In family history research, when and where your ancestors lived say just as much about them as their name. Understanding not just the geography but also the community your ancestors were a part of provides crucial insight into what their lives were like, as well as the types of records you should be looking for. Layer in historical events, commerce, and culture, and suddenly their stories come to life.
Melissa Etheridge wanted to learn more about her father’s family history, and she claimed all she knew about them was that they were poor Missouri folk with early roots in Quebec. “I have such a connection with the Quebecois … maybe there’s something in the blood that’s stronger about location than [I thought], and I think that’s fascinating.”
The story of her 5th great-grandfather Nicolas Janis shows how strong the connection between people and the land they worked and lived on can be. While Nicolas and the four generations that followed him all lived approximately within a 50-mile radius, tracing him and his family took some care. That small area in what is now Middle America has been claimed by four countries, three states, and been the cause of several international conflicts. Couple that volatile and varied local history with Janis clan who kept moving back and forth across the Mississippi River, and there was only one thing to do: create a timeline.
Timelines are a genealogist’s best friend! While we worked from the known to the unknown, we placed each new record we found onto a timeline of Nicolas’s life. A careful study of local history books, American history timelines, and contemporary maps helped us track the movement of the family and the area itself.
Knowing whether the Mississippi Valley was owned by New France, Great Britain, America, or Spain was crucial in knowing where to look for records. Tracing both civil and church boundaries was key to locating family records in local repositories.
The result is the captivating story of a pioneering Frenchman who left Quebec to find his fortune in less-travelled areas of New France. In the midst of building a successful business, he found his family right in the middle of a heated land grab between Britain, France, Spain, and the American colonies that spanned almost 50 years.
In the midst of those iconic history lessons were everyday people like Janis, who lived and breathed the daily realities of several wars. One of the true powers of family history is how learning your ancestor’s stories can bring the past to life in an intimate and relevant way today. Using timelines to layer in historical context is a great way to do just that.
Tips from Ancestry ProGenealogists
Whether it’s changing boundaries, a family clan sharing the same five names, or a lost ancestor, timelines are a great way to break down tough brick walls. Here are some expert tips:
- Use maps! In looking at census records or search results for any project, we always check the state map with county boundaries to track the family’s movement over time. Knowing if a county is just next door or across the state can help you quickly hone in on duplicates. In the case of the Janis family, knowing Randolph County, Illinois, and St. Genevieve County, Missouri, are neighbors was the first step in linking the family to Kaskaskia, Illinois.
- Annotate your timeline. Our timeline for Nicolas included document transcriptions and translations, in addition to explanations for boundary changes; for example, “British took control of Kaskaskia in 1766 as the result of the French and Indian Wars” appeared next to a land transaction during that time.
- Check out the Ancestry Card Catalog. Ancestry has several digitized local histories for Kaskaskia that we used. Using local histories with the Maps, Atlases, and Gazetteers collection can quickly bring your timeline together.
Learn more about Melissa's journey or watch episode recaps from previous seasons on TLC.com.