Using Historical Context to Tell Your Ancestors' Stories
Guest post by Lynn Nelson
When most of us first caught the genealogy bug, we were excited to fill in our pedigree charts with names and dates to try to grow our family tree as large as possible. We were name collectors. While that may have been satisfying at first, we didn’t really get to know our ancestors. We learned nothing about their lives, their motivations, their hardships, or their accomplishments. We could not tell their stories.
Records and documents provide basic information about your ancestors but to truly understand their lives and know their stories, you must understand the historical context in which they lived. Today, with online access to so many great resources, finding historical context about the lives of our ancestors is easy. Taking this extra step promotes us from name collectors to story tellers.
Here I share some examples of how just a little digging into history uncovered interesting and revealing stories about the people from our past. And not just the famous or infamous, but the kinds of ancestors we all have in our family trees—immigrants, farmers, miners, teachers, and even the poor and landless. The end of this post offers some online resources for finding historical context.
Coal mining was a major industry in Pennsylvania. If you have ancestors who lived in any of the mining regions of the state, chances are you have a miner in your family tree. We all know that mining was a difficult and dangerous occupation. Miners who avoided death or maiming in their younger years often succumbed to black lung disease in their later years. But did you know that boys as young as eight years old worked in mines? Scroll through 19th century census pages in any mining community and you’ll see young boys from many families working in the local mine.
Most of the youngest ones, like eleven-year-old John Kelly of Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, worked as breaker boys. A little online research offered a wealth of information about that occupation, including vivid details and even photographs. The breaker boys’ job was to break the coal into uniform pieces and separate out the rocks, slate, and other impurities, as the coal passed by on inclined chutes and conveyor belts beneath their wooden seats. This was certainly difficult and hazardous work for a child. The online resources gave me an intimate glimpse into the working life of young John Kelly.
As you can imagine, the opportunities for injuries and deaths were many, from appendages caught in the moving equipment, to respiratory ailments from inhaling coal dust, to hearing impairments from the constant noise of the machinery during their long 10-hour work days. Little John Kelly appears in a census mortality schedule with his cause of death due to “fall of bricks and stones”. I figured it had to be related to a mine accident and wanted to know the details, so I checked some historical resources.
Pennsylvania has been publishing annual mine reports since the last quarter of the 19th century and most of them are available online. These books include amazing information, such as the names of all those killed and injured and the accident details, as well as overall statistics on the number of dead, injured, widowed, and orphaned. Some include first-hand witness accounts of accidents. There I learned the details of John Kelly’s demise. An explosion of a boiler at the breaker—due to insufficient water in the boiler—killed five people, four of them boys, and injured nine people, five of them boys. Skimming through some of these mine reports takes you on an enlightening journey into the difficult lives of Pennsylvania’s miners.
Have you ever looked at an immigrant family on a ship’s passenger manifest and wondered what drove them to leave their home for a strange new land where they could not even speak the language? The answer may be found in historical resources. Take the family of Bartolomeo Mazzeo, for example. In 1909, they left their home in the Messina province of Sicily for Philadelphia. The column on the manifest for the name of the nearest relative or friend from their place of origin said, “no one.” No one? They had not a single family member or friend in their hometown? I wondered about that.
A quick search into the history of the Messina province of Sicily revealed their story. Only five months before they migrated, an historic earthquake hit the Messina area. The 7.1 earthquake, along with the resulting tsunami, devastated the region, killing over 75,000 people. Without homes, jobs, or infrastructure, many people left for America. Including Bartolomeo and his family.
But I wanted to know more. A deeper search into the details of the Messina earthquake of 1908 led me to many fascinating resources, including contemporaneously published books with first-hand witness accounts of the earthquake and tsunami, and photographs of the devastation. These resources put me in the shoes of Bartolomeo and his family and told me their story.
Female School Teachers
Teaching was one of the few careers open to women in the 19th and early 20th century, thus many of us have teachers in our family tree. In March of 1921, an engaged couple from Montgomery County, Pennsylvania—Marvin, a fireman, and Myra, a school teacher—made a trip to Washington, D.C. to see the inauguration of President Harding. While there, they married and kept their marriage secret for over a year. They finally announced their marriage in June of 1922, which the local newspaper reported.
I wondered why they married in secret. To see if I could find additional newspaper articles about their marriage, with more details, I searched online newspaper resources for “teacher secretly wed.” I was shocked at the scores of articles I found about female school teachers marrying in secret around this time period, and not just in Pennsylvania, but all over the country. What was going on?
Some of the articles mentioned “the marriage bar,” a term with which I was unfamiliar. Researching the marriage bar explained these secret marriages. Up until around the mid-20th century, only single women were hired as school teachers. Their employment contracts specifically stated that they would be terminated upon marriage. Myra kept her marriage secret so that she could continue working as a school teacher.
Myra lived at a time when women faced many discriminatory practices. Less than a year before Myra married, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, granting women the right to vote. But it wasn’t until decades later that female school teachers could marry and keep their career.
Speaking of discriminatory practices faced by women, here is a shocker from the early 20th century. I was researching Minnie Benstock, who was born in New York City in 1897. I came across naturalization documents for her applying for U.S. citizenship. What? Wait, she was born in New York City, so why did she apply for citizenship?
A little research into American naturalization laws uncovered the surprising answer. In 1919, when Minnie married her husband, Russian immigrant Jack Zaenchik, she lost her American citizenship due to a U.S. law.
In the Expatriation Act of 1907, Congress mandated that, “Any American woman who marries a foreigner shall take the nationality of her husband.” This means that upon her marriage to Jack, Minnie lost her status as a U.S. citizen. The United States considered Minnie a citizen of Russia. But she had never stepped a foot in Russia, and Russia didn’t know her from Adam, so she was basically stateless. She was not recognized as a citizen of any country! And because, at that time, a woman’s citizenship was tied to that of her husband, she had very limited options to regain her citizenship. It wasn’t until the Cable Act of 1922 that women were allowed to have citizenship of their own.
The Poor and the Landless
While researching some poor neighboring families of the Lower East Side of New York City around the turn of the 20th century, I noticed many members of these families died of tuberculosis. I knew that TB was a major killer in that time and place, but the number of people succumbing to it in these particular families seemed staggering. A few searches on their addresses in online newspaper resources revealed some surprising and interesting information. These families lived on a block of densely populated tenement buildings with the highest concentration of TB in New York City, earning it the name “Lung Block.”
The more I researched Lung Block, the more details I found. There were newspaper articles about it with incredible descriptions of the conditions of the tenements. The landlords divided the buildings into as many units as possible resulting in small apartments with little light or ventilation, which kept the TB bacteria viable. I found maps of Lung Block showing the incidences of TB deaths in each building. There were floor plans showing the layout of a typical tenement building. A contemporaneous book published by a photojournalist included amazing photographs showing the inside and outside of these tenements, and the people who lived there. These resources made me feel like I was there and could understand the lives and experiences of these people. I could now tell their story.
Research Tips For Any Ancestor
1) Research their occupation
No matter your ancestors’ occupations, a little research into it can shed a lot of light not only on your ancestor, but on the socio-economic culture of the time and place in which he lived. Even for an occupation as mundane-sounding as bath house attendant. In 1930s Baltimore, John Lilly worked as an attendant at the Walters Free Bath House. I learned this was one of several public bath houses donated to the city by Henry Walters, a local philanthropist and founder of the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore.
With a little more research into bath houses in general, I discovered that public bath houses developed in urban areas to provide a means of hygiene because many city apartments lacked hot water or even indoor plumbing. For a nickel, bathers received soap, a towel, and five minutes in a hot shower. In addition to serving the community’s need for health and hygiene, bath houses became local meeting places where neighbors met and socialized while awaiting their turns for their weekly showers. This slice of life of Baltimore’s city dwellers—and John’s role in it—offered a cultural snapshot of the people of that time and place.
2) County History Books
Always check local county history books! They may contain a small biography of your ancestor, but if not, they still offer valuable historical context. Read the table of contents for chapters of interest. You’ll learn about local major events that may have impacted your ancestor, such as floods, droughts, epidemics, riots, battles, border disputes, and more.
Like the “Great Flood of 1817” in York, Pennsylvania. A local county history book, published in 1823, recounts the details of the flood. The approaching storms with heavy rains, the creek swollen beyond its banks flooding the town, and the collapse of a dam a few miles upstream, which turned streets into rushing rivers.
Margaret Doudle and seven others sat helplessly in her home, watching as neighboring houses were pulled up and floated away. Bits and pieces of her own home started to break off. Fortunately, they survived, but Margaret’s tanning house and outbuildings floated way and the entire west gable of her home collapsed. The county history book lists, by name, details of all those who suffered losses from the flood. Further research into this event uncovered a painting of the flood by Lewis Miller, a local folk artist of the time period. Details like these bring to life a frightening moment in time for people of the past.
Even if your ancestor was not directly impacted by a major event, county history books offer good historical context. Was your ancestor a cigar maker? Read all about the cigar industry in the local history book to understand this occupation. Did your ancestors live during the Civil War? County history books will report the impact of local battles, and even minor skirmishes. Was your ancestor a minister? Learn about the history of his church. County history books offer valuable details about the towns of your ancestors to help you understand their lives.
Everyone knows that historical newspapers are a fantastic resource for stories about our ancestors. But don’t stop with just name searches. Search on the addresses of your ancestors to discover stories, as I did to discover Lung Block. You may uncover a fire, a murder, a repossession, or more. Don’t forget to review the local headlines for the days and weeks surrounding the birth of your ancestors to see what was going on at that time. The same goes for deaths. If you discover several family members dying within a short time of each other, check the local newspapers around that time period to learn of any local epidemics.
I hope these examples encourage you to take that extra step to learn more about your ancestors. Whenever you see something in a document that makes you wonder, “why?” or “what happened?”, do a little digging into history to find the answer and tell the story.
Some Online Resources for Historical Context
Certainly, start with Google, but go beyond that. Here is just a very small sample of resources to get your started; ones I use regularly.
Books and other publications
Check book websites for county history books, local church history books, books about local historic events, books about your ancestor’s occupation, or anything that you find in records that makes you wonder. There are lots of places to find online books, but here are four good ones:
There are thousands of websites offering historic newspapers online. They range from huge subscription services—like Newspapers.com—to major free sites—like Chronicling America—to small local ones found on the websites of local libraries and universities. To help you find some of the more local ones, I recommend The Ancestor Hunt. Kenneth R. Marks has curated thousands of online newspaper sources.
Resources for immigrant ancestors
Marian L. Smith, former historian of the U.S, Citizenship and Immigration Services, created this wonderful resource about ship passenger manifests, which I’ve been using for years. It discusses almost every column, as well as all those cryptic marks and codes you see on manifests. This resource will help you wring every detail from your ancestor’s manifest to discover their stories.
U.S. Naturalization Laws
A summary of major naturalization laws from 1790 through 1990. This will help you understand why your ancestors naturalized when they did, or why they did not.
Women and Naturalization
A detailed article, with some examples, of how the various naturalization laws impacted women during different time periods.
If you had unnaturalized German, Italian, or Japanese immigrant ancestors living in America during World War II, they may have been considered “enemy aliens” and suffered discrimination or even internment.
There are scores of resources about mining in Pennsylvania, but here are two that I use.
Here you can find the annual mining reports, which provide details of all accidents, deaths, and injuries.
A great collection of historic photographs.
About the author:
Lynn Nelson, founder of Nexus Genealogy, is a professional genealogist specializing in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Italian research. She also volunteers at the library and archives of the York County History Center, where she was a 2019 Volunteer of the Year.