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Writings from ancestors can have a wealth of information if you know what to look for.

Writers will often make assertions about a fact that was important to them.

For example, a correspondent mentions the death of a loved one due to the flu epidemic in 1917. It might be important for a searcher to consult other sources that describe the extent of the flu in that town, state, or country. Or if a diarist makes a claim about a visit of President John F. Kennedy on Jan. 15, 1961, one could consult official documents, newspapers and other observers to give perspective to what the diarist says.

Depending upon how wide one wants to take his or her study, he or she can include many sources, such as census reports, government documents, photographs, maps, oral histories and other diaries and letters.

For example, I read in several journals and histories that my ancestors were cattle ranchers in Utah County. I am from the city and have no clue about cattle ranching. I took the opportunity to find newspaper articles about ranching in Utah. I checked the Utah State Government Brands & Animal Identification Department to find if they had a brand. I looked for photos from the early 1900s of cattle ranching in Utah and anything else I could find that would help me understand this profession as it related to Utah ranchers. Now as I write about my great-grandfather, I can better explain and provide details about what their lives as ranchers might have been like, the jobs they performed, the trials they endured and the satisfaction they may have felt.

The following, as suggested by escrapbooking.com, are five additional ideas to use:

Chronology: Build a timeline associated with the item. In addition, create a parallel timeline that relates to local, national, and international events. Also, consider tracing the genealogy of the families associated with the item. Use this chronology to help develop an understanding of the time period.

Maps: Explore the locations discussed in the document. Consider visually tracing adventures and activities. Use maps to help develop a context for the place associated with your project.

Relationships: Explore the relationships among the people represented in the document.

Visual resources: Match visuals (such as photographs) to people, places and events in the document.

Multimedia resources: Consider connecting the arts, books, music, movies and other activities to the resource.

A couple of things happen when one seeks to corroborate and add context to the story. People can expand the "what happened" and have a greater ability to interpret what they are reading from their viewpoint. One also gains a sense of how accurate the writer was in interpreting his or her times as an actor and observer.

Simplifying the analysis of an ancestor's writing: It's a great opportunity to evaluate and try to become acquainted with ancestors through their writings. Some genealogists want to find the facts and not spend much time on analysis. The following is a simplified process for reviewing an ancestor's writings:

  • Identify factual information. (How is the writing, about what and where?)
  • Who are the main characters described in the letter?
  • What is the plot of the letter?
  • What questions does obe have about the artifact? Include words one can't decode or understand.
  • What research would one need to do to widen his or her understanding of the letter?
Editor's note: The original version of this story posted on Jan. 25, 2014, failed to properly attribute all source materials, which violates our editorial policies. The story was revised on March 17, 2014, and attribution to original sources were added.

Barry J. Ewell is author of "Family Treasures: 15 Lessons, Tips and Tricks for Discovering your Family History" and founder of MyGenShare.com, an online educational website for genealogy and family history.