Bring Your Ancestors to Life: Adding Context with Unique Ancestry Collections

Posted by Juliana Szucs on October 30, 2014 in Site, Collections, Family History Month

Looking at a pedigree chart can be somewhat uninspiring to family members who haven’t yet been bitten with the genealogy bug. We know that those names and dates carry stories, but to really do them justice we need to add context. There are some fantastic resources available on Ancestry that can help us do just that. Here are a few collections you may want to check out.

New York City, Ellis Island Oral Histories, 1892-1976 – Beginning in 1973, the Ellis Island Oral History Program collected more than 2,000 first-hand oral histories documenting the immigrant experience. This collection is, in short, addictive. The immigrants discuss everything from everyday life in their country of origin to reasons for coming to America. Learn about the journey to America, how the family made their way to their port of departure, what it was like on board the ship, what happened at the processing station at Ellis Island, and the immigrant’s adjustment to life in the U.S. You’ll come away with a real feel for what turn of the century immigrants went through.

Historic Catalogs of Sears, Roebuck and Co., 1896-1993 – Compiled from the iconic department store’s printed mailer, this collection includes catalogs starting in 1896. Beginning with mail-order goods the company followed the railroad in America’s westward expansion, providing a wide variety of goods to customers across the country. Even residents in remote rural areas could now see the latest conveniences and current fashions. These catalogs offer us a unique peek into the times.

Sears, Roebuck and Co. Catalog from Spring 1906

Sears, Roebuck and Co. Catalog from Spring 1906

The catalogs can also be used to estimate the dates on old photographs based on clothing styles.

Sears, Roebuck and Co. Catalog from Fall 1915

Sears, Roebuck and Co. Catalog from Fall 1915

The Gentleman’s Magazine Library, 1731-1868 – In publication from 1731 until 1907, this monthly periodical was distributed throughout the English-speaking world and covered a wide variety of topics in essays, biographies, articles, illustrations, poetry, reports, and historical passages. Sections of the collection cover the various counties in England, and others cover manners, customs and superstitions. In parts of Worcestershire and Shropshire it was considered unlucky to “meet a squinting woman, unless you talk to her, which breaks the charm.” Other situations considered unlucky include being one of a party of thirteen at Christmas, having crickets in the house, and to have a female come into your house the first thing on New Year’s morning. “So generally does this absurdity prevail, that in many towns, young lads make a ‘good thing of it’ by selling their services to go round and enter houses first that morning.”

Want to know about your ancestor’s village? The Gentleman’s Magazine Library has you covered. Here’s an example of what you could find.

From "The Gentleman's Magazine Library, 1731-1868," Kent and Lancashire.

From “The Gentleman’s Magazine Library, 1731-1868,” Kent and Lancashire.

Local Histories

Local histories contain valuable gems of information for family history researchers, regardless of whether the family lived in the city or in a rural area. But these resources are often overlooked. And even if they aren’t entirely ignored, we may find ourselves just checking the index for surnames of interest.

Browsing A History of the City of Brooklyn by Henry R. Stiles (1867-70), you’ll find information about epidemics, political and legislative events, celebrations, incorporations, explosions, fires, the organization of clubs, and much more. There is talk of school fairs and the date when water was first piped into the area. One section chronicles the mobilization of troops for the Civil War and includes details of the efforts of the community to support the families of volunteers during their absence.

Local and county histories often include valuable information about the various institutions in a particular area. Churches, orphanages, charitable institutions, schools, hospitals and dispensaries, cultural institutions, cemeteries, businesses, and methods of available transportation are frequently discussed in great detail.

Ancestry has thousands of local histories online, but they’re best searched directly or, better yet, browsed. To see what’s available for the places your ancestors lived, click on the Search tab, and choose a state from the map in the lower left corner. The Stories, Memories & Histories section is located at the bottom of the list. In addition to state histories, be sure to see what’s available on the local level by selecting a county from the box on the right.

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