In Search of Your Ancestors?
A column on genealogy by George Farris

September 26, 2008

15. Genealogy & Local History

"Stated simply: a nation's history is only the selective histories of all of its people". - Alex Haley
From his Foreword to Ethnic Genealogy: A Research Guide, Greenwood Press,Westport, Connecticut, 1983; edited by Jessie Carney Smith

Putting Your Family History in Context

Genealogy research often results in tables and summaries of births, marriages, and deaths for individual ancestors and their immediate families - and a little information about where the individuals were born, lived, and died. However, to be a meaningful family history, you would like for the story to be fleshed out with the fuller story of the family's place in society, some of the dramas of its achievements or failures, how individual ancestors lived, and what was happening around them in the times and places where they lived that helped shape their destinies. And, of course, your ancestry is comprised of the lives and achievements of numerous different family units living in a wide variety of times and places under widely varying conditions. In order to more fully understand and appreciate their lives requires an understanding of the times and conditions that made up the environment in which they existed and raised their families. Thus, genealogy is necessarily interlinked with the local history of many places and times - and an understanding of history is essential for placing your ancestors in the proper context.

Lack of understanding of history can result in some strange perceptions which you may encounter in your own family research. For instance, I once encountered a summary that had been written by a far distant cousin about one of my ancestral families explaining his concept of why they had moved further north during the 1790s. It was something along the lines of the following: "Tiring of the quiet southern plantation living in Virginia and Tennessee the family moved on in search of a more challenging and adventurous life..." Yes, the family had owned a "plantation" - meaning some land which they had cleared to raise tobacco for a cash crop - but not the "Gone With the Wind" type of "Plantation" that this person seemed to envision. And their "quiet southern living" consisted of trying to scratch a meager living out of poor soil, living in crude, rude log dwellings on the frontier under constant attack by the Native Americans who didn't want them there.

In a previous column I mentioned numerous people listing one of my as having been born in Bowling Green, Warren County, Kentucky in about 1775 - without comprehending that the Commonwealth of Kentucky didn't exist until 1792; Warren County didn't exist before 1797; and there were no towns in that area until sometime later. Plus that area wasn't even inhabited in 1775. Some knowledge of local history is often essential for determining what information is reasonable and what isn't.

Knowledge of what was happening in distant countries at the time can help explain what caused some of your ancestors to leave home and endure a long and difficult sea voyage to try to establish a new life in America. It may have involved escaping a repressive government, keeping sons from being conscripted into the Prussian military, escape from the "potato famine" of Ireland, or a wide variety of local conditions that made life hard and the uncertainties of relocating to a far distant land bearable. In most cases you will find that it was for economic or political reasons - and seldom just out of a desire for "adventure".

The story of the primarily east to west settlement and development of the United States over a period of 300 years is really the collected stories of the migration and achievements of hundreds of thousands of individual families over numerous generations. While there were a few well known general migration routes, when you zero in on your own ancestral families you are likely to find many variations from the overall patterns of migration. In almost every case, family movements were individual decisions, influenced by the environment in which they lived and their perceptions of the possibilities for doing better somewhere else. Because related families tended to stick together for mutual benefit, migrations usually consisted of several related families moving together - or sometimes sequentially where one or more went ahead to help prepare the new home for the arrival of the others. Old letters and diaries, if they can be found, plus oral family history stories can be valuable in understanding such moves.

A few examples from my own research

Farris - 1858 migration from Iowa to Kansas
In the mid 1850s my, Jeremiah Farris, his children, and their families were well established in Bremer County, Iowa - where he had served as the first County Judge for two terms, had founded the town now known as Denver, IA, owned mercantile business in two towns, and owned more than 600 acres of farmland in addition to most of the property within the town he had established . Yet, for some reason, he and the families of his children all disposed of their property and moved to Linn County, Kansas in 1858/1859. Quite a few other families from that part of Iowa made similar moves at about the same time. Why? The simple explanation that I had always heard was that this was part of the "Free Soiler" movement to Kansas to prevent it from becoming a slave state - at the behest and urging of John Brown who had already become well known for his crusading against slavery. I had always been somewhat skeptical about this explanation. While it applied to one of the sons-in-law of Jeremiah who did join the John Brown movement, the others didn't seem to be the crusading type - more driven by survival of their families and the search for better economic opportunities. Bremer County has a rare resource for pursuing such local history questions in that it has had a local newspaper since 1855 - and nearly every issue has been preserved - and they are all available on microfilm. Researching the newspapers from that era gave me a different explanation as to why so many people moved on at that specific time. It turns out that 1858 was a disasterous year for subsistance farming in Bremer County and the surrounding area. It had been so wet throughout the year that very few crops were planted and fewer survived to harvest. So it appears that many families moved out in an attempt to fend off starvation of themselves and their livestock.

Meinhards/Vitts 1853 Germany to Illinois and Missouri
Two of my wife's ancestral families had lived in neighboring communities near Siegen, Germany, for several centuries. Johann Eberhardt Vitt of Wilnsdorf was well known and respected for his pioneering work in developing new strains of fruit trees and grape vineyards. Johann Michael Meinhard and his family owned and operated a bakery in Siegen as well as raising and milling all of the grain themselves. In the mid 1800s, these families had two common interests: They both had democratic political ideals that were not compatible with the autocratic Prussian government - and both had sons who were about to be impressed into the Prussian army. The young men were able to get out of the country safely and headed for America - but that made their families even less popular with the local governmental authorities - and both emmigrated in 1853 - The Vitts to Missouri and the Meinhards to Illinois.

War of 1812 - Farris
In a previous column about military records, I related how War of 1812 bounty land grant records for a brother of my had proved to be the necessary link between Farris records in Illinois and some earlier Farris records in Green County Kentucky. But how would one know to look for such records? In this case it resulted from my familiarity with the early history of the areas of the U.S. that were being settled after 1800 - and some knowledge of the War of 1812. That war does not get much space in most history books, despite its importance in establishing the destiny of the United States. What little appears in most history books focuses on the British burning Washington, D.C. and on Andrew Jackson and the Battle of New Orleans. But a major theater of that War was the Great Lakes region - and one of the resources for fighting in that area consisted of riflemen recruited from Kentucky and Ohio to mount attacks against the bastions of "Upper Canada". So many of these frontier men had War of 1812 service - and, when bounty land was made available to them in 1850, any survivors or their families applied for the grants.

History is not just about the major events that get summarized in school history books. In genealogy research, it's about the flow of events around the lives of the individual families that comprise our various ancestral branches. Some of it is very localized - and some of it results from the major events that have had lasting impacts on regions, countries or the entire world. These trickle down to have an impact on individual families in many places and affect their lives in many ways, including where they live and how they make their living. Understanding the history of the times and places where they lived can greatly expand your understanding of the environment around them and why they made decisions that have had an impact on your own destiny.

That's why, when researching ancestors in a specific locality at a specific time, I first try to determine what was happening in that region at that time. On arrival in a new research locality, I first head for the local courthouse to find all of the public records that I can involving the people that I'm researching - but I then immediately head for the local library and find the "Local History" section to learn what I can about events that were taking place locally at the time my ancestors lived there.

Previous Columns in this series

1. Beginning your search
2. "Source Data"
3. More About Data Sources
4. Additional Data Sources
5. LDS and Data From Other Countries
6. Census Records
7. Military Records
8. Land Records
9. More About Land Records
10. Land Records as a Source of Family Information
11. Wills and Probate Records as Sources of Family Information
12. Biographies, Obituaries, Old Newspapers, and Family Lore
13. Sharing Family History Research
14. Some Genealogy Web Sites to Use With Caution

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