Exploring your ancestors’ lives


  1. Where exactly did your ancestor live (as near as you can make out)? Later censuses give street addresses, but also check city directories and land records. Sometimes you can pinpoint where your ancestor lived by locating a near neighbor who was a land owner.
  2. How far was the nearest town or big city? Estimate how long it took to get there.


  1. Where were people in the neighborhood from?
  2. How diverse was the neighborhood? (Ethnicities, occupation, origins, ages, land ownership, personal/real estate)
  3. Friends?
    • How old were the kids in the neighborhood?
    • Who were the nearest kids of the same age as your ancestor? How far away were they?
  4. How often did the family move? Track them in the city directories. Track their near neighbors for comparison.
  5. Where was the nearest grocer/trader? Blacksmith? Cooper? Other manufacturers? Teachers? Ministers?
    • What other businesses were in the neighborhood
    • What were the neighbors’ occupations?
    • Did any near neighbors have the same occupation as your ancestor?
  6. Land ownership
    • Who owned their own home?
    • What was the ratio of owners to renters in the neighborhood?


  1. Where were the bride and groom living before they married? Can you figure out a possible connection that brought them together?
  2. Where did parents, siblings, children, aunts/uncles and cousins live? Plot on google earth.


  1. Was your ancestor buried in a denominational cemetery?
  2. Who officiated the marriages of ancestor/siblings/parents/children and what does this indicate about the family’s religious affiliation?


  1. Scan local newspapers for articles about health in the community
  • Death records
  1. What was the cause of death?
  2. How old was ancestor at time of death? How old were the surviving family members at that time? How would the death have impacted the family?
  3. Did he die at home or elsewhere?
    • If elsewhere, why?
  4. How common was this malady in that family?
    • Check the death records of children, siblings, aunts/uncles/cousins
  5. Scan the records around your ancestor’s
    • How common was the cause of death that killed your ancestor?
    • What else was killing people in that community at the time?
    • Compare male and female deaths
    • How old were people in general in this community when they died?
  6. Check https://www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/collections/books.html to locate contemporary texts with contemporary medical descriptions of the malady
    • What were the symptoms?
    • How would this condition have affected your ancestor’s life and the lives of those around him?
    • What medical treatments might your ancestor have experienced?
  7. Was a doctor listed in the death record?
    • Where did he live?
    • Did the same doctor treat other members of the family, according to their death certificates?
  8. Newspaper articles around the time of death
    • Is there mention of deaths similar to your ancestor’s?
    • Search for newspaper articles about the malady that killed your ancestor – what did the popular press say about the topic?
  • Censuses:
    • how many families had lost children? (compare tallies of the mother’s # of births and # living children in 1900 and 1910 censuses)

World and national events that might have been of interest/concern

  1. Economy
    • Check contemporary employment rates, interest rates
  2. Demographics: look for national, state, and local statistics on
    • Infant mortality rate
    • Life expectancy
    • Age at marriage
    • Illegitimacy rates

Long shots:

  1. Long shots:
    • Scan the census to identify near-ish neighbors who might have preserved their family records and use archivegrid (https://beta.worldcat.org/archivegrid/) to see if there are any family papers archived somewhere that might give a more personal picture of the what life was like in the community at the time
    • There may even be business ledgers or other accounts that mention your ancestors.
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