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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Don't Forget the
History in Family History
by Rhonda R. McClure

March 16, 2000
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

One of the areas that genealogists sometimes fail to focus on is the history of the time in which their ancestor lived. The historical happenings in the town, county, state and country had an obvious affect on our ancestors.

Many of the roads that our earliest ancestors relied on, for instance, were a direct result of the historical actions taking place at the time. For instance, Braddock's Road was a result of a military action to move the English to Fort Duquesne (what would become Pittsburgh). This road would then play a part in migration further inward from the eastern seaboard of Pennsylvania.

Historical happenings in the towns, counties, states and countries had an obvious affect on our ancestors.

What Enticed Your Ancestor?

Those who have family in the western states in the later 19th century will want to consider that the family was lured west by the thoughts of a big gold strike. Those who can trace back to an Irish immigrant may find that they have a Potato Famine ancestor.

Our ancestors have lived through wars, hysterias, famines, persecutions and more. As you research your ancestors, it is important that you keep the history of the local area and the country as a whole in mind.

Now We're Interested

But how can you find this history? Let's face it, many of us slept through history class while in high school. And I can't help thinking that those history teachers are getting a good laugh over our now relying on history in so many forms with this genealogical obsession we now feed.

One of the best ways to find out what was taking place is to look at the many histories that were published in the later 1800s. There are a number of published volumes on the town, county and state level that include information about the founding of an area. The chapters hold stories of towns being founded. As you read on you see a town growing from infancy to adulthood, and sometimes perishing just as the ancestors we are chasing did. What an experience that must have been. Some daring groups of people willing to head out into the unknown and begin anew.

Finding History

Many of these published volumes can be found at your local genealogy library. The older ones may be available on microfilm from the Family History Library through your local Family History Center.

The one downside to many of these histories is the lack of indexes. But that is often the best way to find the special tidbits. As you are scanning the pages, your eyes will alight on an interesting story and you are transported back to a different time and place.

As you are compiling your family history remember how you felt as you read through the histories. Bring that to life for your descendants and cousins by including insight into what was going on as your ancestors were trying to live their day-to-day lives.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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