15 June 2012

Historical perspective: Putting your ancestors' lives in context

Oftentimes, as genealogists we tend to focus on births, marriages, and deaths. But to see the bigger picture, we need to consider what was happening in the community and the world around them to put our ancestors’ lives in context.

One way to do this is to create a timeline of family events and match it with historic events. That way, you can determine what outside factors may have influenced your ancestors’ lives, from wars, pirates, strikes, politics, religious revivals, and murders to fires, weather, flu epidemics, famines, and other major catastrophes.

For instance, my ancestors, a husband and a wife in their late 30s, died in 1721. From reviewing historic events of the time period, I finally figured out that they may have died in the smallpox epidemic that was ravaging Boston. After all, a few months prior to their deaths, they sent their children to live with relatives in Essex county, Massachusetts.

Other relatives lived in Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1892 when Lizzie Borden was accused of murdering her father and stepmother. Did they know the Bordens? Maybe not. But how closely did they follow that sensational news? At the time, one of my relatives was a five-year-old boy, and he grew up to be a policeman. I sometimes wonder if the murders influenced his chosen career and how much inside information he knew from working at the police station.

Below, I’ve included some Massachusetts events randomly collected from the MassMoments web site. Hopefully, a few of them will make you consider how an event may have affected your ancestors’ lives. What did they live through? How may that event have influenced their lives?

Learning about the times they lived in may give you a new perspective into your ancestors’ lives. It may even give your family history research new clues to follow.

1620: Pilgrims and strangers land in Plymouth
1630: Puritans arrive in Boston
1636: Harvard College founded
1658: Quakers outlawed in Plymouth
1659: Christmas celebrations outlawed
1675: King Philip’s War begins
1690: first newspaper published in the Colonies
1692: Salem witch trials
1717: pirate ship the Whydah sinks off Cape Cod
1721: smallpox epidemic in Boston
1733: Boston masons organize first Grand Lodge in America
1746: Abenaki raid on Deerfield
1760: Great Fire of 1760, Boston
1765: Stamp Act protests
1770: Boston Massacre
1775: American Revolution begins in Lexington
1797: USS Constitution launched
1806: first African-American meeting house opened
1812: War of 1812 begins
1820: Maine becomes own state, apart from Massachusetts
1821: Massachusetts General Hospital admits first patient
1837: Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary opens
1844: Millerites await end of the world on October 22
1848: Boston’s first municipal water system completed
1850: first national women’s rights convention held in Worcester
1860: Lynn shoeworkers strike
1861: Massachusetts volunteers join in the Civil War
1872: Great Fire of Boston
1888: blizzard of 1888
1892: Andrew and Abby Borden murdered in Fall River
1897: Boston opens the nation’s first subway system
1903: Marconi relays first transcontinental radio message from Wellfleet
1912: Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence
1919: Great Molasses Flood in Boston
1926: construction of Quabbin Reservoir begins; towns of Dana, Enfield, Greenwich, and Prescott disappear
1927: execution of Sacco & Vanzetti
1938: hurricane ravages New England
1962: Boston Strangler killings
1978: Blizzard of 1978
2004: Red Sox win World Series

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