Asking Historical Context Questions

Usually when doing family history research, people construct a family tree and locate as much as they can about individual family members, then stop without considering much about the context of family members’ lives. Why is asking historical context questions important? Contexts in which people were living help to explain how they lived, why they may have done things they did, how they were helped or hindered by unequal social relations, and values or experiences you may have inherited.

Before asking historical context questions, it is important to gather as specific information as you can about exactly where family units were living, decade by decade — not only what state, but also what county, township, and town. The census is the most helpful tool for doing this. A related page provides a framework you can use to organize what you find.

Then for specific times and locations, there are many historical context questions you can ask. To investigate your family’s context in the structure of race and class relations, useful questions include:

  • What other socio-cultural groups were around (e.g., in the neighborhood, the town, the county)? As noted in the blog entry What Census Data Reveal about Housing Patterns, you can get quite a bit of useful information to help with this question from the census.
  • Who wasn’t around and why? Here, you are looking for absences, that may be explained by class or racist laws or policies. For example, when researching some of my ancestry in Illinois during the 1850s, asking who wasn’t there drew my attention to the absence of American Indians and African Americans. Looking into the expulsion of American Indians from Illinois drew my attention to the state’s explicit policy of recruiting and importing Europeans (including my ancestors) to make a white state. Asking about the relative absence of African Americans put me  on the trail of a law the Illinois state legislature passed in 1853 prohibiting people of African descent from migrating to Illinois — also for the purpose of making sure Illinois became a white state.
  • What were relationships between groups? Here, you can ask about power relationships and economic relationships (for instance, who worked for whom). How would those relationships have affected my ancestors’ lives and viewpoints? For example, I came to realize that a family who had immigrated from Europe to Mississippi shortly before the Civil War would have learned how to be white in the context of slavery, which helped me understand why a member of this family became active in anti-Chinese work later in California.
  • What cultural communities and cultural norms existed? This question prompted me to look into the German American immigrant community my ancestors were members of, and particularly to realize the importance of the German church in sustaining culture and language.
  • How was work organized, and who organized it? This question may lead you to consider labor unions your ancestors may have participated in, or industrialists your ancestors may have worked for or emulated.
There are also other significant historical context questions you can ask. For example, to consider the lives of women, what laws governed gender and property? Gender and inheritance? If women’s rights to own property were limited, how would that have impacted on the lives of both sexes?
In addition, it is useful to ask about a range of other contextual matters such as: What wars may have been going on, and how did they affect the location of your family? Were there epidemics they may have experienced? What about natural disasters? Famines?
Other postings in this blog will explore sources of information for investigating these kinds of questions, but learning to ask them is an important step.


  1. Agbaje Folashade Raheemot says

    would like to get some questions on historical background of itoku market in abeokuta.
    pls can you send your reply to my mail box.

  2. Is this something you wish to have posted on the blog?

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