How to Learn What Your Ancestor’s Life Was Really Like

By Allison Dolan

Genealogists are increasingly interested in knowing not just their ancestors’ names and important dates, but also what they did every day, where they went and what they saw. What their lives were really like.

This will do (at least) two things for you:

  • It’ll improve your research by helping you form theories about your ancestors’ lives and figure out where to look for records. For example, learning about the history of German immigrants to your family’s American hometown might help you see that the overwhelming majority came from a particular part of Germany. Maybe that’s where your family came from, too.
  • It’ll help you understand your family’s story and put it together in a way that makes sense. This is an important step for writing your family history, as you’ll learn in our Genealogist’s Essential Writing Workshop (it starts online Nov. 7!).

Here are a few ways you can step into the shoes of your ancestors and learn more about their everyday lives.

Go beyond basic records
My great-great-grandfather’s 1923 estate inventory lists the contents of the family cigar store and home, helping me picture how the family lived.

The cigar business’ 1880 industrial census detailed the number of employees (three men, two women), their wages (.50 to $1 per day) and more.

As I’ve written about before, newspaper articles have given me great information about my grandfather’s youth in an orphanage.

Visit the places
A bunch of years ago, I got to interview author Ian Frazier about writing his family history book Family (MacMillan). He advised going to places important to your ancestors, trying to get as close as possible to they way it was during their lives. Go to family homesteads, neighborhoods, churches and schools. If the places no longer exist or you can’t get there, find similar places.

Research buildings
Another way to virtually visit an ancestor’s home is to learn everything you can about it: When it was built, when your family acquired it, who lived there before and after your family, what it looked like, how it changed over the years.

Peruse local histories and guides
Guides to area history help you learn where your family would’ve gone to church and school, and what they saw each day. I have book with self-guided walking tours of my Cincinnati German families’ Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, with pictures of buildings and descriptions of their former functions. Local histories published when your ancestor was alive give you a first-person account of places and events.

Find old photos and maps
Libraries, historical societies and online memory collections are full of historical photos of buildings, streets and neighborhoods. Try searching for a place in the Library of Congress online collections.

Maps also give you details on buildings and neighborhoods. This Sanborn map shows my Cincinnati ancestor’s home and cigar business on the corner. You can see it was on the front of the lot, two rooms on the first floor, three stories, with a three-story side porch and two outbuildings in the back.

Gather relatives’ memories

My grandma is gone now, but I treasure the times I sat with her and looked at old pictures on my phone. She’d reveal snippets of her life as a girl: How both of her grandmothers had player pianos (but favored different music). How she loved her one dress that wasn’t a hand-me-down. How the family dog would ride along on the running board of the car, then walk home when the family got where they were going.

Even if no relatives are around to ask, you might have home sources—letters, journals, photos—that share family memories of times gone by.

Write it down
Interested in putting together your family history research into a written narrative?

Follow our 30-Day Family History Writing Challenge daily prompts (Family Tree Magazine editors will be sharing some of our own family stories here on the blog) and take it up a notch with the Genealogist’s Essential Writing Workshop at Family Tree University Nov. 7-13.