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Solving Genealogy Problems Using Ancestor's Behaviors and Decisions

Ever wonder why your ancestor did something? Or where they came from? Or what happened to them after they disappeared from a census record? At some point, we all probably wish we could “just know” the behaviors and decisions of our ancestors so that we could figure out the answers to our questions. It'd be like stepping into their shoes, experiencing their world, and gaining a deeper understanding of who they were as individuals.

The great news is that you can do this! There are ways to get to know your ancestor well enough that you can better determine what happened to them. At the very least, it may help you eliminate some options as less likely to have occurred, which can often be a huge step forward.

a woman reading a genealogy book about how to learn more about her ancestor to break down genealogy brick walls

So how do you do this? First, get to know your ancestor’s behavior and character through records. Then, analyze and connect all the information together to learn their personality and help find answers.

First, use key records and sources to help find the behaviors and events of our ancestors' lives:

Census Records: Ah, the census—those invaluable snapshots of our ancestors' lives. Look at the family makeup and see what it can tell you. What about the ages? Did they start a family early or later? Pay attention to details like occupation, as it can shed light on their interests, skills, and social status. Was your great-great-grandfather a teacher, a farmer, or perhaps an artist? Such clues can hint at their values and passions.

Diaries and Letters: Imagine stumbling upon a long-forgotten diary or a bundle of love letters. These personal accounts offer an intimate glimpse into their thoughts, emotions, and experiences. Take note of the language used, the topics discussed, and the relationships they cherished. Did your ancestor express a love for nature, display a knack for storytelling, or reveal an adventurous spirit? These insights can shape our understanding of their character.

Legal and Probate Records: While legal documents may seem dry, they can provide fascinating insights into our ancestors' lives. Wills, land deeds, and court records reveal details about their financial situations, relationships, and even disputes. By examining their legal affairs, we can uncover aspects of their personality, such as their sense of justice, family dynamics, and business acumen.

Newspaper Articles: Extra! Extra! Dive into the local newspapers of yesteryear. Newspapers capture significant moments in our ancestors' lives, from birth announcements to obituaries, and everything in between. Look beyond the headlines and focus on the stories of everyday life. Did your ancestor participate in community events, support charitable causes? These glimpses into their public lives can illuminate their values and interests. Even if your ancestor is not named, the events in their community affected them. They lived in that time and place - getting to KNOW that community tells you a lot about your ancestor who was a part of it.

Church Records: The spiritual side of our ancestors is often documented in church records. Baptism records, marriage certificates, and funeral registers offer a window into their religious beliefs, community involvement, and social connections. Did they actively participate in church activities? Were they married more than once? Such details can provide valuable context for understanding their decisions and behaviors.

Next, interpret and analyze those records to shed light on our ancestors' personalities. It's important to approach this task with empathy, understanding that we are piecing together fragments of their lives and that our assumptions may not always be entirely accurate. Here are a few tips to help you navigate this fun exercise:

Context is Key: Remember that our ancestors lived in different times and societal norms. Consider the historical, cultural, and economic context in which they made their decisions. What were the prevailing attitudes of their era? How did social and economic factors influence their choices? By placing ourselves in their shoes, we can gain a better understanding of their behaviors and decisions. Reading histories of the area and especially newspapers of the time will help tremendously! Consult experts, too. Ask lots of questions and be curious. The more you learn about the area, the more you know about your ancestor.

Connect the Dots: Look for patterns and connections across different records and sources. By examining multiple pieces of evidence, we can create a more comprehensive picture of our ancestors' lives. Did their occupation align with their interests? Did they consistently display certain values or engage in specific activities? Were they NOT stable in their jobs? Did they move a lot? What does that tell us? Connecting these dots can help us better predict their behaviors.

Embrace the Unknown: Despite our best efforts, some aspects of our ancestors' lives may remain shrouded in mystery. Accept that there will be gaps in our understanding, and don't be discouraged. Instead, focus on the information available and celebrate the discoveries you make along the way.

By examining various records and sources, we've peeled back the layers of their lives and gained valuable insights into their personalities. Remember, genealogy is not just about names and dates; it's about understanding the individuals who came before us.

As you continue your research, approach it with empathy, curiosity, and an open mind. Every new discovery adds color to the canvas of your family's history. Embrace the stories, share them with others, and keep the flame of curiosity alive.


For a deep dive into your ancestor’s life to solve a genealogy brick wall, be sure to use the "Story Enhancer" cards in the Brick Wall Buster Cards kit.

how to solve genealogy brick walls


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