Tips from the Pros: Remember Time, Place, and What is “Obvious,”

from Michael John Neill 

Some clues can be overlooked if the family historian fails to keep the historical perspective in mind. The January 1888 obituary of Frances Trautvetter mentions three people attending her funeral, listing the town in which they live.

This may not appear to be a significant clue. However, when one considers the approximately thirty-mile distance these three people would have traveled to attend the funeral and the likely condition of Illinois roads in the month of January, a stronger clue emerges. These three individuals are people who need to be researched; they weren’t just out for a winter drive. Traveling that distance in the middle of winter was not done without just cause and there likely is some connection between Francis and the three out-of-town people at her funeral. Of course the newspaper does not make mention of any relationship.  

Why? Most likely because everyone who knew Francis already knew why the people from out of town were attending. Newspaper space was at a premium; the newspaper was not going to print what everyone already knew–those kinds of things are not news.

Remember to fit your ancestor’s actions (and the actions of others) into a historical perspective. If the action was unusual or would have required a great deal of effort for the time period, check it out. It is worth remembering that what we consider unusual by today’s standards might not have been so unusual one or two hundred years ago. Learn about the region, the time period, and your ancestor’s social and economic class and ethnic group before reaching any conclusions about “unusual” behavior.

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4 thoughts on “Tips from the Pros: Remember Time, Place, and What is “Obvious,”

  1. This is a very important reminder for researchers using obituaries and those that use newspaper articles sometimes called the gossip columns (who did what and when during the week).

  2. Speaking of obituaries, why doesn’t anyone clip the header from the newspaper? I have two obituaries for my father and don’t know which paper they were printed in. There are 4 possibilities, all of which I have checked out online only to find that their online ” Archives ” only go back a couple of years if that far. It’s not that hard to clip the top of the page and tape it to the obituary. Just a thought.

  3. Whenever I clip something from the newspapers I write on the edge of it the name of the newspaper, the date and the page number. Hopefully this will help whomever takes over my research papers in the years to come

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