It is very important when doing family history to know what is going on in the community around your families. It could very well make a difference in discovering your ancestors and saving you time in knowing possible sources and/or dead ends. Here are some of the things to be on the watch for.
Weather plays an important role in the lives of our ancestors. They did not have a meteorologist to tell them a tornado, hurricane, flood or earthquake might occur. They had to rely on their sense of smell and eyes to know when it was going to rain. So, when the disasters such as hurricanes hit, some of our families may have perished and/or were forced to move to another community. Maybe they will show up living with another family or relative on the next census because of their home loss. Crops may have been destroyed due to drought or flooding and the father had to move into the city to find work. A woman may have lost her husband and have to start work, or consider remarrying to help support her family. Lightening may strike and burn the home and/or barn.
Wars can definitely impact our families. Take the Civil War for example. In many counties that suffered heavy troop losses, there is a great drop from the 1860 census to the 1870 census in male households. Many women were left widows and had to support the family or choose to remarry. This is important to know if you are trying to locate a male in that time period and he just seems to have disappeared.
Diseases occurred that changed cities and caused migrations of people at times. The Yellow Fever epidemic was one of those times. Memphis, TN had many of its white citizens flee leaving the African American and Irish. Most of the African Americans survived the epidemic and there were many Irish deaths. Due to the migration of whites to leave the Memphis area, this gave the African Americans opportunities to flourish in Memphis once the disease was under control. This may not have happened as quickly had the epidemic not occurred. So, if you have an ancestor in a community such as Memphis, you would look elsewhere for your white ancestors. But, your African American ancestors that may have lived in the outlying areas of Memphis, Mississippi and Arkansas may now be residing within the city limits. Communities and their dynamics can change from these types of diseases and situations. “The Black Death is estimated to have killed 30% to 60% of Europe's population, reducing the world's population from an estimated 450 million to between 350 and 375 million in 1400. This has been seen as creating a series of religious, social and economic upheavals which had profound effects on the course of European history. It took 150 years for Europe's population to recover. The plague returned at various times, resulting in a larger number of deaths, until it left Europe in the 19th century.”(Wikipedia) So, you see what an impact it can have on your researching during that time period in that particular region. All areas have similar stories to tell.
Economy is factor that influenced where our ancestors’ lived and what they did to make a living. Were jobs plentiful or non-existent? Did your ancestor have a trade? What ethnic group were they? Those questions can help you locate if they lived in the city or were sharecroppers on a farm. Taxation was high in some areas forcing their citizens to flee the financial hardships. Indentured servants came to American working for their freedom. The California Gold Rush (1848-1855) caused a great stir and excitement for getting rich quick opportunities. Some men took their families, but many left alone, some never to return as they were not equipped to deal with the harsh realities of the west. Chinese, Native Americans, African Americans, Mexicans, Irish, French, Germans were among those that caught the “fever” of the Gold Rush.
Religion played a part in where some families made their homes. Some moved to America for religious freedom and a better way of life. The members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints moved from the east to the west so they could worship as they pleased. Between 1846 and 1869, about 70,000 Mormons traveled west, some even coming from as far away as the British Isles. Therefore, if you had family living in the British Isles, Missouri or New York and suddenly they disappeared, you might want to see if they joined the caravans traveling west.
In summary, it is important when doing our family history to realize the role that weather, war, disease, economy and religion can play in where our ancestors lived, what they did for a living, and how the community was affected by the influences of their outcomes.
Check out Getting Started in Genealogy to get ideas in your research!