20 May 2012

Go Beyond Records

As genealogists, we are all interested in social history. Well, we should be at least. I recently came across an older blog post, written by Shelley Bishop, on her A Sense of Family site. Her piece, entitled Social History Resources for Genealogists certainly exposed me to some new and great websites to use in my research. Over the years, I have come across a few of my own ideas, and wanted to share some of those, as well. Not necessarily specific resources, but outlets for information.

Did your grandparents
take dancing lessons?

I would say the vast majority of us know the importance of collecting vital information, and for many, the genealogy hunt starts with numbers. It's kinda' like teenagers with Facebook... how many friends do you have? Except our question is, "how big is your file?"  As you mature in your research, the opportunities for social history seem to explode in your face. So, have you thought about...

  • Specialized education or training?  Was your ancestor educated outside of public schools or colleges? 
  • State licenses? I found my great uncle's fishing license from when he was 25 years old. Cool, huh? 
  • Sporting societies?  There was a large Czech population in Colfax County, Nebraska, and their culture brought an emphasis on organized athletics. They had membership papers.
  • Olympic Athlete? Maybe your ancestor went a lot farther than local clubs... check out the UK's National Archives; they've just released theirs for the first time online.
  • Social clubs, hobbies. Sewing groups, book clubs, you get the idea. Nearly all of these organized groups had membership lists. 
  • Occupations, of course, and unions. 
  • Military veteran groups. Not just through the government or Veterans of Foregin Affairs (VFA), but groups like the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, Inc. 
  • Car clubs!
  • Youth groups. What did their children do? Were the parents volunteers? My father and his siblings were very active in the local 4-H Club, and my grandparents were both leaders at one time. I have a considerable collection of club records left over from my grandmother's estate. (Yes, I am trying to get these back to the 4-H where they belong.) You can also search for newspaper records that include these organizations. They may not list your specific ancestor, but if you know already they were members at that time, it can help you put their day to day life together.
  • Continuing Education... this is one I think for more recent generations... cooking classes, second languages, etc. 
  • Alumni Organizations
  • Financial donations... were your ancestors particular active in local or national politics? Did they have a "cause" they worked towards? Were they influential in their religion? Did they have a few dollars to spare? Then you may find them here, in form of a receipt or acknowledgement from the organization.
  • Animals... I found a record indicating that my great-great grandfather owned a registered French Draft Horse. I didn't even know there was such a thing before that. 

This list is by no means all inclusive. There are thousands of ways to learn more about their lives and how they spent their time. What motivated them? What were they passionate about?

Think about how they lived, what was happening during their lifetime. My great grandfather grew up in Nebraska, but the oral family history tells us that he "bought a train ticket and went as far west as he could". He ended up getting off the train in Washington State, and settled in a small community. We know already that he ran the local livery stable for some time, he worked on the roads commission, he joined the volunteer fire department and ran the "school bus" for local children. Only later in life, during the recession, did he start working as a farmer again. He lived in town, not out in the country.  That tells you something: he did everything he could to avoid farming.  Those are all clues that would indicate where you could look for records.

I would love to hear what you have discovered, what sources you have used, what stories you have learned. Feel free to leave a comment or a link to your own blog post!


  1. Jen, I'm honored that my post inspired you to write about social history resources. And now it's my turn to be inspired by your ideas about places to look for information. This is a great list of topics! It reminds me that there's a lot of avenues I still haven't explored.

    This is what I love about the genealogical community, how we can build on each others' ideas to make all our research experiences richer. I look forward to hearing more about your discoveries!

  2. Thank you, Shelley! It's a list I've been meaning to write about for a while, and finding your post was just the kick I needed to get it done. The collaboration is one of my favorite things, too.
    Thanks for reading! (and writing!) ~Jen


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