As family historians, we are detectives, sleuthing our way to brilliant ancestry finds that illuminate the lives of those who came before us. Family history documents help fuel these discoveries, yielding evidence of ancestors’ life paths and helping us preserve family memories for future generations.
You’ve no doubt made such discoveries, documents that helped you to make new ancestry connections or move past family history barriers. These “aha moments” keep us genealogists moving forward!
Last month, we shared how improvements to FamilySearch’s Memories page allow you to easily archive family tree documents. We also had prominent family historians share their favorite genealogy artifacts.
To further celebrate the power of family history documents, we’re highlighting more favorite finds from genealogists. Let their discoveries serve as inspiration to collect fascinating ancestry documents of your own and preserve family memories forever.
Tami Osmer Glatz
I honestly have to say that any and every document that I find that tells me more about my ancestors is a favorite. However, one family history document always stands out and is very near and dear to my heart.
The “document” is actually an entire book written about the history of my 4th great-grandmother’s family. What was originally so exciting about this find was just discovering the identity of my 4th great-grandmother in the first place. This was the first line that I had researched when I began my interest in genealogy, and family knowledge only went back as far as my 3rd great-grandparents.
The real treasure was the story in this book of my 5th great-grandmother, Rachel Negus. She and her husband Jonathan Higley packed up their nine children in Connecticut and walked to the wilderness that would eventually become the state of Ohio. First, she visited the local cider mill, though, and stuffed her pockets with apple seeds, despite folks telling her they’d never grow where she was going.
Undeterred, Rachel arrived in the area of the Western Reserve and did what had to be done to make a home for her family. She planted an apple orchard and tended to it carefully for several years, before finally creating a new kind of apple, which she named after her husband, Jonathan.
That is the story that took hold of my heart, and plunged me into a life of obsessive research to learn about those that came before me.
Tami Osmer Glatz helps family historians research ancestors online. You can follow her on Twitter.
I grew up on stories about the great-grandfather who emigrated from Hungary to Homestead, Pennsylvania, and there founded a synagogue and Jewish cemetery. He was held up to me as a model of how to be a good American and a good Jew. The stories about him, though, seemed too good to be true. I came to believe they were well-intentioned exaggerations and wondered if I could ever learn the kernel of truth at their core.
The breakthrough came when I visited the Rauh Jewish Archives, where the synagogue’s records had been donated. In them I discovered a collection of handwritten histories of the congregation.
As I held this folder in my hands, I held my breath: this was the moment of truth. But my fears were unfounded; in these pages I read the words I had been longing to read all my life. They not only confirmed that my beloved family stories were true, but also opened my eyes to the larger history of which my great-grandfather was a part.
Yes, he had done much as an individual to create Jewish life in Homestead, but so did many other men and women. It took all of their efforts to make Homestead a thriving center of Jewish life in Western Pennsylvania.
The collective narrative of all these people captivates me even more than the stories I was raised on. On my website HomesteadHebrews.com I am now working to tell all these stories with the help of many other Homestead descendants.
Family tradition had it that my 3rd great-grandpa Wiley T. Johnston had served in the Civil War, and that while walking home at the end of the war, his feet were in such sorry shape that he stopped at a nearby farm, where the farmer’s daughter, Sophia Ary, nursed him back to health and they fell in love.
I was aware that Wiley had served in the 28th Regiment, Alabama Infantry, Company L. But, it wasn’t until I decided to do further research into his war service and that I discovered that a month after he enlisted, he was captured and taken prisoner at the Battle of Lookout Mountain in Tennessee.
Researching the records, reading the documents made me want to know more about that battle, and to learn more about the prisoner of war camp he was sent to. Rock Island Prison was said to be the Union’s answer to Andersonville, where the conditions were said to be harsh and the treatment of prisoners was brutal.
When Wiley was released at the end of the war, he began the long walk home, over 750 miles from the prison in Illinois to his home in Alabama – no wonder his feet were damaged! Undoubtedly, he would have been weak from malnutrition and the disease that was rampant in the camp – it is a wonder he made it home at all!
When I look at the Civil War Pension File Card and see the dates for his being an invalid, and later his widow’s information following his death, I think of all of his suffering. I imagine the endurance it must have taken to keep walking, mile after mile, just longing for home.
Finding documents are more than just looking for sources, pages with data to fill our tree, they are the mile markers of people’s lives – our people. Documents are not dull and boring, they are the seeds of stories. They point us to the story, where the details can ignite our curiosity to know more.
Wiley’s story so intrigued me that I made a movie of it, and I am writing a book on his story for our family. Find your family’s stories – they are just waiting to be told.
Document Ancestry Discoveries and Preserve Family Memories!
Archiving family history documents digitally allows you to preserve them forever – and that’s easier than ever on the updated FamilySearch’s Memories page. Upload documents to preserve precious ancestry artifacts and make sure future generations can enjoy the family memories you treasure.