Turn Genealogy into Family History

family_history1The difference between genealogy and family history is subtle. Many people tend to use these terms interchangeably. I know I do, and in most situations that is not a problem. Even so, they are different. Genealogy is the study of your family lineage and is usually very precise. It documents birth, marriage, and  death records. It also links people to the preceding generation. Family history, on the other hand, while it does include genealogy, is (or should be) a lot more than that.

To put it another way, family history includes anything that helps to preserve a family legacy such as video and audio recordings, family stories,  pictures, and so forth. Collecting all this information is what builds a family history. Anything else is just facts and figures. Here are a few questions you ought to ask:

  • What did your ancestor do? What was his job?
  • How did she live?
  • Where did they move to?
  • What historical events did he witness?
  • What events occurred in her community that influenced the decisions she made?
  • Why did they migrate?

Collecting all of this information – and turning it into a story – is what builds a family history.

One of the best ways to get other members of the family to show an interest and share your love of family history is to bring alive your ancestral family.  Nobody is really enthralled by knowing that your great grandfather was born on this date and place and died on that date and place.  That can be boring, especially to the rising generation.  Your ancestors were people who lived lives in much the same way that you do with your family, so make sure you tell their story in an entertaining way.

Bring them back to life by adding historical events that took place during their life. It is easier to motivate family members if they know that great-great grandfather was born just after the (American) Civil War, or that your great grandmother was a suffragette.  Their birth and their death information is only part of telling their stories. What were their lives like when these events were occurring?

Ancestry has done a pretty good job in this regard. For example, consider these screenshots from my grandmother’s Ancestry page. It starts off with an editable synopsis

of her life and also shows how I am related to her. Next, there is a map showing where events that occurred in her life. And the life events are interspersed with other events, such as this one of the Women’s Social and Political Union. And the gallery shows all of the pictures and documents I have gathered.

There are other websites that can also give you events relevant to the period in history you are looking at. OnThisDay.com, for example offers a listing of many major events, although it does not cover every single day. It does not cover anything on my date of birth, for example, but it is still pretty comprehensive. Newspaper archives are also excellent for gleaning information, especially events local to your family.

Maps

I know I tend to talk about research and documents more than I do about other things, like memories. So how about something that will help with both? Maps should be an important part of your genealogy toolkit. In fact, they are irreplaceable, especially if you live far from the locations you are researching. They are at their most helpful when they show the geography and/or political boundaries as they existed when your ancestors were living. Today, I’m going to mention two such tools that are very useful.

Let’s start with Google Earth Pro. Starting 30 January 2015, Google has made the professional version of Google Earth available for free. It used to cost $399.00 a year, so it’s great value.  Here are some instructions on how to download and install it.

We are all familiar with Google Maps, I’m sure. Great for getting directions and finding your way around, and it’s more accurate than Apple’s map feature which, frankly, I have turned off on my iPhone. But Google Earth Pro is so much more powerful, and has the Maps2ability to overlay historical maps so that you can see how the area may have looked when your ancestors were alive.

I especially like the fact that you can get pictures of buildings using the street view. Like Maps1this one of the house where I lived from about age 4 to age 7. This is where I learned to ride a bike, and where I first had piano lessons. But, wouldn’t it be great if this were a picture of a house where your ancestor lived, even if it now has some modern touches?

Next, the National Library of Scotland. You may find this recommendation surprising since most of my research is in England, but it also includes maps for England & Wales. maps3In fact, it goes even further afield, with maps of World War I trenches in France and Belgium, for example. Not only that, but the search tool allows you to search anywhere in the world. It’s fair to say, though, that its main focus is on Great Britain (despite being a Scottish website). One nice feature is the ability to choose an historic map overlay. You can change the transparency of the overlay to switch between today’s view and the historical view.

And, while that is all well and good, how can maps help with research and memories? Well, a few things spring to mind. For example, two people from villages 20 miles apart get married. How might they have met? Perhaps there was a market town roughly half-way between the two. Also, with a contour map you can get the feel of the countryside, such as how steep the hills are and how good the grazing might be as a result. Can’t find a baptism in the parish you think somebody is from? Grab a map and look for other villages within a 5 to 10-mile radius where they may have lived.

1939 Register

I love documents, so having a whole new set of documents to explore is exciting. What I am referring to is the fact that the 1939 Register of England & Wales is available online, and has been since February 2016. So, what makes it so exciting?

Well, for one thing, nobody was expecting it to be available until 2040, 100 years after it was compiled, so it’s 25 years earlier than expected. For another, it was used for various purposes. Initially, it was used as the basis for issuing national identity cards for the 1939_2duration of the war (although they were not phased out until 1952 – my two older sisters had them, but not me). As such, the Register includes dates of birth which are often difficult to find without forking out a bundle for an official birth certificate.

Unlike a census, it was also a working document, and changes were made to it over time. For example, you will often see entries for women who married or divorced and changed their names as a result, so you may get hints as to the spouse’s last name  1939_1written right into the Register. See, for example, this page. The information written in red and green makes it so much easier to find Norah’s marriage to William E McTrusty, and Phyllis’s marriage to James H Smith in the marriage index than looking through a bunch of entries and wondering who the spouse might be.

It was also used as the basis of the National Health Service Central Register long after the 1951 census came along. Remember, censuses were not working documents, which underlines the fact this was not a census. For some interesting information about the 1939 Register and its various uses and idiosyncracies click see this article from the Lost Cousins website.

At first, the Register was only available through Find My Past, but in February 2018, My Heritage allowed searches (but no images), while Ancestry made both available a few months later. Click one of the above links to go straight to the search page for the 1939 Register for each site.

Family History is About Real People

Family history is about people. Or, at least, it should be. But not just any people. These are your forebears. These are your relatives. You share their DNA. They are real flesh and blood people. OK, that last one isn’t completely correct if they’ve died, but they were still people who walked and talked and had their own relationships, just as you do. Some, of course, would say that family history is just like regular history – just a bunch of dry facts and boring dates and places that nobody could possibly remember, or even want to.

I would disagree. But what makes the difference between boring and fascinating? I would suggest that it is the stories and the images. For example, when I think of my gran,

I form a picture of her in my mind which, in turn, brings back all of the pleasant memories associated with her life. She was born 9 Feb 1885 in Cheltenham, she died on 13 Aug 1976, and was widowed in 1942. Those are facts, but they are not who she was, and nor do they define her life. Rather, they are simply reference points for her story.

Think about it. Wouldn’t you rather be remembered for who you are rather than the basic facts of your life referenced by birth, marriage, and death? And if it’s true for you then you have a responsibility to bring your forebears back to remembrance through pictures and the written word. (If you’re really lucky, the spoken word as well.)

What about those ancestors and cousins who you never knew in life? What are you going to do to bring them to life? Try these hints:

  • Newspaper archives (such as the British Newspaper Archive).
  • Research the history of the area they lived
  • Research their occupations as stated in a census? How and why might they have changed over time?
  • If they moved around over time, try to work out why.
  • Contact cousins who have already researched them. They may have pictures and other information.

Source Interpretation

When you find a source, you need to put your best effort into interpreting it. I know that sounds obvious, but we often miss simple information, or don’t look at it in the right way. I had a situation very recently when, out of the blue, I had an email asking me how sure I was that Constant Comfort Underwood was a girl. Simple question, but the answer turned out to be more complicated than I anticipated.

Looking at the name one might reasonably think that it’s a girl, right? I mean, we are much more familiar with the name Constance for a girl, but a couple of hundred years ago it was not uncommon for girls to be named after desirable attributes. It was less true of boys, though. Then again, even today you have names where you cannot easily tell the gender. Take Robin, for example. You can’t get much more masculine than the hero Robin Hood, and the (English) robin is a vicious bird with its sharp beak, but nowadays it is often a name given to girls, so you can’t always tell.

So, I thought that maybe this was one of those situations where I had made a superficial Constant1analysis and made a hasty assumption of the gender. This question came up because FamilySearch had a source attached to Constant Comfort Underwood that indicated this was a boy, and my correspondent wanted to know which was correct. So I had a look and realized that the source being quoted did not have an image. This meant that somebody else had transcribed the source and assigned a male gender.

I then went to the original. That didn’t help either, because it just said “Constant Constant2Comfort of Thos & Mary Underwood.” No indication whether it was a son or a daughter. Still up in the air, then. But what I was looking at was a Bishop’s Transcript. That is a record transcribed by the churchwarden from the parish register and then sent to the bishop as a kind of backup.

An even better source would be the parish register. Lo and behold, I now had my proof. Constant3She really was a girl! “Constant Comfort Dr. of Thos & Mary Underwood.”

Lessons to learn from this?

  • Try to check the best original record.
  • Draw reasonable conclusions from the document.
  • Check that anybody else’s interpretation of the record is reasonable.
  • Document, document, document.