Weaving in the Current Events of the Time into Your Ancestor’s Story: Tuesday’s Tip

We look at census records and changes in families as their story. But they lived in a time and place.  Their lives weave through history.   As I work on my Kinship Determination Project for my CG and the family  I’m trying to learn more about the county they lived in, Smyth County, Virginia to understand their lives in the 1800’s.

Yesterday I delved into History of Smyth County, Virginia, Volume Two, 1832-1870: Ante-bellum Years through The Civil War by Joan Tracy Armstrong.  As you can see Smyth County was in the southwest corner of the state and transportation was the biggest issue when it came to developing the county.  The politics of convincing a state legislature to fund the cost of building roads and railroads in remote areas of the state took quite some time.  But it did happen.

Marion, Va Train Station

Marion, Va Train Station by SeeMidTN.com (aka Brent), on Flickr

“By the end of 1855, tracks for the railroad were within two miles of Marion.  Four months later the train was making runs to Marion and track was being laid toward Abingdon.” 1

So the 10 years from 1850 to 1860, did not just show a change in the personal life of my ancestor Adam Boyd Snavely.  He was married,2 became a father,3 and a widower4 over those ten years. There was also a change in the ways in which the people of the county, and Marion, where he lived, conducted their lives.5

And I think that is the challenge of telling the story.  Our lives are against the backdrop of the world around us.  What happens in my city, my county, my state, my country has an effect on my life as I interact with the people in my communities, and the events of the world.

To be really good at what we do, telling the story, we need to bring in those details, not just the personal details we find in historical records.


1. Joan Tracy Armstrong, History of Smyth County, Virginia, Volume Two 1832-1870: Ante-bellum Years through The Civil War
(Marion, Virginia: Smyth County Historical and Museum Society, Inc., 1986), 56.
2. Smyth County, Virginia, “Marriage Registers,” registrations ordered chronologically by date, p. 158 (stamped), line 2, entry for Adam B Snavely and Mary J Aker; citing Marriage Records 1852-1935 [microform], Reel 47, Allen County Public Library, Fort Wayne, Indiana.
3.Find A Grave, database and images (http://findagrave.com : accessed 2 Sep 2012), memorial page for Emma Snavely Find A Grave Memorial no. 47227744, citing Bear Cemetery, Atkins, Smyth County, Virginia.
4. Virginia, Deaths and Burials Index, 1853-1917, database online, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 8 Sep 2012), entry for Mary J Snavely, death date 17 May 1859; citing Virginia Deaths and Burials Index, 1853-1912, index, FamilySearch.
5. 1860 U.S. census, Smyth County, Virginia, population schedule, p. 145 (penned), dwelling 948, family 951, Nicholas Snavely household; database and digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 2 Jun 2010); digital images, citing NARA microfilm publication, M653, roll 1377.

7 thoughts on “Weaving in the Current Events of the Time into Your Ancestor’s Story: Tuesday’s Tip

  1. Kaarin E Brown

    I’m sorry this is so picky, but grammar errors can slow down the flow for the reader and distract him/her from the ideas the writer is trying to convey. In your first sentence you use the word “families” twice. The first time you use it correctly (plural form of “family”); the second time the correct form would be “families’ ” indicating plural of family owning or possessing the stories. In the third sentence the correct form of the first word is “Their” (possessive). Your evaluators for your CG may or may not consider written grammar important, but some of your future clients may. I’ve learned so much already from your posts; I’d hate to see anyone miss the lessons you are conveying because they became tangled up in grammar missteps.

  2. Jacqi

    I can imagine it must have been quite a chore to convince the state legislature to build what must have seemed like a road to nowhere. However, by the 1850s–considering we are talking about a state whose settlement began occurring over two hundred years prior–it couldn’t have been just “the middle of nowhere” anymore! Surely, there’s more to that story…

    You are right about considering the context in which your ancestors lived their lives, conducted their business, had their social and community involvement. That’s why I love the historic newspapers. That’s one way to take a peek at what life was like for those specific ancestors. Sometimes, I just get lost reading all those local headlines from way back when!

  3. Michelle Ganus Taggart

    I enjoyed this post and it’s certainly good to be reminded about how much can change over a ten year period. With that in mind, I guess I shouldn’t be so shocked when census records reflect a dramatically different set of circumstances ten years later. I love learning more about the time period and location, although some areas of the country seem more challenging than others.

  4. Anne Gillespie Mitchell Post author

    I think it is figuring out what changed and why is the key. I think about all the changes between 2000 and 2010 in the world. My immediate family didn’t really change between those two census records, but the world did. And after the census was taken, I lost both my father and my aunt, and you wouldn’t see that in census records until 2020! Historical documents are just snapshots. It’s weaving them together that is the key. And something I need to get better at!

  5. Dawn Westfall

    Thought-provoking post, Anne, thanks! I have recently been walking around my neighborhood and thinking of all the changes from what I know about the area from researching. I was walking along the railroad tracks the other day and noted the tracks had some dates (Carnegie 1937) on them and got to pondering more…

  6. ljhlaura

    Good advice and a great example from your own family history. Agree that some of the really interesting parts of family history come from understanding the context in which they lived.

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