Genealogy Tools: Using History to Answer Questions About Genealogy

by Steven Dugan

History can be an extremely helpful tool for genealogists. Whether you’re an amateur or professional, finding names, dates, and places is only part of the battle. Genealogists add historical context to their research by including stories they learn about individuals. The “why or how” is just as important as the “what or when.” When questions arise during research, answers aren’t always available in a database. Genealogists have to become research detectives, using as many tools as they can to put together a narrative to go along with the facts they discover. For example, say you’re researching a family and find that three members died very close to one another in late 1918. You have the dates of death, so what could be the cause? Was it an automobile accident, a house fire, or perhaps an awful crime? If you look to history you might find it’s also possible that these family members died during the Flu Pandemic of 1918. An important document to seek out first is a death certificate, which lists cause of death. From there, you might look for newspaper obituaries or articles to learn about how many people might have been impacted by an event.

Here are three examples of questions I had to answer in my own research that you could very well run into yourself. First, I found that children in one family were born every two years from 1912 to 1916, and then there was a gap with the next child being born in 1920. Second, parts of two families moved to California while the rest remained in Ohio and New York.  And third, I found a birth date that looked something like this: Sally Smith, b. 2 Feb 1732/13 Feb 1733 in London, England.

Registration Card for Blog
Finding documents like this World War I Draft Registration card for George Warrimer Simons, could lead a researcher to look for more proof of military service. From the Homestead collection.

Some genealogy questions are created because of world events. In the first example I gave, World War I (1914-1918) emerges as a strong reason why the gap occurs in the birth dates. Almost five million men and women participated in the war effort in some capacity, which meant that they weren’t home having children. This information might lead you to investigate if one or both parents served in the Armed Forces, directing you to military records, which could shed further light on their lives. Other birthday gaps could be the result of divorce or the death of one parent, and potentially another marriage with more children. Another reason a gap exists might be financial. Perhaps a couple held off on having more children until their financial status improved.  And it’s always possible that a couple unexpectedly has a child later in life, which often adds a unique story to the family’s history. These are only a few reasons why birth date gaps could occur; you may discover more in your research.

The second example involves a family moving all the way across the country. At different times in history, families moved throughout the country for various reasons. For many, the move was job-related. My dad’s family moved to California from Ohio in the 1950s because my grandfather took a job in the young aerospace industry. For my mom, the reason was much different: it was health-related. She had asthma, and New York’s bitter winters made her asthma worse, so her doctor recommended the family move to either Arizona or California. It was believed the dry, desert air would help asthma sufferers. It also didn’t hurt that California was the mecca of opportunity for millions of Americans after World War II. Jobs and great weather were only two factors that attracted people to the state. But where could you find information on why anyone’s family moved away from their home states? There isn’t a database of families who moved because one of the children had asthma or because a parent changed jobs; this is a family story I was told growing up. Someone doing genealogy should plan on conducting interviews with family members and friends to hear stories that can help connect the dots.

Temple Letter for Blog
This Temple Family letter from the Homestead collection, dated 12 Jan 1899, is a correspondence between cousins Edward Foster and John H. Temple in which Edward shares his family history. He also asks John why two of his brothers are named David. A very common practice was naming a child to honor another child who had died young, which John’s parents did. Why they used the same name twice is the type of information not found on a database, so reading letters or conducting interviews is vital to learn more as you do genealogical research.

Sometimes, world-wide historical changes influence genealogical research. In the third example, Sally Smith has two different birth dates because of the gradual shift from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. Up until 1582, the world used the Julian calendar, which was lunar based and added a leap day every four years. This calendar, however, miscalculated leap days, and over time, the Julian calendar fell behind the tropical year (the period of time it takes the Earth to revolve once around the Sun) three days for every 400 years.

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII declared that all Catholic countries would start using the calendar that bears his name on October 4. Scholars calculated a ten day difference between the two calendars, so October 4 was followed by October 15, 1582. Both the Julian and Gregorian calendars began on January 1, yet for many years Protestant countries like England began their year on March 25, the day taxes were paid. Despite the Papal edict, switching to the Gregorian calendar was a slow process over the next 300+ years. Turkey was the last European country to change in 1926, and by the time it did, the Julian calendar was 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar, not ten. In fact, the Julian calendar will remain 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar until 2100.

England and its possessions (including the American Colonies) finally made the switch in 1752. But before then, so as to not confuse their European neighbors, one would often see what’s called “dual dating” when writing dates: one date is from the Julian calendar and the other is from the Gregorian. In Sally’s case, her birth date is written 2 Feb 1732 O.S. (Old Style) and 13 Feb 1733 N.S. (New Style). Not only was Sally’s birth date moved up 11 days, but because it occurred between January 1 and March 25, the extra year was added. In one of the most famous changes of birth dates, George Washington’s original birth date of 11 February 1731 was changed to 22 February 1732 under this formula. Any date after March 25 was not subject to dual dating.

If you’re interested in family history, we invite you to attend It’s All Relative, a two-part genealogy workshop at the Homestead scheduled for March 14 and 28, from 10 a.m. to noon each day. The workshop is ideal for beginners, or if you need motivation to get back into your research. The first session will cover the basics of genealogy research, such as how to collect and organize facts, documenting your research, and accessing resources both online and in person. The second session will help participants dig deeper with additional tools, including ways to break through road blocks (when the trail of an ancestor goes cold), and tips for dating photographs. The workshop is free, but a limited number of spots are available. Please call the Museum at (626) 968-8492 or visit us online to make a reservation.

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