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History and Genealogy: How Studying Historical Events Can Assist You in Your Research

I have been researching my family's history for over 20 years, as well as occasionally assisting others in their ancestry research.

Constitution of May 3, 1791 by Jan Matejko. Major political changes had great impact on the lives of our ancestors.

Constitution of May 3, 1791 by Jan Matejko. Major political changes had great impact on the lives of our ancestors.

The Events That Shaped Their Lives

Wars. Political unrest. Ethnic tensions. Epidemics. Treaties. Exploration of new places. Gold rushes. Elections. The creation of new states or territories. Floods. Fires. Famines. The moving of boundaries. What do all of these things have in common? They are types of historical events that have had an impact on the lives of people. Your ancestors were most likely affected by several of these sorts of events. Learning about the national and local history of the places in which your ancestors lived can provide vital clues concerning their lives and times. I would like to present some of the reasons why you should study such history, and how to utilize the knowledge you gain to assist you in your genealogical research. There are often important details hidden in the historical record which, when uncovered, can quite possibly lead you to the answers to some of your greatest genealogical puzzles.

The Siege (Defense of a Church Courtyard During the Thirty Years’ War) by  Karl Friedrich Lessing

The Siege (Defense of a Church Courtyard During the Thirty Years’ War) by Karl Friedrich Lessing

The Scars of War

Wars, whether civil or between different nations, have a devastating effect on the people involved. The regions that are the sites of the actual battles suffer the most, particularly in relationship to the civilian population and infrastructure. Wars can cause the loss of records and the sudden movement of masses of people. This major disruption to civilian life often leads to broad, lasting changes in the make-up of an affected populace.

To illustrate how a past war can impact your research, I will use the example of the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), which took place between opposing alliances of the old German states, and who in turn were aided by other European powers. This conflict spanned decades and brought much upheaval into the lives of the people living in this region of Europe. Areas like the Palatinate and Alsace (located in modern Germany and France, respectively) were devastated by both the actual fighting and its side effects (disease, poverty, and famine). At the conclusion of the war in 1648, these areas were so depopulated that people from surrounding states and countries had to move there in order to revitalize them. These settlers came from places such as Switzerland, Austria, Bavaria, and Saxony.

Now, if I, as a family researcher looking into my German heritage, was unaware of these events—even in the broad terms painted above—I might mistakenly assume that my ancestors from the Palatinate had lived there from time immemorial. Imagine my confusion to find people whose surname suddenly appears in a certain village's records in 1655, but of whom I can find no prior records. No records from villages within 50 miles yield results either. From where did these people come? Were earlier records lost? I could spend hours looking in the wrong direction. Imagine my surprise to eventually stumble upon an indication that this particular family was not originally from the Palatinate at all, nor even from any of the German states! They turn out to be immigrants from Switzerland, who came to help repopulate the Palatinate after the Thirty Years' War. Had I known the history surrounding that war, I could have saved myself some trouble. A surname that seemed to arise out of nowhere would have been an instant indicator of a family possibly being from somewhere outside the Palatinate. It would have triggered a search for the regional origins of the surname, and a look at places that otherwise would have remained untouched.

A real-life example of this very thing comes from one branch of my own family tree. An ancestor of mine, a Catherine Hirtzel, married a Johann Zirckel in Rehein in the Palatinate. She was not German as I might have initially supposed, however. She was Swiss, having been born in Pfeffikon, but moved with her parents to a place named Reyheim (presently called Reihen) in the Palatinate after the end of the Thirty Years' War.

As I indicated earlier, wars can easily lead to both civil and church records being lost in the midst of the fighting. Occasionally, however, one can find copies that were preserved elsewhere before the originals were destroyed; this is particularly true of land records. If your study of a region's history leads you to conclude that locally-kept records were lost, it is worth the effort to discover whether copies of anything survived in another repository.

Redrawing the Map

Changes in boundary lines, whether they be between countries, states, or counties, can throw you off the trail while researching if you do not know if (or when) they occurred. I am going to focus on state and county line changes in this section, since their occurrences are often less well-known than those changes that happened on a national level. County line changes in particular can be some of the most difficult to track, and in some places in the United States they happened frequently.

There are four types of county line changes that can happen: the division of one large county into several smaller counties, the amalgamation of pieces of two or more counties into one new county, the movement of a boundary line between two counties, or the creation of a county which is eventually swallowed up by its neighbors. The first example is fairly straightforward, and normally happened (in the U.S.) when a newly-formed state's population grew to a large enough size so as to necessitate smaller counties. An ancestor who consistently appears in censuses and other records in a particular county, only to abruptly show up in a neighboring county after a certain date, may not have actually moved. Rather, the county in which the person later appears may have been formed out of a piece of the first county, causing the ancestor's property to be in a new jurisdiction. An example, again from my own experience: an ancestor of mine lived in Rutherford County, North Carolina in the 1840s and 50s. In 1860 he was no longer there. When I discovered to where he had "moved", it turned out to be the county next door. That county, called Polk, had been formed in 1855 out of the western portion of Rutherford County and the eastern portion of another. My ancestor had lived in that western portion of Rutherford, so therefore he had not moved; the new county had merely been formed out of the area where his property was located.

The creation of a new county out of pieces from a few neighboring counties and the movement of county lines both create scenarios similar to the one just mentioned. In all three cases, knowing that these county changes occurred can quickly direct you into searching neighboring county records if your ancestor suddenly disappears from the records in the initial county.

The last case, in which a county is formed, then ceases to exist after so many years, can make locating records rather difficult. One definitely has to get to know the local history so that one can determine where the records of the defunct county went once its existence was terminated. A short-lived county can also cause confusion for a researcher who is utilizing federal or state census records. A person could waste a lot of time looking for a place that was in existence, say, during the 1840 federal census, but was dissolved by the time the 1850 census was taken.

State boundaries that were disputed and/or ill-marked in the past can cause definite confusion for the present-day family genealogist. For example, the borders between several of the upper southern states (Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky) often lacked clarity due to the limitations of surveying technology in the 1700s and 1800s. This lack of clarity could cause a person who was born in Tennessee (by today's boundaries) to think that he was born in Kentucky, because everyone in the vicinity thought they lived (or should live) in Kentucky. This person, having moved away before the dispute concerning the lines was settled, might then go on later in life to claim his birthplace as Kentucky in different public records. Fast-forward one hundred-plus years later to his descendants trying to find him and his parents in records in Kentucky, but with no success—and this all because the family actually lived in what is now a part of Tennessee. This scenario can also apply to a person born in a state that later gave up territory so that a new state could be formed, such as when Virginia released its claim to the territory that became most of Kentucky.

"General Map of the Disputed Area Showing British and United States Boundary Claims and the Line Agreed on by the Treaty of 1842". It took fifty years (after the Treaty of Paris) for this final line of demarcation to be drawn.

"General Map of the Disputed Area Showing British and United States Boundary Claims and the Line Agreed on by the Treaty of 1842". It took fifty years (after the Treaty of Paris) for this final line of demarcation to be drawn.

Entering New Territory

Ancestors who lived in nations whose local-level civil infrastructure developed over an extended period of time due to slow advancement into new territory can be difficult to research. Frontier communities were usually far-flung and without much formal local government in their early days. Record-keeping was often sporadic as a result. Knowing how quickly an area was settled can be helpful to you as the researcher, for it can give you an idea as to when formal record-keeping began. A region that was populated within a short period of time would be more likely to have had a local government organized within a few years. On the other hand, a place that was sparsely settled for a long time may lack formal records in the years closest to the date of initial settlement.

Looking at how and when a region was settled will help you determine whether records relating to your ancestors' first years in a new home would actually be available. If they were among the first people in a new territory, the marriage record for a son who wed a year after they moved, for example, may not exist. Even non-government sources of records, such as a house of worship, may not have been present until the populace grew to a point to which it could sustain such a place. Cemeteries would many times be marked with field stones or wooden markers in the absence of a craftsman who could make actual headstones. Some land records were filed at a state level, and may be one of the few types of records you could still find even if there was no operating local government where your ancestors lived.

Frontier outposts often lacked an organized means of record-keeping in their early days.

Frontier outposts often lacked an organized means of record-keeping in their early days.

Natural Disasters

Disasters and accidents that happened in the past can greatly impact how fruitful your ancestry research is in the present. A fire or flood, for example, can destroy a courthouse and all of the records therein in a matter of minutes. The loss of such records means it will be much more difficult for you to find marriage records, deeds, wills, etc. for any part of your family that lived in that locale before the disaster occurred. Not knowing that a record loss happened can result in you spending time looking for information that no longer exists, or must be found through alternative channels. (Knowing where to look for information is just as critical as knowing what to look for when investigating your roots.) Study the history of a county to know for sure whether such a massive information loss happened before you start digging through records. That way you will understand what is actually available, and beginning from what particular year.

Another type of natural disaster is an epidemic. Region-wide health crises could wipe out entire families in a matter of months, and sometimes the dead were buried in poorly-marked graves. Learning about these types of events can help you determine whether the sudden disappearance of an ancestor or their relatives from state and county records was caused by an epidemic sweeping the area. Even if you cannot find the person's gravestone, being able to match approximate death dates with records of an outbreak of serious illness can give you a strong probable cause of death.

The Great Flood of 1884, at Lawrenceburg, Indiana. Note the flooding of the city hall, which may very well have resulted in a loss of records.

The Great Flood of 1884, at Lawrenceburg, Indiana. Note the flooding of the city hall, which may very well have resulted in a loss of records.

A Helpful Means of Furthering Your Research

History itself is a fascinating subject; being able to connect one's ancestors to the historical events that took place around them can be even more fascinating. Mere facts about your forebears can come to life in the context of the world in which they lived. I hope you have discovered the value of exploring that world and using what you learn about it to further your research. I myself have found doing so to be most helpful!


Rhosynwen (author) on September 02, 2017:

@maxancestry: Yes, it is amazing how much one can discover about one's ancestors by looking at their story within its historical context.

Robert Remy from Eagle River, Alaska on September 02, 2017:

I have so much history to dig into; time frames, etc... In my case, I studied glass maker history and it took me strides ahead of where I am now in my own work. Leveraging history is a must if you seek deeper chambers of Ancestry knowledge.