Tracing Your American Ancestors Through Historical Events—A Chronological Guide

Passengers arriving at a port

Our lives are shaped by the decisions and choices we make each day. However, at the same time, political and social factors—outside of our control—impact our lives and the course it takes, either directly or indirectly. This was probably the case for our ancestors too.

The world has evolved significantly in the past few centuries, with major historical events occurring. This includes events like the Industrial Revolution, famines and plagues, civil and revolutionary wars, the migrations they resulted in, and of course, both world wars.


Many of our ancestors’ lives were steered one way or another due to these political and social changes. This is why it’s imperative to consider the historical context when researching family history.


Here are a few historical events you can learn more about when researching American ancestors:


The American Revolutionary War—1775-1783

This war is a significant part of America’s history, and almost everyone residing in the country at that time was affected by the war in one way or another—including those who had just arrived. Also, there is a high probability that you have ancestors who’ve fought in the war since there were almost 231,000 men who served in the continental army alone.


An American soldier’s documents in a box

The Steerage Act—1819

The Steerage Act is a massive help for family historians; it required ship captains bringing in European passengers to provide a list of passengers to the American port officers. The passengers’ lists included everything from their names to their occupations, ages, and even details of any passengers that had died at sea.

Great Migration on the Oregon Trail—1843

The Great Emigration in 1843 was a massive part of the western expansion that led to many Americans settling in those regions. A total of 875 people left Missouri in May of 1843 and started their journey toward the west, making it to Oregon in October. They were celebrated in the newspapers at that time and inspired several Americans to follow in their footsteps.


If you hail from Oregon, the Great Migration is worth exploring!

Irish Potato Famine—1845-1850

The Great Irish Potato Famine lasted for about five years, and the British government didn’t do much to curb its disastrous effects on the Irish people’s lives. Many people died as a result and several more migrated to America and other countries.


The initial wave of immigration was significant, but even after the famine ended, people continued to migrate to America to join their families and find better opportunities. So, if you’ve got Irish ancestors, you may find them in the records from that period.

Democratic Revolutions in Europe—1848

Most European countries saw protests against feudalism and monarchy from 1848 onwards. There was little political change, though, and as a result, many protestors started emigrating to the US. You can check if your ancestors were part of these emigrations.


Other historical events and related documents you can explore are The California Gold Rush, The Civil War, The Great War, and World War 2.


If you need some help putting your ancestors into relevant historical context, you can reach out to us at DavisDNA and Family Research. We offer traditional genealogy services and expert DNA research assistance to help you build your family tree.