Social history: an easy and rewarding way to do genealogy

Genealogy can be a very rewarding hobby. I’ve enjoyed it on and off for 40 years and recently sent the fourth update of the family history to relatives.

But for me, it’s not names and dates that make the hobby meaningful. They tell me little about what I came from. The meaningful information was found in social histories of the places my ancestors lived.

Social historians research the everyday lives of ordinary people and make generalizations. Genealogists can apply social historians’ findings, available online and in books, to their own ancestors.

Once I could locate a branch in Europe, I stopped going back in time and switched to reading about the culture, customs, economic situation, family structure, religion, occupations, cuisine, housing, etc., of the regional population. I feel confident assuming that my ancestors weren’t much different from most of their community.

This approach is accessible and quickly rewarding for anyone who can pointpoint a locale. The chances are good that where your ancestors came from has been studied by a social historian, whose field has burgeoned in the last few decades.

Of course, you still have to get your branch back to the immigrant to identify a birthplace, but that’s easier to do now than when I started because so much information is online. As in a names-and-dates genealogy search, you should begin with the most recent generation and work backwards, looking for censuses, vital records, wills, etc. When you identify where an immigrant ancestor came from, you can stop looking for names and dates and turn your attention to the more rewarding social histories.

The immigrants in one of my ancestral lines go back to Puritan New England; in another, only to my grandparents. Even though the known family tree of the latter would have only three branches, I feel I know it as well as the line for which I have names and dates going back some 13 generations.

After reading about that recent immigrant branch — my mother’s parents from Slovakia — I realized that my aunts ought not have been embarrassed by the suggestion that their mother was illiterate. Fifty percent of my grandparents’ generation couldn’t read or write because their Hungarian rulers denied them opportunity. That partly explains why priests, the only group with some education, were accorded almost superhuman status.

I found out what my ancestors’ homes likely looked like. Slovak peasants lived in one- or two-room cottages that usually faced on a side yard, with a flower garden on the street side and a vegetable garden in the backyard. I learned about the various ways women made cabbage and potatoes into meals; the one fancy dress teenage girls sewed to last them a lifetime of special occasions; the procession down the village street to honor a patron saint on his or her feast day.

I also read about the immigrant generation in America. More than four out of five Slovak men worked in coal mines or steel mills, as did my grandfather, because they were unprepared for anything but hard manual labor. Ss Cyril and Methodius Church, the focal point of the Slovak neighborhood in which my grandparents lived, was one one of many US churches in Slovak neighborhoods named after those “apostles to the Slavs.”

My paternal grandmother’s parents were Luxembourger. The area my great-grandmother was from got passed between Luxembourg and Belgium; it was in Luxembourg when her parents were born and in Belgium when she was born. I read that Luxembourg’s history is so intertwined with its neighbors’ that it wasn’t until the 20th century that Luxembourgers were defined as a distinct ethnic group — explaining why Luxembourger immigrants, including my great-grandparents, called themselves German.

I discovered that my great-grandparents weren’t unusual in operating a tavern, buying a farm, and having a truck gardening business. That was the pattern of many Luxembourger immigrants.

My paternal grandfather’s mother’s parents were from southwest Germany, as were 97 percent of the Germans who left for the United States during the decade my ancestors immigrated. That they came with their whole families, were Lutheran, had a skill (carpentry, in their case), and were able to save enough to buy homes was typical of those southwest German immigrants.

From what I gleaned from social history, I was able to supplement names and dates with eight single-spaced, double-column pages about each of these three ethnic groups. If you Google “social history and genealogy,” you may be surprised by how many resources you’d have available for learning about your background once you locate an immigrant ancestor in his or her birthplace.

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