I never understood my parents’ obsession with family history until I started to see my ancestors as more than just names and dates—and dusty old records. At first it was reading my Grandpa Pete’s journal describing the Statue of Liberty when his family arrived from Denmark. And when I read The Grapes of Wrath and heard how my grandparents also lived in a truck as they journeyed from Oklahoma to California during the Dust Bowl, I was completely hooked. Over the years, I’ve spent quite a bit of time researching historical events trying to understand the challenges my ancestors faced and learn more about their daily lives. Now, you can have a similar experience delivered to you by Ancestry through Historical Insights.
What Are Historical Insights?
One of the goals of the new Ancestry experience is to help you uncover the stories behind the facts in your tree. And one of the ways to do this is to discover the historical events that shaped the lives of your ancestors. I’ve spent quite a bit of time gathering info and photos for my great-grandpa Jim Bobbitt. If you asked me his birth and death dates and states he’d lived in, I could rattle them off quickly. But the LifeStory interspersed with Historical Insights changed my perspective on his life. In a glance I could see that he was born before the Civil War (and as I learned through an Insight, he was living in Illinois when Lincoln and Douglas had their famous debates there) and died after World War I. I imagined the changes he saw over his lifetime, from the Emancipation Proclamation and women’s suffrage to a world embroiled in a global conflict.
Other events crystallized in my mind too. I knew he moved from Illinois to Nebraska in the 1870s, but until I saw the Historical Insight about homesteading, I didn’t realize it was during a time when the U.S. government opened up western lands and offered pioneers acres of free land. Was this why he moved his family? And although I knew Jim had participated in the Oklahoma Land Rush, I gained a new appreciation for this exciting moment in American history when I looked at the images and stories included in the Insight. After learning so much about his life, I found myself clicking from person to person enjoying my tree in a way I hadn’t before, watching these amazing people coming to life on my computer screen.
How Do We Know What Your Ancestor Experienced?
So how did Ancestry know to put information about the Lincoln Debates, Homestead Act, and Oklahoma Land Rush on my great-grandpa’s LifeStory? Insights are a lot like hints. We use algorithms that look at records and facts in your tree and compare them to dates and locations of historical events. In the case of my great-grandpa, the system could tell he moved from Illinois to Nebraska between 1870 and 1880 using census records I’d saved to my tree. Because Nebraska was one of the states opened up by the Homestead Act during this time period, the event was added to his timeline. You may find that some family members aren’t included in specific events like you expected (or relatives have irrelevant Insights on their timeline). That’s because Insights are like hints and won’t always be presented for the correct people.
Where Can You See Insights?
When we first launched Historical Insights, they could be viewed only on Apple iOS mobile devices. We’re happy to announce that they’re now available on the desktop too. All you need to do is sign in to the new version of Ancestry. (If you haven’t tried the new site yet, now is the time. And if you try it and want to go back to using the current version, just click “Classic Site” from your account drop-down menu.)
Historical Insights appear automatically in each family member’s LifeStory. To learn more about the event and see historical photographs, simply click the photo (or Review button). If you like the Insight and want to keep it in the timeline, click the Keep button; click Ignore if you don’t want to see the Insight again for this person. Make sure you select Keep or Ignore for each Insight because only two new Insights will appear on a timeline at once. After you accept or ignore an Insight, you just might get something new the next time you view the LifeStory. (Notice that other family members who might have been affected by the historical event are also shown.)
You can hide Historical Insights on the LifeStory and Facts view. For example, if you’re busy in research mode and don’t want them taking up space in the timeline, click the settings drop-down menu and choose “Hide Historical Insights.”
Because Ancestry members have ancestors that crisscross the world and have lived through many centuries, we know that we won’t be able to cover every flood, plague, war, or immigration wave that ever happened. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to try. By the end of June we’ll have almost 600 Historical Insights for 20 countries including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Russia, South Africa, China, Mexico, and Hungary. And if you have family living in America during the Revolutionary War or Civil War, you’ll want to check your ancestors’ timelines in coming weeks; new Insights will let you know whether you have relatives who were living near battlefields during these key conflicts.
Let’s Hear from You
Although we have a team of experts combing through history books, websites, and timelines looking for events that changed the world, we want to know what interests you. Did a new industry revitalize your grandpa’s hometown and bring masses of workers to the area? Was an earthquake responsible for the destruction of an entire town causing your family to move? Let us know in the Comments section about the historical events that you’d love to see in your ancestors’ timelines.