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How to Use Social History in Genealogy

By Lisa Lisson
Mural depicting several scenes of daily life: men reading books, people protesting, men in a bar
This panel is one of a series of murals that depicts the social history of Indiana, created for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. Courtesy the Library of Congress

One unusual piece of advice: If your genealogy research is stuck or you’ve “lost” your ancestor, stop actually looking for that particular ancestor.
Instead, turn your attention to the events happening around them and the social issues that could have been influencing their life and the decisions they made. Consider questions like:

  • Why did your ancestors make the decisions they did?
  • Why did they migrate to another state?
  • Why did those great-great-grandparents cross the state or county border to get married?
  • Why did that great-grandfather choose to work in that occupation?
  • What did a Monday morning in May of 1890 look like for your ancestor?

And why should you care about the answers to these questions? Quite simply, genealogy researchers need to understand the influences on their ancestors’ lives and decision-making to find those brick-wall ancestors. And, in general, understanding the answers to these and other questions about social history gives us better insight into the lives our ancestors lived.

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In this article, I’ll walk you through the various aspects of “social history,” and what records you can use to learn about them.

What is Social History?

The dictionary definition indicates “social” history considers the social, economic and cultural factors related to a group of people. And in a similar way, for the genealogist, social history refers to the trends, events and forces (local, regional and national) that impacted the lives of our ancestors in big and small ways. Social history also encompasses the lives of ordinary people: how they lived, how they worked and how they played.

When we’re better able to understand what influenced an ancestor’s decision, we’re better able to find records. In a sense, the researcher needs to “get inside their ancestor’s head,” and think as they thought.

For example, have you ever considered the terrain of the land where your ancestor lived, and how it might have impacted their lives? Researching ancestors in Surry County, N.C., was a challenge for me. Finding marriage records in the United States can be difficult enough, but this missing record was a specific genealogical brick wall that loomed large. The marriage record simply wasn’t where it was supposed to be.

Needing advice and a new perspective, I reached out to a local researcher. She asked me what I thought was a strange question: What time of year were the couples marrying?”

I didn’t follow her line of thinking. What could time of year possibly have to do with marriage records? But the researcher shared an important insight: “Lisa, you have to remember the terrain and the land up here.”

Surry County is in the foothills of North Carolina, on the border with Virginia. If a couple married in the summer, they could easily get to the Surry County courthouse. But if they married in the winter or during the spring when the river ran high, they would’ve gone to the courthouse they could safely get to, regardless if that courthouse was in a neighboring county or state (in this case, Virginia).

The land and weather very much dictated when and where life events occurred and were recorded for these rural ancestors. As a “flatlander” researcher, I had failed to recognize the influence foothills terrain could have on the logistics of an ancestor’s marriage place. And sure enough, the marriage was recorded in a Virginia courthouse.

Common Factors in Social History

Now that you want to take social history into account as you research, what types of historical information should you consider? Here are just six key factors to research.

1. Customs for Celebrating Life Events

How did your ancestors celebrate a marriage or a baptism? Did they identify godparents for their children? The customs surrounding such major life events were often shaped by faith, cultural heritage and socioeconomic status—all important data points for genealogists.

Holidays, too, can contain clues to faith tradition and culture. Which holidays did they observe? Were certain foods eaten on particular holidays? Some customs trace back to specific regions within an ancestral home country, so study your ancestor’s traditions. Follow up with records and resources such as newspapers that will help you better understand which religious or ethnic groups celebrated with those traditions, and why.

2. Health

Chronic illnesses, epidemics and pandemics are not unique to our current times. Past generations suffered these events, too, and genealogy researchers can see the evidence reflected in their ancestors’ lives.

Public health crises changed societies, much as we’ve seen recently through the COVID-19 pandemic. Genealogy researchers need to understand the effect these large-scale diseases had on their ancestors.

If your ancestors lived during the time of an epidemic (such as the 1918 “Spanish flu” epidemic), take time to learn about the effects that illness had on communities, societies and the residents of those areas.

For example, as death tolls rose (sometimes with whole families dying out), so did the number of widows and orphans—a morbid, but useful opportunity to find records. If your ancestor was suddenly widowed, seek out estate records and guardianship records. And if children were placed in an orphanage or were otherwise separated from their families, that might explain their absence (either temporarily or permanently) from family records. Alternatively, you may find a new, unexpected child living with your known family because of this reshuffling.

Health crises also sometimes lead to migrations. Perhaps your family moved to escape the worst of a health crisis, or to be closer to better healthcare options. In the mid-1800s, for example, people suffering from tuberculosis may have moved to the western United States, where they could find a climate better suited to their condition.

You don’t need an MD to keep careful records of your family’s health history. Document the diseases, conditions and other medical traits in your family tree with these nine resources.

3. The Economy

Economics have long impacted where people lived, what they bought and sold, and how they made a living. But widespread economic downfalls—such as the Great Depression or other significant economic events—also had lasting impacts worth studying.

Perhaps a job loss because of a recession forced your ancestor to leave town and find work elsewhere. If so, research common migration routes and destinations, particularly for someone in your ancestor’s trade. And if your family required financial or housing assistance from the government, look for records of the county’s poor to see if your ancestor is listed among them.

Local and county histories often detail an economic crisis in a particular area. Refer to the community’s written histories to learn about the impacts on the community and where residents may have migrated to for better job opportunities.

4. Wars and Politics

Without a doubt, wars disrupted our ancestors’ lives—particularly for those living in Central and Eastern Europe during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Consider how a war or the political environment may have impacted your ancestor’s life. Did they join the military? What type of economic hardship did the war cause your ancestor’s family?

Perhaps your family had to relocate for safety due to changing fortunes during the course of the war: a new regime coming to power, or an army invading. In these cases, your ancestor may have enlisted the help of a group such as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

5. Weather and Natural Disasters

Our ancestors’ lives were often closely entwined with the weather and with nature. As we discussed earlier, a rainy spell could mean choosing a different county courthouse to marry in. Or a hurricane could mean a fisherman lost his livelihood and moved in with family in a neighboring state to find other work, while a drought could mean an out-of-work farmer moved his family to a city.

Read local histories, and study the community and time period of your ancestors to determine if and how a natural disaster could have impacted their lives. GenDisasters.com offers a database of newspaper articles about fires, floods and other catastrophic events. You can even look up historical weather using tools like the US’ National Centers for Environmental Information’s Climate Data Online Search.

6. Social Causes and Movements

What was important to your ancestor? What social cause was close to their heart? Maybe she was a suffragette, or a member of a temperance society. Seek out records associated with the political causes and societies they enrolled in.

Of course, your ancestor may also have been a member of a non-political club or society. Fraternal organizations, in particular, were popular during the 20th century among both men and women. Even these organizations kept records of members and minutes of activities, so add them to your list of resources to check if you suspect your ancestor was a member.

Social History Records

Social history can be documented in a variety or records and resources, and it’s important not to overlook the clues you find in them.

Censuses

The first and easiest place to look for clues is the federal census. You’re probably already familiar with these records and the many details about your ancestors they can hold. Consult these fields, in particular:

  • Occupation: What your answer did for a living gives clues to his social status, as well as possible membership in professional organizations or unions.
  • Wealth: Socioeconomic status is a useful factor in and of itself, but significant changes in wealth across census records can indicate changing economic fortunes like job loss.
  • Race: Depending on time and place, race may have impacted many aspects of your ancestor’s life: where they could live, who they could marry, and more.

Also look before and after your ancestral family’s entry to learn about their neighbors. Did they speak the same language or have the same cultural origins as your family? Immigrant communities often lived together in groups, forming a support network, but perhaps your ancestor lived in a part of the city that was especially diverse.

In addition, look between censuses and note any changes to your family’s composition. Were there unexpected deaths or departures? Did extended family members move in or out?

Newspapers

The newspaper was an important source of information for our ancestors, containing everything from politics to world news to details about which church was hosting a revival that week. Perusing the newspapers your ancestors actually read gives you a unique perspective on what was important at that point in time, so look for local, regional, cultural and religious newspapers that were published during your ancestor’s time and place. The free Chronicling America is a good place to start, with a US Newspaper Directory that catalogs all known newspapers published in the United States since 1690.

Even with all that searching, you still may not find your ancestor named or referred to in the newspaper, and that’s okay. As a researcher, you’re—as your English teacher would say—reading for context, with a focus on what was happening on the local and national scale.

City Directories

City directories include addresses that put your ancestor on the map (so to speak), but that’s just the beginning of what they can tell you about your ancestor’s community. The information in each directory will vary, but you may find local histories, plus listings of organizations, clubs, churches and other faith organizations in town. Directories might also include a listing of items taxed, plus the tax rate.

And why are these additional listings useful? Because they tell you what type of business or industry was important to the community. What were the major companies in your ancestor’s town (and did your family work for them)? Were there several organizations or clubs dedicated to one particular social issue? Did one or another seem more prominent?

County & Local Histories

These are some of the best places to learn about a community and area, since they document the how, why and by whom it was settled. Where did early residents mostly migrate from? Why did they choose that spot? Was the land similar to what they were used to? Could they continue with the same type of farming or occupation in that location? Understanding why a community was settled and who settled it provides clues to finding earlier generations in a previous location. Local histories will also often report on natural disasters and economic disasters impacting the area’s residents.

Sources for local histories include Google Books and the local library. (We have a tutorial for the former here.) Additionally, search WorldCat, which chronicles holdings from libraries around the world, for local histories to obtain through interlibrary loan.

Oral Histories

If you’re wondering why your grandmother’s family moved from North Carolina to Maryland or what life was like for her working in a textile mill, what better resource than your grandmother herself? Oral history provides you with a first-hand account of exactly the social, economic and cultural conditions you want to study. The stories within a family give clues not only to an ancestor’s personality, but to the influences affecting their decisions.

Unfortunately, collecting family stories from the people involved is often overlooked until it’s too late. Because of this, many researchers miss out on the nuances of an ancestor’s personal history. If you have living relatives you still need to interview, make plans to do so today.

But even when no one is left to provide that family history, you might benefit from exploring oral history projects such as “Oral Histories of the American South”) and “American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project.” Though probably not specific to your ancestors, these collections can be excellent resources to learn about the life stories of Americans with similar experiences.

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Our ancestors’ lives were influenced by many events, external forces and societal norms. Everything from the terrain where a family lived to the social causes they championed could affect how our ancestors made decisions about where to live, love and work. These values and motivators go beyond traditional genealogy records, and can help you break down your brick walls.

But more importantly, imagining your ancestor’s daily life adds a depth to your research, drawing in other family members (especially younger generations) as you share their stories for future generations.

A version of this article appeared in the November/December 2020 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

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