Are you using YouTube for family history to watch documentaries about your ancestors’ lives and times? It’s instant family history movie time. Just add popcorn!
After learning last year that my great-grandfather survived the horrific Johnstown flood of 1889, I wanted to learn all I could about it. The flood claimed the lives of thousands of people within hours. It was considered the worst man-made disaster to date in the U.S.
My first stop was YouTube. In her book, The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, Lisa taught me to use YouTube to find historical footage that might include my ancestors (click here to watch my first amazing find). So why not look for a documentary there?
As it turns out, leading biographer David McCullough narrated an award-winning documentary on the Johnstown flood. It’s an older film, based on his book The Johnstown Flood (which I also read). And yes, it’s on YouTube. I watched the whole thing.
True, I didn’t find my 16-year old great-grandfather’s name or face popping up on the screen. But I learned more than words could ever convey–and more than words ever DID convey in my family. Apparently, my relatives who survived it would never talk about the flood. Now I know why.
You can find free documentaries on YouTube for all kinds of family history-related topics:
- Other natural disasters include this stunning before-and-after footage of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
- History, such as the hour-long Faith and Fate, the story of Jews in the 20th century;
- This film on the Canadian Pacific Railway, which might apply to your railroad-working ancestors or to your forebears who traveled that route;
- Immigration through Ellis Island, an award-winning 28-minute documentary; or
- an epic migration tale, such as Bound for Botany Bay, about Australia’s First Fleet.
Looking for something different? Enter search terms in your YouTube browser like “documentary” and the name of a place, ethnic group or immigrant group.
Of course, YouTube isn’t the only place to find documentaries. The ones below are made by nonprofit organizations like public television stations. Click to order them or ask your local library if they can order them through inter-library loan.
- Appalachia: A History of Mountains and People, voted Best Video of the Year by the American Library Association;
- Doing As They Can: Slave Life in the American South;
- Five Points: New York’s Irish Working Class in the 1850s;
- Heaven Will Protect the Working Girl: Immigrant Women in the Turn-of-the-Century City
- The Eastern Europeans;
- Paesani, The Story of Italian Culture in America;
- The Irish: Two Nations, One Heart;
- The Germans from Russia: Children of the Steppe, Children of the Prairie and Prairie Crosses, Prairie Voices: Iron Crosses of the Great Plains
More YouTube for Family History Gems
Find Your Family History in the 1950s (Historical Film Footage Tips)