Saturday, January 8, 2022

Bite-Sized Bios for Earlier vs Recent Ancestors

When I write a bite-sized bio for ancestor who was known to me or my relatives, I frequently have so much material that I have to pick and choose to make the bio both brief and informative. 

There are so many recent genealogical sources available, as well as family letters, diaries, and family photo albums, that I have a rich cache of content. Plus, older cousins who remember these people can share stories that make the bios more vivid and add personality well beyond the basic facts.

What can I learn about earlier ancestors?

However, writing a bio for an ancestor who died before the 20th century can be more of a challenge because nobody alive today knew that person and rarely do I have personalized sources. 

Still, my bio for someone who died more than a century ago usually includes: birth, marriage(s), and death dates and places (where known); parents' names; spouse(s) name(s); occupations; residence(s) and land ownership; military service (if applicable); children's names; geographical movements; and some social/historical context.

Sources for writing bios of earlier ancestors

I get these details from sources such as (but not limited to) multiple Census records, vital records, military records, naturalization records, city directories, newspapers, obits, and county histories. I use Wikipedia, history books, and other sources to add a bit of background, such as about immigration trends or frontier life, when I weave the basics into an interesting story told in my own words. 

Sometimes there are scant sources for a much earlier ancestor. Then I write what I can, emphasizing details that I do know--such as where that ancestor is in the birth order of siblings, how many of that ancestor's siblings survived to adulthood, what that ancestor did for a living, whether that ancestor married, and so on. These bios are not as long or rich as bios for more recent ancestors, but I do try to make them interesting and bring out the human angle.

Other times, I can dig up a considerable amount of content for an ancestor who died more than a century in the past. When my husband and I were in Indiana a few years ago, we cranked a local library's microfilm reader to research ancestors in 19th century newspapers. There we found a wonderfully detailed obituary for hubby's 2d great-grandfather, Benjamin McClure (1812-1896)--a truly great source for an ancestor bio!

The woodcut portrait of Benjamin McClure, shown at top, is also from a 19th century newspaper accessed via microfilm at that same local library.* I've posted the woodcut on FamilySearch and other sites where I post bios and images, to bring this ancestor to life.

*About copyright: The Legal Genealogist, Judy Russell, writes about copyright and newspapers from time to time--including this old but still informative post. Also see this brief Library of Congress post about newspaper databases. Note that I'm not an expert on the legalities of newspapers/books and copyright, so please do your own homework before using any published content, either words or images, from the past!


  1. Really thorough list of sources for a bio for our early ancestors. Thanks for the inspiration.

  2. Even bite-sized bios are better than no bio and can be the beginning to expand on when more information is known.