Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Adding Meat to a Bare Bones Genealogy

Genealogy is a hobby that brings a great deal of enjoyment to many people. Researching your roots can become one of the most satisfying and frustrating endeavors in the world. When you first start to look for your ancestors what you end up with are a lot of names and dates. The next step is to make these ancestors come to life. Knowing when they were born and died doesn't tell you much about your ancestors as people. Their choice of spouse tells you a little bit but if you want to know more, where do you go to look for that information? Here are a few hints of places to begin to look.


Wills are fascinating documents. Beyond just dividing up the property of the individual they give you a look at family dynamics. What you will also find is an inventory of the possessions of your ancestors. This is very interesting information. Did they own books? Chances are then they knew how to read. Was one of the possessions a bible? Then most likely they were religious. Some wills give great descriptions of homes that no longer exist. Some of the possession may give a hint as to the occupation of the ancestor. What will come as a surprise is the small amount of clothing and personal items that most of your ancestors lived with.

Town Directory 

Town directories are little gems. They contain an amazing amount of information about the head of the household and in more current ones about any member of the family who is employed. Not only does it give you the address of your ancestor but their occupation and employer. You can then check out the employer in the directory to find out some information about them. 

World War I Draft Registration Card

These cards are amazing and if you have never looked up your relatives you will be delighted with what you will find. What you will get on these cards are things like eye and hair color. In the days before colored photographs existed it is wonderful to know that your grandfathers eyes are described as gray or hazel and hair as light brown. How tall your grandfather’s brother was. These are facts you may not be able to get anywhere else. 

Social Security Death Index
Once you have found your ancestor on the index you can then order the card that was filled out when your ancestors registered for social security. This gives a lot of information including place of birth in detail in case this is something you are looking for. You can also get their application for a Social Security number which tells you what their occupation was at that one point in time and where they lived. 


Today's deeds don't contain a lot of information but in days gone by they had much more information that would be of interest to a genealogist. In the days before the census and in the rural areas especially of the south, deeds are sometimes the only way to trace the movement of your ancestors. 

Tax Rolls

Once you know where your ancestor was living, a trip to the town hall or county record office can give you a wealth of information through the tax records. Do you want to know what your ancestor owned; it will be listed because the tax collector needed to know in order to determine the amount of tax they owed. Where else could you get the information that your great great grandfather had two horses, three cows and five goats?

Local Newspapers 

You can find a great deal of information in local newspapers. Did you know that your great grandmother went to visit her cousin Sarah in New York City for a month is April 1890? That is the sort of information that you will find in the social news. You don't have to belong to the richest families in town either. You will be amazed at what was considered social news a hundred or more years ago.


It was the fashion in days past to keep a diary and many people did. It is a lucky family who finds that one of their ancestors kept a diary. Don't assume your family doesn't have a diary, it may be that a distant cousin is in possession of one that will shed a great deal of light on the daily life of your ancestors.

Town Histories

Many towns, cities and villages have a written history going back hundreds of years. If you know where your ancestor lived, especially in Colonial America, it is possible you will find mention in the town records, militia rolls and records of court cases. Many New England towns have these histories. Check the Internet for local historical societies, you never know where you ancestors will be mentioned.

Notarial Records

If you happen to have ancestors who are French Canadian and lived in the Province of Quebec you are going to have access to lots of personal information. Notaries were used for all legal processes. If there was a land purchase, a boundary dispute or a marriage contract these records are there for you to read. It gives an amazing amount of personal information.


Finding letters written by your ancestors is a real treasure. You may not know the people they are talking about but the little details of life that may be shared are priceless.


Old family pictures can tell you wonderful stories about your family. Were they taken in a studio or in a home? Is it a picture with a man in a uniform or a man sitting in a chair with a woman close behind him? These have a story of their own to tell.

These are just a few of the ways to add meat to the bare bones of your ancestors. Every genealogist will find additional ways by searching whatever records are available. Every genealogist wants to get to know their ancestors as real people, not just as a number on your family tree.

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