Discover your inside story with AncestryDNA®

June 10, 2018

Bringing Your Ancestor to Life

Daily Witness, Montreal. Monday June 9, 1913
One of the genealogists I follow on Twitter (Dan Ford) recently tweeted something I thought was genius. Here's what Dan said:

"I looked up the weather on the exact date that my Irish ancestor arrived at Ellis Island to better imagine what her arrival was like. Turns out record-setting heat wave, poor Irish lass. I used an online local newspaper to get the weather report."

I love that Dan did this. What a super idea to put more personality into our ancestor's lives. When we add a tidbit of detail to an event that affected an ancestor, we take that ancestor from being a cardboard cutout of a name and date, to a living breathing person just like us. 

What are some tidbits you might look for, and add, to the story of your ancestor during a specific event? Here are some ideas based on an ancestor's immigration:

  • the weather that day
  • the season
  • what type of clothing he or she might have been wearing
  • a historical fact (was there a war going on, a political event, or anything of historical importance?)
  • a description of the ship he/she sailed on
  • find a description of the port of arrival and the port of departure
  • find out how your ancestor would have gone on from the port of arrival to the final destination 
  • look for an ad in the newspapers in the origin country for the ship your ancestor took - there may be ticket prices noted
  • how long was the voyage - check the first page of the ship manifest as that information is usually noted there
  • how old was the ship - often you can find details of when and where it was buiilt, and more
These are only a few quick ideas and based on an immigration event. Let your imagination run wild and try to come up with more, especially surrounding different events such as the birth or baptism of a child, a wedding, a funeral, a move to a different location.

Of course after reading Dan's tweet, I rushed off to try to find out what the weather was the day my maternal grandparents arrived in Quebec on 9 June 1913 at 8:10 p.m.  I had previously found an ad for their journey, information on the ship, and so on, but had never thought to find out what the weather was that day. It's not always easy to access Canadian newspapers but I managed to find one for Montreal on that date. Granddad and Grandma's ship landed first in Montreal then went on to Quebec so I added the weather report (Fair and Cool) to their story.

There was even a report on the front page that snow had fallen in Montreal that day! My poor grandmother must have been horrified. 

Have fun! It's your opportunity to make your ancestor come alive.


Anonymous said...

for my maternal grand-mother, I added her favorite piece of music she played on the piano, even got a copy of the music sheet. For my paternal grand-father, he loved baseball, even played as a teenager. These and more have been entered in my Tree under "notes"


Linda said...

Lorine (and Dan),
Great idea, I will be adding information and a link to this article to my column in October issue of the Sacramento Genealogy Society's emagazine.
Linda Johnson

Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing this. In addition to researching their physical surroundings and details about their immigration or biggest migration within the U.S., I enjoy doing whatever deep dives I can think of that help get a handle on what kind of people they were. One g-g-g-grandfather, John Madison Curtis, had some hearsay comments attached in various family trees I found online that labeled him as a judge.

We all know that sometimes when a story or label "sticks" down through generations there's often something to it. Yet my research showed no such title ever used for him nor any record of legal education or work for a court. And it wasn't mentioned in his obituary. A couple newspaper pieces after his death noted he'd left his birthplace of Murfreesboro, TN for OH and later KS as a young married man because he and his wife, Mary Ann "Polly" Warren Curtis, abhorred slavery. Personal ethics are the kind of thing that's difficult to verify and subject to wishful thinking on the part of descendants. And after all, it turned out he and my g-g-g-grandmother had moved to Kansas while it was still a territory and the subject of whether it would enter the Union as a slave or free state was very much in dispute, often violently so. Was John's objection to slavery a face-saving convenience adopted by descendants?

In researching the history of how Kansas managed to become a state and a free state at that, I read about the several state constitutions submitted to Congress, the first being pro-slavery, the second abolitionist. In tracking the voting history in the county where these g-g-g-grandparents lived and died, I found the state archives had digitized the original vote compilations. And there I found the tally for my ancestors' district, with the signatures on the back of the three election judges, one of whom was John Madison Curtis. This was the election held specifically to replace the pro-slavery original constitution with an anti-slavery one.

So one old document bore witness to the one-time elections judge my ancestor had really been, and the fact of his grass-roots participation in such an important election illustrated what he felt about slavery. It suggested that his abolitionist beliefs were probably as well known as old accounts claimed and that those who knew him felt he would reliably monitor such an important election. While this second proposed state constitution was not the end of the story of KS statehood, it provided me with welcome insight into this man and probably also his wife and most or all of their children. One of their daughters married my g-g-grandfather who had been a Union soldier, as did most of her sisters.

Plus I had the pleasure of seeing John's signature, the only example I'll probably ever find of anything he wrote. It showed his penmanship skills and which style of cursive he'd been taught as a boy. All in all a happy discovery and all from one simple record in a state archive unearthed by basic curiosity.