Naturally, we would all love to find a journal, a trove of letters or a biography in a book about every single person in our tree to tell us what was important to them or why they made certain choices in their lives. Unfortunately, the chance of winning millions in the lottery is higher.
In the meantime, we are forced to make due with what we have. The good news is that sometimes the smallest of clues can help you make a break-through or at least give you insight into your ancestor's character. This is why it is important to look at your documents multiple times over the years or read every newspaper account of a particular incident. Understanding the time period also helps to put your relatives' lives in context.
One example that I recently found in the Kalamazoo Telegraph relates to Henry Harrigan's little brother, George Harrigan. Nearly two years before he was committed to the Kalamazoo Insane Asylum (more on that in the future), at the tender age of seventeen, George umpired a baseball game for the high school team. At first, this entry didn't mean much to me. It was only a few hours later that the possible significance of this hit me. I should explain that George was only three when he was found asleep in bed covered in his father's blood. John Harrigan's death was ruled a suicide (by slitting his throat). For more about this, see my blog post (Suicide or Murder?). Without a father around it would be understandable for little George to look up to his elder brother, Henry (nearly 14 years his senior). George being an umpire for a baseball game may seem unimportant, but Henry was a very good catcher for the Kalamazoo Monitors for a number of years. This note indicates to me that George probably watched his brother play ball at the least. If I really want to speculate it could mean that George looked up to Henry, possibly even as a father figure, and was likely influenced by his older brother's bad example. Whether I am correct or not, this notice in the paper made me think about George and what it must have been like for him without a father around, in a way that I hadn't before.
Another example, again from the Telegraph, told me another little thing about Henry Harrigan. I found yet another article about Henry's run-in in New York City when he struck a fatal blow to a man's head with his silver-headed cane (for more on this story see Digging for Dirt in Newspapers ). The Telegraph said that when Kalamazooans first heard of the incident they wondered if it was their hometown boy. The Telegraph reported that information coming in “stated that the arrested man was a San Francisco sport and Hank always passed as a high roller from California on his eastern trips.” The light bulb went off for me at this. Here, I had been looking for references to Henry in San Francisco newspapers and city directories. Silly me, he was probably never there at all. In Henry's mind he probably felt that no one would take him seriously if he came from a little one-horse town like Kalamazoo. So Henry tried to pass himself off as a sporting man (a gambler who makes his money wagering on sporting events) from the west. San Francisco was probably still a little exotic in 1889 and the added bonus was that there probably weren't many people who could call Henry's bluff. This should have occurred to me, knowing what I do about Henry, but now I know.
I've presented two small examples of how new information can affect how you think about your ancestors. I believe that it's these things all added together that make people come alive. The good news is that you don't really need articles from the newspaper or diaries to make this happen, though it certainly helps. Simply draw up a timeline with family events (deaths of parents or siblings, marriages, divorces, moves, etc.) and historical events (wars, natural disasters, etc.) and see what you can learn. To see how little things can add up see my post on the power of timelines.