March 14, 2002
Genealogy is the land of learning. In tracking our ancestors, we must often learn about migration routes, occupations, record types, border changes, and more. As our ancestors moved into a new state or county, we should take the time to learn the history of that county or state.
History of the Area
While major historical events have taken on a new meaning to most of us as we discover our ancestors involvement in them, we still tend to avoid history, just as we did in high school. It is more fun to look for our ancestors than it is to take the time to learn about the area in which he or she settled.
For instance, the state of Ohio was one of the first new states after the American Revolution. It was a part of the Northwest Territory, that when carved up would give us five states, and a portion of a sixth. The reasons that our ancestors migrated there is tied to the history of the area. For instance, much of Ohio's lands were set aside for one land bounty or another. Understanding those bounties and how a person was entitled to the land may help in determining why your ancestor settled there and where he came from.
The same is true of determining why some of our ancestors left an area. Did a group migrate? Was there a problem in the area that forced the farmers to look for better land? Were the families forcibly removed during one of the many battles fought on the soil? All of these are issues to consider and that would have encouraged our ancestors to move on.
Where to Turn
Because of the vastness of the information that genealogists seek, we can turn in almost any direction for information. General history sites abound on the Internet and should certainly be sought out. Through general search engines, I think you will be surprised by all that is available. For instance a search on The National Road, the first highway in the United States that was instrumental in moving large numbers of people into the midwest, is well represented on the Internet. While you may not become an expect on The National Road from the Internet sites, you will have a strong working knowledge that helps you with your research.
For information specific to a county, such as the county's history and development, you will want to turn to a couple of resources. The first is the USGenWeb Project Web site devoted to that county. Here you will learn a little about the county and more importantly about repositories in the county that are likely to have records of use to you. Another important resource about a county would be found in a book such as Everton's The Handybook for Genealogists which tells you when a county was created and from what other counties.
The history and development of the state as a whole is another important aspect of your knowledge. One of the best resources on this is the many state research outlines published by the Family History Library. These research outlines discuss the record types and availability, but the outline also looks at the history of the state from early settlers to present day. This history may play a key role in your understanding of why your ancestor settled in the area or how he came to be there when he did.
Your Personal Library
While the Internet is certainly a wonderful tool, and one we should use as often as possible in all aspects of our research, there are other resources that we as genealogists need as well. A good strong personal genealogical library is a good start. With the advent of books on CD-ROM, the cost of compiling and the space required to maintain our library has been greatly reduced.
Every genealogist should have a few basic books at their disposal including a couple of how-to books, finding aids, and then those specific to your areas of interest. One great book, and one that is presently available online for free, is Val Greenwood's The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy. This book is featured at the Genealogical Publishing Company Web site.
Needs from one genealogist to the other will vary in what should be found in the personal library. An excellent article on this subject can be found in The Learning Center here at Genealogy.com. "Building a Dream Library" by Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG looks at the many different types of books and resources you are likely to want in your library and gives some wonderful examples of the more popular books.
While all this preparatory work sounds boring, in the end the knowledge you will have will make the tracing of your ancestors quite an adventure. You will not find that you are frustrated by the fact that records just stop in a given county because you will know where to turn or that the county wasn't created until then. Acquiring knowledge of the history and events that affected your ancestors will give you some avenues and options when the trail gets cold and allow you to continue your research.The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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