Skillbuilder: Placing Your Ancestors Within Their Time

Genealogy should not be narrowed around a database of names and places, detached from reality. Your ancestors experienced events that effected their lives and decisions just as you do today.

The best part about living in the present generation is the many resources that enable you t0 revisit the events that touched your ancestor’s lives and reintroduce them to your ancestor’s history.

Timelines are a great avenue to experience and understand past events pertaining to the family:

  • If you use family tree software it likely has a timeline report that will list and print a chronological draft of your ancestor’s life events. Go ahead and print out this list to see what you have and what you can incorporate.
  • Use a word processor program such as Microsoft Word or Open Office Writer to build your timeline manually.
  • Index cards can also be used as a guide. Place the name, birth & death date on the top of the card then add bullet style notations of a list or single event, a summary of the event, and notations so you can incorporate your source citations.

To add to the above timeline, you’ll want to visit sites such as those below that mark events your ancestor likely was aware.

  • This Day In History on has many national headlines and events that occurred on a specific date. Just put a date or year into the search box.
  • Any-Day-in-History has a simple list of event dates, historical figure birthdates, and other date information that may be useful according to the date you search.
  • is another simple site for nationwide and historical figure information. Just type a date into the google search bar and a list of possible dates will be shown. (More historical figures: and
  • dMarie Time Capsule is a site that gives you some headlines, pricing of items such as gas and bread, and other information such as popular books of the date you specify.
  • Today in History by The Library of Congress is very useful.
  • Digitized newspapers are especially helpful in targeting specific dates. and GenealogyBank are just two of several online database sites that offer a searchable collection of newspapers across the country. Both require a subscription to access the full image that may be accessible at a nearby library. (The New York Times’s “On This Day” and Washington Post’s “Today in History” print online articles for specific events for a given day .)
  • Then there’s the tried and true, visit the nearest library or archive for the newspapers on microfilm. You will find events closely related to your ancestor’s community and hopefully specifically regarding him as well. It will take some time and patience to roll through the microfilm roll and well worth the effort. But with growing interest in digitization, your nearest library may have digital microfilm readers that will save the images you locate directly to a thumbdrive. But if you still are required to print, just scan the document and save it into your family tree database.

Here’s to leaf’n through the newspaper!



This entry was posted in Genealogy, Skillbuilder and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Skillbuilder: Placing Your Ancestors Within Their Time

  1. Found this blog entry via Twitter from geneabloggers. Nice topic. I am a big fan of using HIstoric Newspapers.

    My love affair for them came about from putting myself in my grandmother’s “shoes” so to speak and reading an historical newspaper (Dziennik Polski — Polish grandmother) for Polish ethnics in their native language. My dad told me how she used to read that newspaper every day and the joy it gave her.

    I came to realize that reading history (i.e. World War 2) through her eyes as current events of the daily newspaper, gave me new insights into her; I assume the same would be true about any ancestor and any newspaper. Context can be achieved, by transporting yourself through an historical newspaper.

    • You hit it right on the head Mike! Newspapers are great for transporting back. I’m currently “transporting” through some 1950 articles to get a feel for a small town’s happenings. :)

  2. Thanks so much for posting the links … I’ve had a good time this morning looking at each one!

  3. Greta Koehl says:

    Thanks for posting a variety of sites for “what happened on this day” information. It is very useful to have them all in one place; I was aware of a couple of them but not the others.

  4. Good for you! Best wishes!
    Welcome to the Geneabloggers family. Hope you find the association fruitful; I sure do. I have found it most stimulating, especially some of the Daily Themes.

    May you keep sharing your ancestor stories!

    Dr. Bill ;-)
    Author of “Back to the Homeplace”
    and “13 Ways to Tell Your Ancestor Stories”

  5. Carol Anne Wilson says:

    I totally agree with you. My iGoogle home page sports the add on “Colonial Williamsburg Today in the 1770s” and I read it every day. They do a different newspaper article from the Virginia Gazette every day. They usually explain unusual words and the context of the stories. Love it!

  6. Devon Lee says:

    Thanks for the links. I’m so glad I found them in the GenaBlogger group. The only question I have, and perhaps it will spark a future post is this:

    How can we be sure that what was in the newspaper affected the people we’re learning about?

    For instance, the flood that hit Cedar Rapids, IA cost millions of dollars in damage. I was not directly impacted though I knew people in flood affected homes and businesses. My life was interrupted as I couldn’t travel across the bridge to go to the gym to exercise. So if someone were to write a historical piece about me and saw that there was a flood in my town, how would they know I wasn’t directly impacted in a major way?

    This isn’t a hit post, it’s a question that keeps coming up when I try to place my family in historical context. For instance, during the Spanish American war, there were many American involved. However, when you compare the percentage of individuals involved in that war to the American Revolution, the War of 1812, or the Civil War, there weren’t ‘that many’ people involved. So, how do I right about my ancestors who lived ‘through’ the Spanish American war when so few were impacted (unless I found an ancestor directly involved in the fighting)?

    Look forward to hearing your response.

    • Hi Devon,
      A great question! There’s a two ways to look at this issue. 1) You write suggestively that wouldn’t mislead anyone by stating the ancestor was, say involved in the war, but rather state they were possibly affected. So choosing your wording wisely…”likely” or “possibly” then adding the factual information you located. Being very clear on what is known and unknown.

      The other is to follow the clues that show they were affected. So say you did lose your home during the Cedar Rapids flooding. Your descendants will look back and see shortly after the flooding you were relocated on different property, you took out mortgages to rebuild your farm, animals, new barns, etc. The old property deeds may show abandonment or purchase from the government and ear marked as a flood plain. The documents may even state you were harmed by the flooding and/or received some type of government relief.

      What knowledge you have available at the time of your writing will help determine which way you need to write.

      Thanks for the question! LaDonna

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>