Understanding Your Ancestry

Understanding Your AncestryWhether you are doing genealogical research to create a family tree or looking deeper into your family's history, an understanding of your ancestry could be very important. Understanding your ancestry in terms of the historical, social, cultural and political context can provide clues as to both what your ancestor's lives were like and where to search for more information on them.

You can use contextual information that gives an understanding of ancestors to write stories or anecdotes or use the stories they wrote themselves. The contextual information enables us to understand the stories and ancestors themselves, their motivations and purposes. The type of context you should consider looking at is the local, national and international context. You should direct your research to look at topics related or relevant to genealogical data such as vital data and church records. You should look at religion, demographics, occupation, daily life health and significant historical events that would have effected major change.

The local context is important because of the occupations which were often specific to that area, lifestyles and religious institutions. Occupation is a key aspect relating to location of ancestors. In some areas farming was a traditional way of life. Occupations trends vary over time so it is important to be time period specific when looking at locations and occupations. Occupations give an indication of lifestyle as from the 1500s (when the feudal system evolved to give way) proper communities began to develop. Poor peasant communities which relied on living off the land were more isolated from progression and development which meant a shift in demographics including lower life expectancy, greater infant mortality rates and greater vulnerability to disease indicating time frames for your ancestral line you might wish to look at. Such lifestyles and country culture might also affect names. There is likely to be greater variances on spellings as people were least educated in rural communities. Names might have also been more likely to have been informed by basic geography, including names like Rivers and occupation such as Blacksmith.

The national context is also important when researching genealogy. Religion played a key part in Western European life from the 1500s and the religious records from these times are perhaps the most comprehensive resource. Most people belonged to the Lutheran and Catholic Church, except in England where the Church of England became the state religion. The local parishes kept records on parishioners. However there are records also available for the dissident groups including Jews, Baptists and Hugenots. If you can trace the religion of your ancestors or the region from which they came then these are further clues to be used to uncover their identity.

The national demographics varied over the years and changes in these might indicate time frames for when you should be looking at births, deaths and marriages. In the 1800s for example people were likely to have around 5 children on average. Women would marry in their late twenties and continue having children until their early forties. People married in their late twenties because they either relied on inheritance from parents or they had to earn for some years before they could build a life for themselves. They would usually inherit or save enough around the late twenties because people were only expected to live until their forties although there were exceptions. Similarly births were more complicated as they were home births and not all of these children would survive as infant mortality rates were high. It was also common for the first child to be born in the first eight months of marriage in the 17 and 1800s. Yet illegitimacy was hardly unusual as many poorer people could not afford the marriage license. Knowledge of births deaths and marriages demonstrates that when searching for your ancestors what you should be aware of in terms of timelines such as marriages between twenty five and thirty five, and what records there might be, such as five births.

Key historical events also play a part in tracing ancestry. William of Orange was invited to take the English throne in 1688 imposing Dutch culture on England and for a few, some Dutch ancestors. Later the Chartist Movement helped the working classes in England while the potato famine in Ireland wiped them out. This may have also precipitated the wave of migration to America that followed- much of which is on shipping records. Awareness of these events enables us to understand shifts in ancestral lines. Other events create new sources of records such as the shipping documents and army records for various wars, such as the Battle of Trafalgar or the Battle of Waterloo.

Next: The Origin of Your Surname