A recent email from listener Helen reminds us to search our basements and attics for unique and amazing family history finds. There’s no substitute for being able to tell family members’ stories through their own words and photographs.
“I just had to tell you about my recent find. My late father-in-law served in the Canadian Navy for 39 years, entering Naval College when he was only 14. Most of my knowledge about his life came from talking with him before he died. Of course, then I did not know the questions to ask.
“About a month ago, I was preparing for a lecture on his life for a local World War I Seminar. I starting looking around in our basement as I knew we had some material from when we cleared out his house when he died, but I had no idea of just what exciting material I would find.
“I found his personal diaries, with the earliest from 1916! The journals give an amazing first-person record of naval service from a person who devoted his life to the service of his country. I was able to weave his actual words into the somewhat dry official record of his long time service [ending with] his being presented with a Commander of the British Empire medal shortly before his retirement.
“I am so grateful that the family saved these invaluable documents through the myriad of moves that a naval officer’s career entails. In a different box, I found his photographs from the same era—some even earlier than the journals. I am now seriously considering publishing the journals along with the photographs, as they deserved to be shared.”
Got a living relative whose story you want to capture? Click here to read our blog post about the free StoryCorps app that can help you!
Genealogy Gems Premium members can click here to access Premium podcast episode 116 to hear a discussion between two authors of books on life-story writing, and here to access a Premium podcast AND video on how to make a family history video.
Recently, Genealogy Gems podcast listener Debra Ingrum Trammel wrote to me with this question about cleaning out a relative’s home. Does it sound familiar?
“Hi Lisa, My husband is faced with the daunting task of disposing of his parent’s belongings. His parents at age 92 and 86 have things that go way back!!
We live in Tennessee and his parents lived in Texas so that in itself is a real chore to have to make numerous trips back and forth. My husband is so eager to get all of this finished but I am concerned that he will overlook or not be aware of any items that should be kept for his family history.
I continue to work on researching his side of the family. I know that we should keep certain documents: birth certificates, marriage licenses, definitely old photographs, etc. but I fear that there are items that I might not think about as being important. Might you offer some suggestions for us?
Here’s my answer:
Debra, I sympathize with your concern about overlooking things. When my Grandpa died I was pregnant with my last child and unable to go back and help clear out the house in another state. I worried too about things being tossed without folks realizing they were important.
One area to keep an eye out for is bills & receipts – a lot of folks (like my Grandmother) kept receipts from way back. While on the surface they seemed prime to toss, I actually retraced their steps and homes through the 1940s and 1950s based on the addresses written on the receipts!
Paperwork is often the area we itch to toss, but old envelopes and letters from other people writing to our relatives can provide many clues.
I also carefully go through all old books before giving them away because more than once a special tidbit has been tucked inside the pages. If you don’t plan on keeping the book, or don’t want to keep the item in the book, be sure to make note of which pages it was nestled in between. There could be a special meaning there. If everyone involved is in a big hurry to finish the clean up and you don’t have the luxury of time to go through the pages of the books, at least give give them a gentle shake over a table allowing anything tucked inside to fall out.
In Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 39 I tell the story of one of the most significant finds in my family that almost got tossed out. But Grandmother was tapping me on the shoulder, prodding me to look further before wrapping things up – and boy am I glad that I did! If folks in your family think you are being too persnickety about not over looking things, play that segment of the show for them, or tell them the story.
These are just a few ideas to get you started. I invite all of you readers out there to share your unusual finds and recommendations for Debra on the Genealogy Gems Facebook page. (And don’t forget to “Like” us!)
Wishing you family history success, and many thanks for writing! Lisa
Free Family History has a nice ring to it!
Did you know you don’t have to pay for a subscription to anything to be able to start learning more about your family history?
Start to find your family history for free by asking the four questions listed below.
1. What do you already know?
Chances are that you know something about your family already. The most important facts we start with are our relatives’ names and their dates and places of birth, marriage(s) and death. These facts can help you later to distinguish between records about our relatives and others with the same name.
Write down what you know about your “direct ancestors”–your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc.–on a family tree chart like this free fill-in pdf format (these are also called pedigree charts). Then use family group sheets like this one to organize facts about each individual couple (this is where you can list all the children your grandparents had, for example).
2. What do your relatives know?
After filling out what you can, show your family tree chart and family group sheets to other relatives. Ask them if they can fill in some blanks. Remember these tips:
- Try to include a little note about who tells you each piece of information.
- Someone may dispute what you find. Everyone’s memory of an event is different. Don’t argue. Treat their information with respect:. Write it down. Then ask politely if they have any documentation you could see, or why they believe something to be true (who told them, etc).
- Ask whether anything is missing from your charts: a grandparent’s second marriage, a stillborn child or even whether someone’s name is accurate. You or others might know someone by a nickname or middle name.
- Be sensitive to information that might be confidential or not generally well-known, like a birth date that doesn’t appear more than 9 months after a wedding, or a first marriage. Consider asking living relatives if it’s okay for you to share certain facts. Consider only showing part of your charts to a relative.
3. What’s in the attic (or anywhere else)?
We can often find family documents in our own homes and those of our relatives. Look in attics, basements, storage units, safe deposit boxes and safes, filing cabinets, photo albums, scrapbooks, shoeboxes and other places where papers and memorabilia may be tucked. You’re looking for things like:
- certificates of birth, baptism, marriage or death;
- obituaries or other news articles, like anniversaries;
- funeral programs, wedding and birth announcements;
- photos with names or other notes on the backs;
- insurance, pension, military or other paperwork that may mention births or deaths or beneficiary information;
- wills and home ownership paperwork–even outdated ones;
- a family Bible.
When you find family names, relationships, dates and places in these documents, add them to your charts.
4. What’s available online for free?
There are two major types of family history information online: records and trees. Records are documents created about specific people, like obituaries, birth certificates and all those other examples I just mentioned. Trees are a computerized form of other people’s family tree charts and group sheets. It can be tempting to just look for someone else’s version of your family tree. Eventually you will want to consult those. But other people’s trees are notoriously full of mistakes! Instead, start by looking for records about the relatives you already have identified.
I suggest that you start your search at FamilySearch.org because it’s totally free. At most other sites, you’ll have to subscribe or pay to see all the search results. At FamilySearch, you just need to create a free user login to get the most access to their records.
After logging in, click Search. Choose a relative you don’t know a lot about. Search for that name. Use the different search options to add more information–even a range of dates and a state/province or country–so you don’t have to wade through thousands of near-matches.
The most common records to find on FamilySearch for many countries are census and vital records.
- A census is a tally of residents, voters or another target population. Entries often include details about a household: who lived there, how they were related, how old they were, where they were born, etc. You can often extract family information from census listings, though some things (like ages or name spellings) may not be totally accurate.
- Vital records are official records of someone’s birth, marriage or death. In these, you’ll often find important dates and places as well as names of parents, spouses or others important to the family. They aren’t always totally accurate, and you may only be able to see an index of the record (not the actual document).
As you find search results, compare what they say to what you’ve already learned. How likely is it that this record belongs to your family? Consider how many people seem to have the same name in that location and time period (for example, how many are mentioned in the 1880 U.S. census in that state?). Don’t just look at the search results list: click through to look at the full summary of the entry and, if you can, the original record itself. You may find additional details in these that can confirm whether this record belongs to your relative. You may even find out about new people: your great-grandparents’ parents, for example. Write it all down or begin building a family tree right there on the FamilySearch website (because it’s totally free: learn more about that here.) And one of the greatest keys to long term success is citing your sources. It’s imperative that you make careful note of where you got the resource so that you can find and refer to it again later, and back up your research if it is ever called into question.
People who research their family history often describe it as a puzzle with lots of different pieces. You will need to assemble a lot of puzzle pieces–information about each relative–to begin to see the “bigger picture” of your family history. You’ll start to sense which pieces may belong to a different family puzzle. You may put together a picture that is unexpected, or has some shadows and sadness. There will likely also emerge heroic, beautiful and touching images.
Ready to learn more?
Up next, read:
7 Great Ways to Use Your iPad for Family History
How to Find Your Family Tree Online
Best Genealogy Software
Search the SSDI for Your Family History
Published October 29, 2013
by Lisa Louise Cooke
Download the Show Notes for this Episode
Welcome to this step-by-step series for beginning genealogists—and more experienced ones who want to brush up or learn something new. I first ran this series in 2008. So many people have asked about it, I’m bringing it back in weekly segments.
Episode 5: Unlocking the Past and Home Sources
In our first segment my guest is genealogy author and publisher David Fryxell. I’m going to be talking to him about locating valuable family resources and the importance of being tenacious in your research.
Then in our second segment we’re going to help you along on your own genealogy journey by talking about the importance of scouring your home for family clues and creative and effective ways to get the words out to your relatives so that family history information finds you!
Online Photo Book Publishers and Other Resources for Creating Your Family History Book
Creating a Family History Book: Start-to-Finish Guidance for Assembling and Printing a Family Keepsake
Kodak Gallery is now Shutterfly
My Family History Videos
A Nurse in Training, Part 1
A Nurse in Training, Part 2