Adding historical events to your ancestor’s time

Now that the timeline of personal information such as births, marriages, deaths,military service, job history and family moves has been created, it is time to look for external events to add to the timeline. Wars, major historical events at both the national and local level, and disasters and epidemics are all examples of external events.

Let’s start with historical events.There are several websites you can use that will help generate this list. Also use your own knowledge to add historical events to the timeline. This is one website that I like: Let’s look what was going on during Levi’s lifetime (1820-1910). The generated list is very long. You can go here to see the entire list. Timeline for Levi Savage for historical events

Below I have listed the events that may have either directly or indirectly affected Levi or his family. As with any information pulled from the internet, the dates listed below need to be backed up by other sources.

1817-1823: cholera epidemic
1824: Erie canal completed
1828: 1st railroad in US
1829-1851: cholera pandemic
1830: Mormon church founded
1837: Michigan enters the Union
1837: Depression and panic-inflation & speculation
1846-1848: Mexican-American War
1850: Utah organized as a territory
1852-1859: cholera epidemic
1861-1865: Civil War
1862: US Homestead Act
1869: Trans-continental railroad completed
1873: Color photographs invented
1885: Automobile invented
1893-1897: Financial panic & depression
1893: Movies invented
1896: Utah admitted to Union as a state
1903: Airplane invented

Other interesting tidbits
1821: US population reaches 9.2 million
1828: 1st Webster’s dictionary
1850: US population reaches 23 million

Whenever you are thinking about your ancestor, you should be asking yourself questions. Did anyone in Levi’s family contract cholera? Do any color photographs exist of Levi and his family? Did he own a car, or did he ride in one that may have been owned by his children? How was he affected by the financial crises? I hope to be able to answer some of these questions in my research.

Let’s look briefly at some important events during Thomas Sumner’s life. The full list can be found here. Timeline for Thomas Sumner of historical events

1231-1808: Papal inquisition
1736: English statutes against witchcraft repealed
1752: Britain and its colonies adopt Gregorian calendar
1754-1763: French and Indian War
1770: Boston Massacre
1773: Boston Tea Party
1774: 1st Continental Congress meets
1775-1783: Revolutionary War
1786: The dollar is adopted
1788: US Constitution goes into effect
1812-1814: War of 1812
1824: Erie Canal complete

This timeline seems to focus more on the US and selected European events. Since he was living in Canada for about the last 50 years of his life (I think), I should find a timeline for Canada and add that.

Notice that during his lifetime the Inquisition was ongoing. It was starting to abate during the 18th century, but was not abolished until 1808. Also note that convictions for witchcraft were still possible until shortly after his birth. This is a reminder that he was born in a time when more enlightened and progressive ideals were coming about, but that much superstition still existed.

See here for more information about the history of the Inquisition.

Fieldstone Common podcasts on New England history

Taking advantage of both free and paid opportunities to learn is an important part of being a genealogist and social historian. There are many, many opportunities for learning online and in person. I will cover many of them in subsequent posts, but would like to start first with a weekly podcast that focuses exclusively on authors who have written a book about some aspect of New England history.

Marian Pierre-Louis’ podcasts cover diverse topics such as Louisa May Alcott’s mother, Thanksgiving (with a culinary historian at Plimoth Plantation), the poorhouses in Massachusetts, and the murder of a man by his wife in colonial New England. Kathleen Wall, the culinary historian, exposed some myths about early food in Colonial America and opened up about what they did eat and drink. The murder story was interesting to me because both the wife and her husband were Loyalists and she used soldiers in her plan to murder her husband when she became pregnant by one of the soldiers. The author in this podcast was very knowledgeable about the entire period, social customs, and what it meant to be a Loyalist living just outside of Worcester.

These podcasts, and others exploring the rise of luxury items in New England, the Rhode Island Campaign in the Revolutionary War, international commerce and trading in New England, mourning jewelry, preserving family archives, learning about the common people in colonial New England and more, are available for free via iTunes or at her blog.

What a treasure for the social historian and genealogist. With rare exceptions, each guest on the podcast has written a book which you can utilize for further information about a topic that catches your attention. I hope you check out this resource. Tell me about your favorite genealogy and history podcasts.

Building a Timeline of your ancestor’s life

Once you select an ancestor that you want to learn more about, one of the first steps is to build a timeline of that ancestor’s life. Start with the basics such as birth, marriage and death. Add other information such as moving to a new location, war(s) that the ancestor either fought in or lived through, births and deaths of her children, and other significant events. This information may come from documents or family legends. Either is OK to start, although you will eventually want to back up everything on this timeline with the appropriate documentation. The important thing is just to get it on paper, with dates if possible. Set it aside for a couple of days and then come back and see if you can add anything else.

Here are two examples of the same timeline. I did one in Excel and one in Word. The format doesn’t matter–just use whichever you are most comfortable with. Pen and paper work well too.

Levi Savage Timeline Excel

Levi Savage Timeline Word

It’s clear that I know a lot about Levi Savage. I could have included even more. Most of this is knowledge that I already have in my head from family stories and his diary, but as I start writing up his story, I need to cite sources such as diaries, vital records and census records.

Usually, however, we know much less about the ancestor that has been chosen. Let’s look at the Loyalist I mentioned in my first post. I know much less about him. What does his timeline look like?

Thomas Sumner timeline

Clearly, there is a lot more work to be done on this timeline.

But, whether you are starting with an ancestor about whom much is known, like Levi, or an ancestor like Thomas where much less is known, the process of fleshing out their lives through historical and social research is the same.

This week, create a timeline for the ancestor you have chosen. I’d love to hear feedback about what interesting things appear on your timeline.

A future post will discuss expanding these personal timelines by including external information on historical events, disasters and epidemics, wars and other important events.

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.