Many individuals spend their time trying to extend their family lines into the distant past. But, there may be times when it is prudent to seek the living in order to find the dead.
When I began my family research over 20 years ago, as I combed through numerous church records, I noticed many individuals who had the same last name as the ones I was seeking. I thought, “How are all of these individuals related? Since they have the same surname and attend the same church, they must be related.” I began to build family groups by searching census, church, vital, probate, and cemetery records to bring the family lines to the present. Obituaries were most helpful, as they listed surviving relations and where they lived.
As I brought the lines forward in time, I discovered living individuals I was able to contact. They told me stories about their ancestors that I was not able to find in the above-listed records. Gathering names and dates is one thing, but now this research, with the help of the living, was putting flesh on the dried bones. I was learning about the lives of individuals, and they became more than just names and dates on a page. I learned about the cooks and bakers in the family. I heard of the family parties and outings when the families would gather together. I was made aware of the ancestor who worked for the road department and would keep dead squirrels that he found on the highway in his freezer.
Also, the living provided what I felt was most important: pictures! After years of looking at names and dates, now many of the deceased once again had faces. Seeing my family members in their army uniforms, work clothes, wedding attire, and, in some cases, Halloween costumes from the early 20th century, was fascinating. If I had not started descendancy research, I would not have located the pictures of my distant relatives. Plus, pictures are usually the first to be tossed. Many family photos are not labeled, and in many cases the younger generations cannot identify individuals past their grandparents. One individual I spoke with did not know if his mother was still alive.
Here are a few tips to begin descendancy research:
- It is best to pick a couple that married in the mid 19th century. Census records are more complete and record availability is better.
- Choose a couple that does not have more than six or seven children. If you pick a large family you could experience information overload.
- Keep track of who you contact, and offer to send them the information that you have gathered.
I feel family history research is not just about your immediate family. It is about those you share a common ancestor with. If you do not gather the ancestral stories and pictures, who will?