How Were They Different?

It’s difficult to not view the lives of others through our own set of experiences. It’s often human nature to do that. There are a variety of reasons why it is beneficial to realize that there are other viewpoints and experiences different from our own. It’s crucial for the genealogist to do this, especially if their goal is to paint a portrait of their ancestor that is as complete and accurate as possible.

It’s important to remember that our relatives may have had different experiences or a different lifestyle than we had or than we currently have. Those differences are something that the genealogist needs to be aware of and acknowledge.

One way to get out of our “I’m stuck rut” on a family member is to ask “how was this person different from me?” It’s important to get beyond the fact that they are dead and think a little deeper. There’s usually more to it than that. Chances are there are at least several ways in which your ancestor was different. Being aware of those differences may provide you with some insight into your relative’s life and get you thinking about sources or methods you had not thought to look at before.

There are some differences that are easy to spot:

  • gender,
  • educational level,
  • marital status,
  • religious belief,
  • day-to-day life (food preparation, housing, healthcare, etc.)

Spotting some differences requires looking at your own background a little bit as well. After all, you can’t determine if someone is different from you if you don’t know something about yourself.

Your relative may have had fewer economic opportunities than you. Or they may have had more economic opportunities. For one reason or another, it may have been easier for them to pick up and move across the country in 1860 than it would be for you today. Or it may have been more difficult for them than it would be for you.

One ancestor of mine lost his father when he was seven years of age and his mother a few years later. He and his three siblings were raised by their step-father along with their two younger half-siblings. The family moved at least four times between 1845 and 1860, living in Ontario, Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri during that time period. After they left Ontario there were not close relatives nearby, which may have made the deaths of the parents in Illinois and Iowa more difficult to handle. It appears that the step-father and his two children with their mother moved to Ontario at the start of the US Civil War, leaving his wife’s children with her first husband in Iowa. Could that experience have impacted the ancestor for his entire life? Perhaps.

A female ancestor lost her father when she was under the age of five. Her mother married again (understandably as this was in the 1850s) to a man who apparently was not a good choice. The second husband left in short order and it was several years later before the mother married again–this time the marriage lasted long enough to produce four children before it ended in divorce. Statements from those records indicate the household was somewhat contentious. Could that have been part of the reason the ancestor and her younger sister married in their late teens? I don’t know as I wasn’t there, but marriage would have been an easy escape from their household of origin.

Even living through a common national experience, such as the Great Depression, was different for different families, even if they were from the same area and members of roughly the same social class or group. My four grandparents all grew up in the same area during the Great Depression, all children of farm families. None of them were well-off by any standard, but their families financial situations were somewhat different. One’s family came dangerously close to losing their heavily mortgaged farm and two others were in a similar situation. The fourth was slightly better off, renting the farm from a grandfather and eventually inheriting it around the time of the Second World War.

Your ancestor may have grown up in a different family structure than you. I grew up in a household with two parents and one sibling. I had no half-siblings or step-siblings. Neither did my parents. My father had one brother and my mother had no siblings who grew to adulthood. My immediate family, as a consequence, was small. For that reason it is occasionally difficult for me to wrap my head around the dynamics that take place in families where there are much larger numbers of children and much larger numbers of aunts and uncles.

I had another relative who moved a quite a bit when she was a child. When she was fortunate enough with her husband to buy a farm in the mid-1930s, she never moved from that location and lived there until she died. I don’t have that experience of frequent moving or not being certain if Dad will be able to rent the farm next year or if we’ll have to move if my folks can’t make the mortgage payment. I will admit that I’m fortunate to not have that experience. And that’s the point. Her experience may have impacted her viewpoint.

How was your ancestor different from you?


2 thoughts on “How Were They Different?

  1. jayne weichert says:

    I really appreciate how you “make it real” by inviting readers to compare their lives with members of their family. We are all DNA bits and parts of our families….history is spectacular

    • This is true. There are many reasons to compare or at least contemplate the differences. Solely from a research standpoint it helps to get out of our own personal realm of experience.

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