Beyond the Birth, Marriage and Death Dates

In our research into the past history of our families and others, we often tend to want to fill in the dates and maybe some locations of each of our individuals. When we finish, if we ever do, we have created just the skeleton of the family. Where is the meat on the bones? We have the “what, where and when” in our scheme of things, but not the “why or how” of things. It might be of interest to know that great grandfather was born in 1840. We might even know the actual day and place. However, was g-grandfather in the Civil War? Which side? What unit? Was he wounded? Was he captured and did he serve time in prison? If he was in the Civil War that only takes care of a few years in his life. What happened the rest of the time?

We also need to ask ourselves what caused our ancestors to move from one place to another. We might want to ask why a man with a number of children would move his family from the safety of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and go into the back country, into the mountains of southwestern Virginia that was prone to Indian attacks with all of the killing, pillaging, kidnaping and the likes every few weeks. I can’t believe that cheap land was the answer. Land was cheap in the Shenandoah with space between neighbors when the family next door might be ten miles away. We may never find all of the answers we want, but here are a few ways to think about the situations to put the “meat” on the bones.

To begin with, you need to concentrate on one ancestor at a time. You might be working on a whole generation as is often the case with Civil War young men who fall into the 16-35 years old range. Begin with what you know and then move to the more general aspects of the time period. I studied a group of young men in an isolated community where there was one school that began in 1854. In the years preceding the Civil War, the teacher was a devote Unionist. At the beginning of the conflict, he raised a company of soldiers for the Union from a larger area. Having a variety of letters from some of the men, most all from the small isolated community joined the Union. In spite of the danger of doing so, they traveled out of state to unite with the Union Forces. Some never returned. Do you think that a teacher has that kind of influence over the students? The school never grew beyond a one room school house for the first eight grades. The teacher was the central figure in that setting. This might give us a “why” to put into our charts.

The second step is to go back to your primary resources you have used in the past. I have nearly always found some little something the second, third or even the fourth time around that was missed the first time. As our understanding of the times and the people grow, the more our understanding of the words grows as well. We miss many things on the future readings of the records, especially the original records. Far too many of us want to take the fast track and go for the summaries, the abstracts or the generalizations instead of the details. How many of us have baked a cake and misread the “t” for “T” in the receipt? Little details can make a big difference in the results.

You also want to look at the ships’ passenger listing. Who else was on the boat that brought your ancestor? Who else is listed on the original pages of the census with your ancestors? Do you see a pattern? Are these folks still living together? When one moves to another part of the state or another section of the country, who was with them? Who are the choices for partners when the time comes for marriage? How many ancestors married “Cousin So and So”. Is this all the choice they had? Many have family members that married each other or even one man will marry a woman and then she dies leaving him with small children to raise and on the way home from the funeral, he marries a sister.

I might suggest that we get outside of the genealogical resources from time to time and research other places where information will be stored. If your ancestor was a banker, have you looked into the bank itself? What is the history of that institution? You will not necessarily find that information in the genealogical section of the library. You may also want to go to special collections in the library or a university library in your area. There is a wealth of information out there just waiting to be discovered. The meat for your bones is a worthwhile search.

Many sources are available in the general part of the library. One I have found to be very helpful are the books in the writers section that give details about life in a certain period of time. These volumes are created to help writers understand the time so they can write accurately about a certain time such as Colonial America, or the Civil War Era. These references help us to understand “why and how” in our search.

Bones are good, but to get a complete picture of your ancestors, you need the meat as well.

Happy Hunting!!

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