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Finding extraordinary information for 'ordinary' ancestors

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Are you faced with the task of telling the life story of ancestors for whom all you have are a few names and dates? Don't lose heart; if you poke around a bit, you might find a lot more information than you thought possible.

Leslie Albrecht Huber gives presentation titled "Beyond Names and Dates: Uncovering Your Ancestor's Stories".
Leslie Albrecht Huber gives presentation titled "Beyond Names and Dates: Uncovering Your Ancestor's Stories". Photo: Photo by R. Scott Lloyd, Church News

Leslie Albrecht Huber discussed tools and techniques for doing that in her presentation July 28 at the Conference on Family History and Genealogy at BYU.

Sister Huber, whose book The Journey-Takers tells of her own European emigrant ancestors, says that in telling such stories, one might be tempted to assign "criteria" according to which ancestors are more promising for uncovering information. The criteria are that the ancestor was recent, prominent and "verbose."

Yet, Sister Huber said, her favorite ancestor, Karsti Nilsdotter (1843-1902) from Vallby in southern Sweden, a prominent figure in her book, fits none of those criteria.

In selecting that ancestor as a subject for her book, Sister Huber was afraid she had chosen someone a bit too ordinary.

"But as I got into doing the research, I soon found myself with the opposite problem from what I had expected," she said. "Instead of having too little information, I found myself with too much. In fact, I had to cut 50,000 words from my manuscript."

The fact that an ancestor is "ordinary" does not mean his or her story is not as fascinating, moving, inspiring, important and worthy of being passed down as that of a more prominent ancestor, she said.

But, she said, such a story requires three things of a researcher: to dig deeper, rely on the personal accounts of others and "create the historical context."

"Before you start reeling through microfilms looking for new records, I would encourage you to look at the records you already have," Sister Huber said. They might contain little pieces of information such as witnesses, occupations, causes of death and any notes the record keeper added.

She encouraged would-be researchers to find make a time line of an ancestor's life, including events of from others' lives and outside events that would have impacted the ancestor.

Instead of paying attention to an entry pertaining to one's ancestor "look at the entry around them," she said.

"For example in a census, look for their neighbors. Look for people who traveled with them on an immigrant ship or maybe just others living in a community. These efforts can help you reveal information about the family. How often is it that the next-door neighbor is a sibling or a cousin or an aunt or uncle, or someone traveling with them is actually related, even if you don't recognize the names at first?"

A researcher can cast a wider net by looking at unconventional records, such as financial, school, payment and employment records, newspaper articles and records of societies to which the ancestor might have belonged, Sister Huber said.

"If your ancestor did not write anything, what can you do?" she asked. "You can read what other people wrote." Begin with records of family or friends, the closer to the ancestor the better, she said. Then expand to records of acquaintances or strangers: someone who sailed with the ancestor or even the following year from the same place, someone who fought in the same military unit or someone who lived in the same locale.

Annual Conference on Family History and Genealogy at BYU.
Annual Conference on Family History and Genealogy at BYU. Photo: Photo by R. Scott Lloyd, Church News

"Many of the events and circumstances will apply to your ancestor, even if the records don't give your ancestor's name," Sister Huber suggested.

Leslie Albrecht Huber gives presentation titled "Beyond Names and Dates: Uncovering Your Ancestor's Stories".
Leslie Albrecht Huber gives presentation titled "Beyond Names and Dates: Uncovering Your Ancestor's Stories". Photo: Photo by R. Scott Lloyd, Church News

"Mormon Immigration Index," a database on CD-ROM offered by the Church, is one of several sources she mentioned that might include such background information, she said. It is searchable by an ancestor's name and pulls up records of people who would have traveled in the same ship voyage and overland in the same company.

Annual Conference on Family History and Genealogy at BYU.
Annual Conference on Family History and Genealogy at BYU. Photo: Photo by R. Scott Lloyd, Church News

For example, for her ancestor Karsti Nilsdotter, she found in that index day-by-day accounts written by others in the same wagon train. "This is the only period of my ancestor's life where I have a sense of what happened every single day," she remarked.

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