By Don Taylor
I was recently asked about my organizational methods for writing family histories and family sketches. To add life to my family sketches, I like to add historical occurrences during critical times in an ancestor’s life. For example, I found it interesting to know that the month before I was born, North Korea invaded South Korea. That was the beginning of the Korean War and President Harry S. Truman ordered US Forces into the conflict as my mother was traveling to Oregon to give birth to me.
As I add historical events to my ancestor’s stories, I try to focus on several critical events in a person’s life, so that I can understand what is going on around them and how that might have affected them, their parents, or their children. I consider birth, graduation, marriage, death of a spouse, and death as particularly significant.
To facilitate investigating historical events during a person’s life, I use browser (Chrome) bookmarks to facilitate my learning about those events. I have about a dozen bookmarks; some are date-based, some are location-based. Depending upon the ancestor, when they lived and where they lived, I may use any or all of them.
As an example, I’m looking at the events of my fifth great-grandmother, Mercy (Gay) Sanford.
- Mercy was born in 1761 in Sharon, Litchfield County, Connecticut.
- She married Ezra Clugston Sanford in 1786 in Sharon, Litchfield County, Connecticut.
- Ezra died in July 1813 in Pownal, Bennington County, Vermont.
- She died in 1841 in Byron, Genesee County, New York.
So, what can I learn about the events that may have affected Mercy’s life?
One of my favorite sites for this is www.OurTimeLines.Com. On the left is a menu and a selection for “Timeline.” Enter the person’s name, birth year, and death year then click [Generate Timeline!]
Quickly the timeline let me know that King George III (Hanover) was king when she was born and the Revolution had to play a significant role in her early life experiences. Shortly after her marriage, the Constitutional Congress approved the Constitution. In 1813, when Ezra died, the War of 1812 was well underway. When she died in 1841, John Tyler was president.
My second favorite site for this type of inquiry is Wikipedia. Just go to www.wikipedia.org and enter the year of interest. In the case of 1761, I learned that on November 7th, the New London Harbor Light was first lit. Sharon is over 100 miles away from New London, so I suspect the lighting of the lighthouse was not a significant event for the Gay family, but it might have been. In 1786, Connecticut ceded the land west of the Western Reserve, which is now part of Ohio. 1813 was a year that was all about the war. Did Ezra die in or because of the war? That is a new research area. Next, still on Wikipedia, I’d look quickly at the history of various towns where Mercy lived. Byron was incorporated from part of the town of Bergen in 1820. That lets me know that there probably wasn’t an actual move when Mercy was in Bergen in 1820 and Byron in 1830.
Chronicling America can often be useful. Sadly, their archive begins in 1789, so Mercy’s early life won’t be there. In her later life, she lived in such small towns there doesn’t seem to be any papers from where Mercy lived archived on Chronicling America.
On This Day
Another fun site to look for items of history is www.OnThisDay.Com. Enter a year, and learn lots of things that were going on. I noticed that the US Congress chose the dollar as the monetary unit for the USA in 1786, when Mercy married, and Mexico declared independence from Spain in November 1813 the year Ezra died.
Family Tree Maker Timeline
Typically, I use Family Tree Maker looking at facts; however, there is also a tab to use Family Tree Maker in the “Timeline” mode. On that page, there is an option to add “Family Events” and to include “Historical Events.” That way you may see what happened during an individual’s life. I can incorporate bits of these informative events into my sketch of Mercy’s life sketch. The Family Tree Maker Timeline mode also allows you to add your own events. That is handy because when I find an event that affected the family, I can add it to the historical timeline for future use and it will show for everyone in their timeline.
Adding little snippets of general history can make your family’s story much more interesting.
In this case, I learned several facts, any of which I can incorporate into my story of Mercy’s life. These facts include:
- 1754-1763 – French and Indian War underway.
- 1761 – King George III (Hanover) was king of England.
- 1761 – I learned that on November 7th, the New London Harbor Light was first lit.
- 1786 – Connecticut ceded the land west of the Western Reserve, which is now part of Ohio.
- 1786 – US Congress chose the dollar as the monetary unit
- 1787 – The Constitutional Congress approved the Constitution.
- 1813 – War of 1812 was well underway.
- 1813 – Mexico declared independence from Spain in November.
- 1820 – Byron was incorporated from part of Bergen.
- 1841 – John Tyler was president.