Saturday, March 9, 2013

Grits Without Salt

Ben asks:
”I am reading your blog posts one at a time starting with day one.  I am on
The Importance of Bios and I have a question.  How do you come up with all of that background information?”

I realize that only people from the deep south will understand this analogy but “grits without salt is WORSE than bland.”  That is how I view family trees that don’t include biographical information.  Please don’t reduce your ancestors to a laundry list of vital statistics.  These were real people that lead interesting lives.  [Off my soapbox now].  So how do you find this background info and how do you incorporate it into a biography? 

Researching the time period and the location is ESSENTIAL
You must take the time to research what was going on when your ancestor lived.  It will help you understand why he did the things that he did.  Read local history books.  You will find a lot of these on Google Books, Internet Archive and Family History Books (FamilySearch) that are out of copyright.  If your ancestor was a Union or Confederate soldier, read about the Civil War from their point of view.  If you ancestor was a planter or a farmer, read books about what it was like to be a planter or a farmer during that time period.  I recently wrote a blog post about Childbirth in the 18th Through 20th Centuries that recommends two books I think are essential to understand what the females in your family went through just to have babies.  If your family migrated, read books about what it was like on the trail. Did the family attend church? Religion was an important part of many people’s lives and you want to include that if you can. Knowing the denomination will also help you understand why they did the things they did. You need to take the time to read up on that particular denomination and its history.

Topography and the community can enlighten you even further
Did they live in a city?  A small town?  Out in the middle of nowhere?  Did they live in a valley?  Was it hilly? Was there a river or lake nearby?  Knowing what type of community they lived in and what the land was like can give you some insight on what type of house they may have lived in.  You might be able to find some copyright free photographs of both the area where they lived as well as sample houses that you can add to your biography that will add interest.

Go the extra mile
If you see that your ancestor was a farmer on the federal census, try finding him on the agricultural schedule.  Here is where you will find information about acreage, types of crops grown, kinds of animals raised etc.  That will tell you a lot about his daily life.  Construct maps showing where everyone lived in relation to everyone else based on land descriptions. Put together a timeline of your ancestor to make his life easy to follow (but you still need to have a narrative).  Search records that you really don’t think would apply to your family.  I was in the Columbia County courthouse awhile back and noticed that they had arrest records, logs of police encounters and lunacy books.  Just thumbing through I saw people’s names that I knew.  I was searching coroner’s reports for a specific person and found another person I wasn’t expecting.  These unusual record sets will definitely spice up your narrative!

Read between the lines
Did your person of interest have extended family living with him in the census records?  Elderly parents or newlywed children?  That gives you some insight on the family dynamics.  How much property did he own, did he own slaves?  This can give you a sense of wealth. Always pay attention to who went to school and who didn’t and who is listed as illiterate.  This can mean many things.  Were there no schools in the area?  (check the other families living nearby).  Was the family poor and needed the children to stay home to work?  Did your person of interest have some sort of disability?  Some families simply didn’t see the need for any formal education.  When you have multiple possibilities you can discuss them in your narrative.  One thing to look out for are children who didn’t go to school in earlier censuses but are listed as being able to read and write in the later ones.  This can indicate children who were taught to read and write at home by their parents which was very common.

At the minimum you should have a biography for every one of your direct line ancestors.  Once you get into the habit of writing them up it actually gets a lot easier.  As you do the research, you will get to “know” your ancestor better and you will want to tell others about him/her. 

Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis


  1. Just followed your blog, Michelle. There's so much information in the Census records once they start listing out the whole family and details on them. If you read the entire record, you can pick out all kinds of data. Also, following families over time can leave you with a strong impression of their lives. Fun stuff!

  2. The census records are invaluable to a researcher. They can provide a skeleton for your family tree and then it is easier to go back and find other records to fill in the gaps.


  3. I have found that deed records (or even just the sectional indexes as clues)offer valuable information. When the Mrs. mortgages the place, it probably means that the Mr. has died. When the children partition the family land, then Mama has probably passed on. As time goes by, whenever the telphone company needs ROW or mineral rights are leased, you may get the names (and addresses) of the next several generations.

  4. Excellent example of reading between the lines, Nan!