Understanding Your ...

Every year, thousands of people set off on the path to find their ancestors. They search for the names, dates, and places they need to complete their family trees and family group sheets. Many get to experience the excitement of entering some piece of newly discovered information when their search is successful.

But, filling in the blanks on the charts is only one step. Our ancestors were more than names and dates. They were real people with full lives. Reaching beyond the basic statistics can help us understand their lives better, learn more about history, and often find a source of inspiration for our own lives. It can also be a lot of fun.

The goal of this site is not to help you find your ancestors’ names (although the Records section does contain a lot of how-to information). Instead, this site’s goal is to help you understand your ancestors’ lives – particularly those who lived in the 1700 and 1800s in Western Europe. For grandparents and even great-grandparents, you can often learn quite a bit about their lives by talking to people who knew them. However, once you get back several generations, the task becomes more involved. In most cases, the only evidence of these ancestors that survives is names and dates in basic records.

Despite the lack of detail about your ancestors individually, there is a lot of information that can help you understand your ancestors’ lives. By accessing this, you can gain important insights into their daily routines and most important life events. To find this information you have to do two things: first, look deeper into the records and second, look beyond your ancestor. I hope this site can help you do both of these.

The website focuses on the experiences of ancestors from Western Europe. Many of the topics describe the events and circumstances of peasants (the group into which the huge majority of our ancestors fell) in this area. Specific sections provide a more in-depth look at lives of the common people from Mecklenburg, Germany; Skåne, Sweden; and Buckinghamshire, England. Those with ancestors from these three countries but not these specific localities will probably find much of use here as well.

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Another section follows the experiences of Immigrant Ancestors coming across the ocean and then continuing on the overland trail system. Finally, this site has a Records section with suggestions on certain types of records to use to learn about your ancestors specifically as well as how to get as much information as possible out of the basic sources. I will continue to add more information in this section, so keep checking back. In the “Useful Sources and Links” page of each section, you’ll find an annotated list of the sources I used to compile the information in that section as well as some useful websites which will help you extend your research further.

This, of course, isn’t a comprehensive guide to everything you ever needed to know about your ancestors. It’s a continually growing site that has resulted mostly as a by-product of my writing. As you can see in my “List of Publications,” I’ve published a number of familyhistory and history focused articles in magazines and journals. Much of the “how-to” focused information on the site comes from these articles. Also, I have spent thousands of hours researching my narrative nonfiction book entitled The Journey Takers, which seeks to tell the Western European immigration experience. I wanted to share some of the information I have gathered with the hope it could shed light on other people’s families as well.

As I have learned more about the circumstances of my ancestors’ lives, I have been rewarded greatly. For one thing, these insights have helped me trace my family more effectively. But, the information I’ve found has done more than this. Learning about my ancestors’ lives has made my genealogy research and the people whose names I add to my family tree more meaningful to me and to other family members with whom I share the information. I know it can do the same for you.

Good luck!