Tuesday, October 20, 2015

How Pride and Prejudice can help you learn about your ancestors

I don't have any stories about most of my ancestors. I try to piece together what I can based on what I can find, but I'll never know much about their day-to-day lives by looking at the census. Usually I have to guess.

I recently realized, though, that some of my favourite books were written in the 1800s. Pride and Prejudice, for example, was published in 1813, when my ancestor, Grace Harry, was 8 years old and living in Cornwall, England. While I'm sure the characters in the book are far more wealthy than Grace ever was or even hoped to be, small details in the book might give me insight into her life that I couldn't find elsewhere. Maybe she was a maid....

TV shows and movies are relevant too (though books that were actually written by people who lived at the time period are probably more accurate). In Downton Abbey, for instance, the three daughters probably would have been born in the 1890s, while the Dowager Countess could have been born in the 1840s or earlier. The show could just as easily been written about my Barnes and Newman ancestors (if it were a show about coal miners).

Below is a list of some classic books with their publication dates (special thanks to wikipedia for supplying the publication dates). Many of these books have been adapted into movies as well. Keep in mind these books are mostly about adults and would correspond to ancestors born between 20 and 50 years before these publication dates.

United Kingdom and Ireland

Pride and Prejudice - 1813

Frankenstein - 1818

Jane Eyre - 1847

Great Expectations - 1861

Black Beauty - 1877

Sherlock Holmes - 1887

The Importance of Being Ernest - 1895

A Little Princess - 1905

Secret Garden - 1911

United States and Canada

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow - 1820

The Scarlet letter - 1850

Uncle Tom's Cabin - 1852

Little Women - 1868

Little House on the Prairie - published 1932, takes place in the 1870s

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - 1885

Sarah, Plain and Tall - 1895

Anne of Green Gables - 1908

Gone with the Wind - 1936


The Count of Monte Cristo - published 1844 France, takes place 1815-1839

Les Miserables - published 1862 France, takes place 1815-1832

Anna Karenina - 1877 Russia

Heidi - 1881 Switzerland

What did I miss? What are your favourite books and movies about the times when your ancestors lived? Comment below and I'll add them to the list.

Photo by Naypong. Published on 05 November 2014 Stock photo - Image ID: 100296203

Seek ye out of the best genealogy sources accurate information

D&C 88:118 ... seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom...

Recently I came across an article called "The Huge Genealogy Mistake We All Need to Stop Making Now". Those kind of leading titles always get me and I'm usually disappointed but this one was good.

What's the huge mistake? Copying someone else's genealogy research, particularly public online family trees. I still highly recommend the article (even though I ruined the surprise) because it explains four very important reasons to stop copying other people's research. Instead of repeating them (and thereby plagiarizing an article on plagiarism) I'm going to focus on what to do instead.

It's an easy mistake to make. Genealogy sites are begging you to do it. Family Search literally creates your tree by copying it from someone else. Other genealogy sites find matches between your tree and other trees automatically and allow you to connect those people and share research. They encourage you to use other people's family trees as proof that your family tree is correct. But other people's family trees don't prove that your tree is correct.

There are two types of sources. Primary sources come from the time your ancestors lived. Birth, marriage and death records, military records, censuses, personal journals, memories - anything created in real time. Primary sources are usually accurate.

Gravestones are another example of a primary source

Secondary sources are created later, using the primary sources. Family trees, genealogies, books, blogs and websites, binders of research passed down by your great aunt. Secondary sources can be accurate if the person who created them was right, but they could be totally wrong if the person who created them made a mistake.

So are secondary sources completely useless? No. They're a great jumping off point. It's much easier to verify something you think might be true than it is to start from scratch.

Here's an example. You are looking for Eliza's parents. You've searched her name on several genealogy sites and she shows up on a few public family trees. The family trees look right because they've got her husband and children on there too. Most of the family trees say that her parents are William and Catherine in a small town in Wales. How does this help you? It changes your research question

You were asking "Who are Eliza's parents?" but after seeing those family trees you can ask "Are Eliza's parents William and Catherine?". The second question is much easier to answer. With three people to look for and a specific place you are much more likely to find good primary sources for Eliza.

You have to be careful, though. Proving that there were a William and Catherine who had a daughter named Eliza isn't enough. You have to prove (or disprove) that it's the right Eliza - the one who grew up to be your ancestor. Look for primary sources that link adult Eliza to her parents, or that link William and Catherine's Eliza to a different grown-up family. Marriage and death records sometimes list the parents. Sometimes adult Eliza will show up in the census living with her parents or one of her siblings. Sometimes young Eliza's sister will list adult Eliza as a witness on her marriage record. It may take a while, but you will have lots to look for.

When you do find some good primary sources attach them to your family tree! You're a secondary source too and you can make it easy for other people to verify your research. Be the tree you'd like to see in the world. :)

Photocredit: Marc Aert. Published on 18 October 2008 Stock photo - Image ID: 1001206