Ancestors deserve better than becoming just a name and a number in your database. An important part of research is to put them into historical perspective.
Some of us are lucky enough to have descended from prolific letter writers or dedicated journal keepers, or from the famous (and infamous): ancestors whose escapades were recounted in newspapers or history books.
But what about the rest of us? Many men and women spent their lives simply struggling to stay one step ahead of the taxman and the devil. Many could neither read nor write, and so left nothing to tell us about themselves. People of African-American descent may find no records at all if their ancestors were held in slavery.
Find a surrogate ancestor
In those instances we might look for someone to stand in for the ancestor. It isn't the real thing, but it's better than nothing. The substitute should be someone in similar circumstances who did write about his life. From those stories we draw probabilities and possibilities for what our own families experienced.
A good virtual place to visit in the quest for historical background is the Library of Congress at memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections. Be prepared to get lost for a few days in the wealth and breadth of stories from rich to poor, east to west and north to south.
Start with the Records of the Federal Writers' Projects and the Works Progress Administration (better known as the WPA) collection. The writers' project spans the years of 1889 to 1942. Readers can access the work at lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/wpaintro/wpahome.html. The stories are arranged by states.
Read what it was like to survive a Nebraska blizzard of 1888 or what it was like to be a drinking, brawling Wisconsin lumberjack in 1889.
What was it like to leave French Canada and become residents of the state of Maine, where everyone spoke English?
Follow Alice Fairweather, a squatter farmer and mother of 13 in Venus, Fla., as she relates to the interviewer that "thirteen chillens do seem like a heap to feed and raise up but it wouldn't be so hard somehow most of the time if Ed just wouldn't drink so much liquor."
Over in Lakeland in 1939, Charlie Robinson told a scribe when and where he was born, his parents' names and bits and pieces about his siblings. He remembers his mother telling him stories of growing up a slave: She was 14 when she was freed.
W.E. "Doc" Van Alstine, interviewed in Oregon, was born in New York in 1847, son to a man who would serve as a Union Army surgeon. From an early age, "Doc" yearned to be in show business, so when he was "a young gaffer in my early teens" he ran away with the Mighty Yankee Robinson Circus.
Stories of their times
The stories are funny, gut-wrenching, depressing and uplifting. In other words, they are good representative stories of individuals who can speak for themselves and others about lives in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
This writers collection is just one of many jewels a researcher can find online at the Library of Congress. Being a child of the South and a genealogist, I've always been in tune with the difficulty African-Americans have in finding records of their heritage. "The Church and the Southern Black Community" offers resources for researchers to read slave narratives and stories of Southern blacks' experiences.
Another fascinating section is "American Notes: Travels in America 1750-1920," which contains 253 narratives by American and foreign visitors. Researchers can see times and places from many perspectives.
Somewhere on that Web site, a researcher might be rewarded to find his own ancestor. But everyone is sure to find at least a story through which to vicariously experience an ancestor's trials, tribulations and glories.