family tree. While finding a new ancestor is very exciting, getting to know that ancestor is even more exciting. Think of an ancestor who spoke to you in some way, or to whom you feel a special connection.

What drew you to this ancestor? Was it the place from which he emigrated? Was it his occupation? Was it her participation in a historical event, or living during a historical period, that fascinates you?

Some of my ancestors that grabbed my attention were Loyalists, Mormon pioneers and polygamists, Indian captives, and Revolutionary War veterans. Each captured my attention because he lived in a period of time that was unfamiliar to me, and I wanted to know more. In my brief research into Loyalist history, I learned that Loyalists were beaten, tarred and feathered and forced out of their home by Patriots in Massachusetts. I had no idea. Although I am just starting the research, it seems that my ancestor Thomas Sumner was a prosperous and respected citizen of his town who was forced out and fled to Canada with  nothing. At least one of his sons returned to the United States and I wondered why.

I am also very interested in my female ancestors, particularly those that lived in Colonial New England. They are harder to research since fewer records exist, but this is where researching the historical and social context can help me better understand their lives. Also, each of the men listed above had a wife and daughters, and as I research the men, I can’t help but learn more about the women.

Whatever it is that draws you to a particular ancestor, learn more about that aspect of his or her life. Start with a general history of the historical period or place, or the occupation. Look in the bibliography of the histories you are reading to find additional sources, especially primary sources such as diaries and correspondence. Even if your ancestor didn’t leave a diary or correspondence, you can still learn much from what others in similar circumstances wrote.

Take some time this week to select one ancestor whom you would like to get to know better. I’d love to hear your comments about which ancestor you chose and why.

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