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"Zoom Out" to Learn More about Your Ancestor

Solving brick walls requires all the information we can find. Here's how "zooming out" from your ancestor can help.

Sometimes, the information about our ancestors is sparse. Perhaps they did not create many records in their lifetime. Or maybe the records were destroyed or are missing.

What can you do to add a bit more information to their life story?

You can “zoom out” and get a birds-eye view of what was going on around them at the time. Anything you learn about their hometown/county, occupation or industry, religion, socioeconomic status, local/national issues and events at the time, etc., will help you know them better and fill in the gaps.

Notice the difference it makes to use this technique here:

Option 1: “Benjamin’s father served in the war when he was quite young, possibly for the bounty money.”

- OR - because I just don’t know all that much about Benjamin's life or his father James, I can add context by zooming out to see what was happening to his community.

Option 2: “In his early years, Benjamin was essentially raised in a single-parent household. When he was only thirteen months old, his father James enlisted to serve in the War. Possibly, he was drawn to service by the enticement of the fifty-dollar bounty offered for three years’ service. If he did not join for monetary gain, it may be that he elected to serve before the impending conscription act forced him to.

The fifty dollars in bounty money, an equivalent of about $1,360.88 today, likely aided his family greatly. James’ home county was devastated by war. Supply chain blockades brought the serious threat of starvation. Foodstuffs could not be readily bought. And prices soared. For example, coffee prices rose from $1.20 per pound to a staggering $196 per pound by the end of the war. All dietary staples like flour, corn, meal, butter, oats, and potatoes became unaffordable. Livestock could not be slaughtered and preserved because salt was an imported good and was not allowed through the supply lines. Families who were left at home resorted to a subsistence lifestyle. With the men gone, women like Benjamin’s mother Elizabeth became both home keepers and farmers, working tirelessly to feed and care for their children. Oftentimes, they were not able to provide enough food to keep their children alive.”

For this example, I'll stop the narrative with that snippet. For a biography or family narrative, though, I would go on to write about the trials they faced, what their life was like, and how the hardships affected the rest of their years.

Which version would you like to read about your ancestor? Do you feel like you know more about Benjamin's life in Option 2?

Adding the context of the area and events that surrounded our ancestors always adds depth and understanding. But it is particularly helpful when we know little of them. Adding context helps us conduct better research and produce higher-quality biographies.

[sources not included for example]

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