Researching family stories

Full disclosure here that we are not by any means “professional genealogists,” and tip our hats to those who have years of experience in the field. Rather we are writers with a passion for history, and sisters with matching dog-with-a-bone attitudes when it comes to researching family stories. This is our approach to genealogical sleuthing:

Be curious. Ask relatives what they know about your family history, and if they have pictures, letters, stories to share. Follow up on every clue, even if an anecdote seems unlikely to be accurate. Often there’s a kernel of truth in the craziest story.

Be tenacious. We lost track of our great-great aunt Ellen in our family tree, somewhere in the murky 1890s. We’d seen her through childhood, marriage, and the births of many children, and then she disappeared from the census forms. Her husband didn’t call himself a widower, but Ellen was nowhere to be seen. The search for her was fascinating — through workhouses, asylums, baby deaths and drunkenness — with much to be learned about our family’s world along the way.

LMA Stone Case Book Our Ellen 2
Ellen, discovered in the Stone Asylum casebook.
©London Metropolitan Archives (City of London).

Be methodical. Keep track of where you look and what you find. Enthusiasm is a wonderful asset, but it can send you spinning. In searching for Ellen and other relatives through the various workhouse ledgers, we retraced our steps more times than were necessary, only to trip over a familiar detail and realize “Oh, we’ve been here before.”

Stay open to possibility. Try various birth dates and name spellings when you’re searching for someone. Bizarre as it seems now, people often didn’t spell their names the same way each time they were recorded — even more often, names have been mistranscribed in databases. In the case of our mysterious Ellen, when we finally found her, she was living with another man, and though they hadn’t married, she’d taken his last name. Ancestors can be maddeningly elusive, but they usually do leave bread crumbs.

Be meticulous. One wrong assumption can change your lineage! That said, it can be just as interesting to research someone else’s genealogical line, but you should always corroborate the evidence you find. When we found Ellen with a new man and a new name, we knew it was her from an address given on multiple documents, and from details that surfaced in the report when she was found “wandering insane.”

Zoom in. Once you find a person, dig deep. Where were they born, where have they lived, who lives near them, what is their job, what more can you find about that occupation or workplace, who did they marry, who witnessed the marriage, do they have children, have they lost children, how did their children die, and how did they themselves die, and was there an inquest, and where were they buried and in what kind of grave, and who else was buried there? Newspapers can yield great surprises, even if your family is full of ordinary Joes like ours. We found our cowkeeper Benjamin Jones getting bad press in the 1860s, charged with watering his milk and keeping filthy stables, and garnering the disapproval of the nuisance inspector.

Zoom out. Benjamin’s actions led us to investigate the grim world of cowkeeping in Victorian London, which in turn illuminated issues of poverty, class, health, crime, and philanthropy. By putting a family story in context, we learn not just about our own people, but also about how they lived in their particular environment — how it made them who they were, and how those realities informed whatever came next in the family tree. It isn’t very satisfying to find out your ancestors were in workhouses without understanding what being in a workhouse meant, or why a workhouse existed in the first place. If your ancestors had cancer or went crazy or sank on a ship, find out what it was like to have cancer back then, or to be considered crazy, or to sink on a ship, or for that matter to be on a ship in a war with the enemy coming at you.

Enriching family stories with social history is an exhilarating, addictive task. And if history can enrich personal stories, then surely personal stories can enrich history. The big events of our world — poverty, war, immigration, social reform — take on new meaning when viewed through an intimate lens.