Send in the Clowns (and Acrobats and Lion Tamers)

By Lisa A. Alzo Premium

Who doesn’t remember his or her first trip to the circus? The magical performances under the big top, scents of peanuts and popcorn, parade of animals, flying trapeze artists and, of course, the clowns. From the ancient circus day in Pompey’s Rome to today’s “Greatest Show on Earth,” the circus has entertained millions and provided livelihoods for countless men and women all over the world. If your ancestor jumped aboard a circus train or spent time in the carnival tent, use these tips to find out more.

Learn the big-top backstory. The first American circuses began shortly after US independence, and circuses became a popular source of entertainment during the 1800s. At the beginning of the 20th century, more than 100 circuses were traveling around the country, performing for nearly 12,000 spectators at each stop. Get a crash course in circus history and lore at <> and <>. You can learn P.T. Bamum’s genealogy at <> and read how the Ringling Brothers got their start at <>.

Jump in the resource ring. You’ve discovered your forebear was a “fancy pants” or “roustabout” — but what does that mean? Check out The Circus Dictionary <> for definitions of 300-plus circus terms. For more research resources, visit the helpful (though not recently updated) Circus-Folk site <>. Then search the Family History Library catalog <> on the keyword circus to learn what records you can rent on microfilm. You can browse circus-related biographical sketches from 1733 to 1870 in the online version of T. Allston Brown’s History of the American Stage <>. 

Perform ancestry acrobatics. Just as high-wire acrobats reach out to support each other, so do genealogists. Reply to a query or post one about your circus ancestor on the Circus Historical Society’s message board <> and in our Query Center Forum <>. Scour the Occupations, Circus and Theater sections of’s message boards < occupations/mb.ashx>.

From the January 2008 Family Tree Magazine

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