Genealogical research fills in the branches on your family
tree, but does it help you understand your ancestors’ daily lives in
Massachusetts? Probably not. Social history picks up where records research
ends and enables you to learn about the times in which your ancestors lived.
Re-creating their lives is an exciting pursuit and can actually uncover new
avenues of research for you to add to your family tree. Social history is the
study of everyday life and in order to learn more about your relatives you will
want to look at photographs of people and places as well as study their
hometowns, jobs, and what their home life was like. Here are some time-tested
ways to do just that.
Start by creating a timeline of the facts of their lives,
such as when they were born and married, and when they died. Include school
attendance, year of immigration, dates they changed towns of residence and, of
course, birth dates for their children. Then find out what was happening during
those years, both in the towns in which they lived and in terms of world events.
Plot those items on your timeline. The goal is to make your ancestor a real
person, so immerse yourself in the history and culture of their lives. It will
give you a whole new appreciation of those branches on your tree. It doesn’t
take a PBS reality show like 1900 to find out the details — just a sense
of curiosity, library research, and some time to read.
A good resource for world events is The Timetables of
History by Bernard Grun and Daniel Boorstin (Touchstone Books, 1991). For
local events, read local histories or newspapers. Public libraries in
Massachusetts have materials on the history of the areas they represent and some
have copies of their town newspapers. The Boston Public Library (www.bpl.org)
has a complete collection of all newspapers published in Massachusetts. A list
of ethnic newspapers appears on the Boston Family History
website. If you don’t live in the area, consult their online catalog and see
if your public library can help you obtain what you need through inter-library
Once again, public libraries come to the rescue with their
local history collections. Start there or use Elizabeth Petty Bentley’s
Genealogists Address Book (GPC, 1998) to find a historical society near
where your ancestors lived. Consult an earlier Massachusetts column in this
series, “Often-Overlooked Massachusetts Repositories” for some useful links. If
you are looking for photographs of localities, try searching the expansive
digital collection online at the Library of Congress American Memory site. The Arcadia Publishing Company
specializes in illustrated histories and many Massachusetts towns are
already included in their imprint under the Images of America series. Arcadia’s
website contains a list of what titles are available through most booksellers.
Above all, don’t forget to ask relatives for images!
Use your genealogical research skills to discover when a
picture was taken by researching when a photographer was in business or by
studying the clothing clues. Images can even provide you with a sense of your
ancestors’ personality based on their attention to fashion or their stance.
Learning about daily life involves more than just researching
the time period; it also involves looking at items that your ancestors owned —
scrapbooks, silver, clothing, furniture, quilts, and myriad other objects. Those
artifacts tell you something about what was important to your ancestors and
provide clues to uncover their lives. Antiques Roadshow examines items to
determine their value as historical artifacts, but often there are materials
passed down through several generations that have added value to the family
historian. Consult Joe L. Rosson and Helaine Fendelman’s Treasures in Your
Attic (Harper Collins, 2001) for additional information.
There are some great books to help you understand the times
in which your ancestors lived. Type Massachusetts into an online bookstore
search engine and you’ll discover thousands of books either about the state or
using it as a location for a work of fiction. Children’s books provide a quick
overview of the history of Massachusetts, supplying the basics without
overwhelming you with details. A good example is Sylvia McNair’s
Massachusetts, part of the “America the Beautiful” series (Children’s
Press, 1998). If you want a book intended for adults, read the informative
Massachusetts: A Concise History by Richard D. Brown and Jack Tager
(University of Massachusetts Press, 2000). Christopher Kenneally’s The
Massachusetts Legacy: 150 Landmark Events that Shaped Our Nation (Adams
Publishing, 1995) spotlights events in Massachusetts history in which your
ancestors might have participated. To find timelines on Boston neighborhoods
and some ethnic groups consult www.bostonfamilyhistory.com.
There are also titles that focus on a particular time period.
If your ancestors came over on the Mayflower then a must-read is The
Times of Their Lives — Life, Love and Death in Plymouth Colony, by James C.
Deetz and Patricia Scott Deetz (W.H. Freeman, 2000). Boston’s role in the Civil
War is covered in Thomas H. O’Connor’s Civil War Boston: Home Front and
Battlefield (Northeastern, 1999). The fact is that there are plenty of
choices if you are trying to set your ancestors in historical context for a
written genealogy or attempting to discover a fact that might lead to new
genealogical discoveries. Use the following checklist to get the most out of
Use the Web
Find information 24/7 by using your Internet connection. Type
a topic into an online search engine like google.com and see what turns up. Be
as specific as possible when looking for information online. A very general
search for “Massachusetts history” revealed more than 10,000 sites with
pertinent information! Many of these hits were sites created by cities and towns
that included historical data. One interesting site for Boston is Boston History and Architecture
, which has a Boston-specific “this day in history” as well as trip-planning
Step Back in Time
There are a plethora of museums in Massachusetts that allow
visitors to time travel. Of course, there is the world-renowned Freedom Trail that lets
visitors walk through three centuries of Boston history, but I’ll bet you can
find a historical museum that covers some aspect of your ancestor’s life. Below
are a couple examples to start you on your way.
VillageExperience early nineteenth-century village life in western
Massachusetts where guides answer your questions about their daily life and
Plimoth PlantationAccording to their website, it is always
1627 at this living history museum featuring interpretive guides. Step back in
time and even meet some of your Mayflower ancestors.
There are so many ways to make your family more than just
names and dates on your family tree. Katherine Scott Sturdevant’s Bringing
Your Family History to Life Through Social History (Betterway, 2000) offers
additional suggestions for making your ancestors real people. Have fun with
your pursuit by trying ethnic foods, exploring neighborhoods, or even listening
to period music. You might discover you have more in common with your ancestors
than you could imagine.