Social Networks: Our ancestors had them

Social Networks: Our ancestors had them

This is a guest post by Caroline M. Pointer*

He had done it again.

Joseph Marshall WWI

Joseph Marshall WWI

My grandfather had managed to shock me again. Had it not been enough that he had three wives before my grandmother? Had it not been enough that my grandmother had been his mistress before she became his wife? Had it not been enough that he had been estranged, if not formally excommunicated, from the Catholic Church? Had it not been enough that he had successfully sued his sister? Had it not been enough that he had been estranged from his family for nearly his whole adult life? Had it not been enough that he changed our surname from Marschall to Marshall, unlike the rest of his family?

Apparently not.

The irony of this whole situation with my grandfather, a.k.a., Joseph Marshall and Big Paw Paw, has not escaped me. He had many relationships that left paper trails, but he wasn’t very good at maintaining those relationships. In retrospect, Big Paw Paw had had a social network, and I have been able to uncover bits of his story through it.

Since Big Paw Paw’s story was the first I had tried to uncover six years ago, I did everything in a roundabout way with plenty of backtracking. And I wish I had had a clue about looking at ancestors’ networks. It makes sense now. I mean, I don’t live in a bubble. Do you?

Stop and think for a moment of how many people you interact with on a weekly basis – family, friends, co-workers, acquaintances, etc. They are all a part of your social network, and they could all, at the very least, tell a little something about you and your story.

It makes sense, therefore, that taking a look at your ancestor’s social network can tell a little more about them and their story. With every person you find in your ancestor’s network, another network to search is revealed – the other person’s. But where do you start? Well, I don’t think you have to start any differently, but I think you do need to be aware that they had a social network.

Social Networking can help your genealogy research

Social Networking can help your genealogy research

To help me be aware of my ancestors’ social networks, I have come up with an acronym to help me. It is easy to remember because you already know it: A.N.C.E.S.T.O.R.

AAssociations – Who were your ancestor’s friends? Was your ancestor a member of a fraternal organization or a business organization? In Big Paw Paw’s case, I think he was a little too busy with his women friends for fraternal organizations, but I have uncovered his marriages and relationships through court records. I have also painstakingly pieced together his ex-wives’ lives and their stories, giving me a better picture of the man my grandfather had been.

NNeighbors – Who were your ancestors’ neighbors? Were they friends or enemies of your ancestors? Were they family or in-laws? In trying to understand Big Paw Paw’s relationships with his siblings, at least the early ones, it was imperative that while researching, I remained aware of who his neighbors were as well as who the neighbors were of his siblings and parents. After all, Big Paw Paw’s first wife, Emma Rosin, had been his sister-in-law, his older sister’s husband’s youngest sister. And the Rosin family had been neighbors of Big Paw Paw’s family while he had been growing up in Galveston, Texas.

CChurch – Did your ancestors go to church? Of what denomination were they? Or perhaps they were of another religion? Remember going to church once a week may have been the only time your ancestors socially networked. A plethora of family history gems can be found in church records as in Big Paw Paw’s case. While I’m still tracking down his excommunication records, I did obtain his and all of his siblings’ baptismal records. They, of course, contain their sponsors’ names, but they contained a surprise as well. Big Paw Paw had had another older brother named Robert, who must have died at a very young age, but not before he had been baptized.

EEducation – Be aware of your ancestors and their education, or lack thereof. Who were their classmates and teachers? Because of timing, the population schedules do not reveal anything about Big Paw Paw’s education, but by the time he was 17, he was fishing with his brother-in-law on Galveston Island, Texas. Additionally, my father once told me that Big Paw Paw, his father, had not been pleased that my father had attended and graduated from college. From what I can tell, Big Paw Paw never attended college. Had his real world experience affected his outlook on academics?

S Spouse – Spouses can be a huge part of your ancestor’s social network. Did your ancestor marry his neighbor’s daughter? Had your ancestor known his in-laws before marriage? Did the in-laws move with them or move-in with them? My best advice concerning spouses is do not assume there is only one. My family had not known there had been any other spouses before my grandmother. Therefore, finding three before he and my grandmother were married was a bit of a shock, not to mention finding out that my grandmother had been his mistress before Big Paw Paw married her.

TTransactions– Because Big Paw Paw dealt in real estate in San Antonio, Texas, I’ve been able to trace his transactions through historical land records and newspapers. Each transaction reveals who he did business with, and some of them indicate his wife at the time of the transaction. There are also personal transactions that I’ve found tucked away in court records and land records. Therefore, look at your ancestor’s occupations, their military service, hobbies, etc. Who were they transacting with? How can knowing those people reveal more about your ancestor’s story?

OOccupations– Speaking of occupations, did your ancestor work with anyone, or did he/she work alone? Did they serve in the military? With whom? Big Paw Paw had grown up on a farm, had been a fisherman, a tree surgeon, landscape architect, real estate developer, lumber yard owner and house demolitionist. He also served in World War I. Because of all these occupations, Big Paw Paw had known and met quite a few people and, in tracking them down, I’ve found out quite a bit about my grandfather, especially about his wives.

RRelations – Do you have a sibling? Are there things your siblings can tell about you that no one else can? In Big Paw Paw’s case, I’m sure that his older sister, Jane, could tell plenty about him, especially since they fought over a house, she kicked him out the house, and then he successfully sued her over that house. Further, I’m very glad that I researched Jane’s husband’s family and younger sister, especially since Big Paw Paw married the youngest Rosin sibling. Researching all of your ancestor’s relations, not just siblings, can help to reveal more about your ancestor.

Remember that our ancestors were just like us. They had relationships, and dealt with many people throughout their lives. They had a social network, and being aware of it can help to reveal more about your ancestor. Just like when I stumbled upon Big Paw Paw’s will in a lawsuit and found out he had had another mistress when he died. Yes, he definitely shocked me again.

When she’s not traipsing across Texas following Big Paw Paw’s paper trails, Caroline M. Pointer is a professional genealogist and family historian, author of her personal family history blog Family Stories, and the In2Genealogy columnist for the E-Magazine, Shades of the Departed. Her professional blog and website, For Your Family Story, can be accessed at, and Caroline can be reached at CMPointer [AT] gmail [DOT] com. However, if you really need to contact her, you can probably do so faster on Twitter: @FamilyStories.


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  • Alice Allen

    October 3, 2011

    Good information here, plus what you’ve found shows him as he was, and not just a set of statistics. He was a real person.

  • Diana Ritchie

    October 4, 2011

    What a great article!! And I loved the part about contacting you via twitter 🙂

  • Kimberly

    October 4, 2011

    Very interesting; new information that will be helpful. Thank you for sharing. I had been looking into siblings and neighbors; it is an eye opener.

  • julie verhage

    October 4, 2011

    i have questions about the site i have. hope you can help me. i want to keep this site. (i also have ancestry.)wanting to keep this and try out your search; because of a download that i’d uninstalled somehow i changed everything to some other language so now i’m really lost.some of my info is in english , but if im going to use this free site its search is unusable now.! huaugh.!

  • Daniel Horowitz

    October 7, 2011

    Hi Julie,

    Our support team will be more than happy to help you straiten out your account.

    Please write an email to support[AT]

  • Lisa

    October 14, 2011

    I love the acronym. What a great little tool to remember the social circles of my ancestors to check.