How much have you considered the impact local and federal laws had on your ancestors? Laws played a key role in how they did business, earned money, fought wars, and married. I came across an interesting case: Why did the ancestor go free after being convicted of manslaughter after having been “seduced by the instigation of the devil” in Maryland in 1783? Court documents detailed the witness statements and the ruling, but not the sentence. A peek into the early laws of Maryland gave me some clues. Apparently, sometimes rather than being committed to prison, if it was determined that a person had acted in self-defense, a manslaughter sentence meant that the perpetrator was branded on the palm of the hand or the thumb with the letter “M,” something that would never happen today.
It is important and sometimes crucial to our research to be aware of or look for the laws that were part of the records our ancestors made, such as probate laws, land transactions, or military service. It’s not one of the easiest things to look up, but it is worth the effort.
Ideas for Finding Early Laws
Follow one of the Experts. One of my favorite legal experts is Judy Russell, JD, CG, CGL. Follow her blog at The Legal Genealogist for tips and little known facts about the law and our ancestors.
Just knowing more about the laws can help us rid ourselves of preconceived ideas of both why our ancestors did something or why they put up with things we do not today. It is especially important to know more about the laws that affected women in our ancestry. In any case, ignorance of the law is no excuse for bad research.
Tell us some interesting legal clues that you’ve uncovered in your history!
We are the keepers of the record, the protectors of family photos, and the font of all family lore: We are the record keepers. The “Chief Memory Officers.” And we keep a lot of stuff in our quest for preserving our histories. Cleaning and organizing all those papers, photos, and memorabilia is a big job. Here are some little ideas that might make for a big difference this Spring:
Get the boxes out of the attic/basement. Papers and photos need to live where you live – free of moisture and humidity. While doing your normal spring cleaning, designate some newly cleaned space for your genealogical information.
Organize in baby steps. Too many boxes? Try setting aside time to go through a box, but only to take out information for one family (not a whole surname, it is easier to file papers and memorabilia by couple or individual). Take out the pages just for Uncle Jehoshaphat Blank and his wife Aunt Jemina (Someone) Blank. Go through them and see if any thing needs to be a) scanned and uploaded to your online family tree, b) used for future research and put in your research log, or c) thrown away because you have duplicates of the same 1820 census. Take them and simply put them in a labeled file folder in a dedicated filing cabinet. Then repeat with the next couple. Maybe put on some classic 1940s or even early jazz albums to get you in the mood while you shuffle through that box.
Learn about photo preservation for your originals. You don’t need to scrapbook them (yet), but you may avoid future damage by putting them in a safer environment (rather than that ziplock bag or sticky album). There are some great how-to articles online, try NARA’s article on removing photos from sticky albums or About.com’s section on Preserving the Past.
Get help. Genealogy is about family, so why not make organizing your family history a family affair? Plan an organizing-get-to-know-our-ancestors party with your cousins, children, or grandchildren.
Make a date. Cleaning and organizing can be overwhelming. Plan and calendar when you will organize in the next month. Can you spare an hour once a week? Two hours a month? A little progress is still progress, and you may find that you are enjoying your hands-on family history much more than you thought.
I can’t promise that organizing will be easy, but it will always be worth it. How many times have I found something I didn’t realize I had, or more often I find something I forgot I had but that now has new significance in light of the research I’ve recently done. A little time here and there goes a long way.
Have you been stumped with a research project, especially because the area your ancestor lived in was a mystery to you? Needed a genealogical buddy to bounce ideas off of? Discover the local historical societies in your ancestor’s area, and find friends and inspiration at a genealogical society in your home county. Let’s look at a few things each could be valuable for.
Unless you have lived in the same area for six generations, you may not know much about the place where your ancestor lived and raised his family. Knowing about small cemeteries, churches in the area, and the general history can help in your research. Often these historical societies are run or staffed by volunteers, and we appreciate all the time they put into restoring the history of their area. It is always a great idea to contact historical societies in your ancestor’s area, either by phone or through their websites. For example here are some unique records I’ve found in historical societies:
Private indexes of obituary records
Private indexes of newspaper records
Books on local churches
Journals and diaries of early local citizens
Early court records (from the 1700s) thrown away by the courthouse and retrieved by the historical society staff
Family surname indexes
Donated family histories and family files
Newsletters about the area’s history and records
…and so much more!
YOUR LOCAL GENEALOGICAL SOCIETY
Do you have family who just don’t understand your need to learn more about the family tree? Need a friend who won’t roll their eyes at your story of finding the right headstone at the cemetery? Join a local county genealogical society. These are also staffed by volunteers, dedicated to the preservation of family histories. You don’t have to have ancestors from your local area to join a local genealogical society – its about coming together and collaborative learning. Many genealogical societies meet regularly or volunteer in projects like these:
Sponsoring lectures in genealogical or historical subjects
Collecting and indexing records for publication
Discussing research problems
Cleaning or maintaining local cemeteries or historic sites
Sharing information about genealogical educational opportunities both online and in the area
Planning trips to significant historical sites or archives.
Take some time to visit the website for the historical society in your ancestor’s area or find out the meeting times of the genealogical society in your local area. You’ll be glad you did. You’d be surprised how much you can learn!
We are all amazing storytellers. And our talents can be extraordinary gifts to the people we love.
No one knows this better than Reel Tributes CEO David Adelman, whose passion for family history was ignited by the touching story his mother told about his grandmother’s life through film.
David recently headlined a RootsTech event on “Storytelling Superpowers: How to Come Off as Your Family’s Genealogy Hero.”
His message was transformational. Genealogists are not just passionate hobbyists, but also the superheroes of their families. Their powers are unseen yet extraordinary as they work behind-the-scenes to create the narratives that bind families together. He urged aspiring family historians to use their storytelling superpowers for the greater good… starting right now.
“It’s the stories, not the data that people will remember.”