Gather Family Information
Some family members may know quite a lot about your ancestors. You will not know unless you ask. Use these sources and methods when gathering genealogical information from them:
Search all of your family storage areas, in and out, from top to bottom of the home. Include the attic, storage closets, basements, garage, trunks, safe, deposit boxes, and so forth. Encourage your relatives to make similar searches in their storage areas.
Your second cousin, great-aunt, or other relative may already have gathered some family information. Most families have at least one relative who keeps track of cousins’ birthdays, anniversaries, or deaths. Learn who that relative is. When information is found, offer to pay for the cost of photocopying and postage.
We can gather the family history information others in our family have already prepared by:
• Asking our family members if they have any written information about the family, including ancestral maps, ancestral books, letters, stories, family group records, pedigree charts, school records, certificates, pictures, and artifacts such as wood carvings, tapa designs, etc.
• Ask if you may have a copy of what they have.
Be sure to ask your parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, other relatives and friends of the family for help in finding. If there have been multiple marriages, be sure to ask members or descendants of those unions. They just might have the very letter, document, book, or story for which you are searching.
- Certificates of birth, marriage, and death
- Wills, deeds, and property records
- Military service and pension documents
- Naturalization documents
- Medical records
- Licenses (business, marriage, fishing, driving)
- School records
- Insurance policies
Books and Albums
- Family Bibles
- Scrapbooks and albums
- Baby and wedding books
- Books of Remembrance
- Photograph Albums
- Journals and diaries
- Personal histories and biographies
- Letters and cards
Printed Notices and Announcements
- Newspaper clippings and obituaries
- Announcements of births, weddings, and anniversaries
- Programs (award ceremonies, funerals)
- Family reunion notices and records
- Religious records
- Fraternal or society records
- Occupational awards
As you discuss family history, you will probably learn some traditional family stories about an ancestor. Many traditions are based on fact, but most prove to have significant incorrect information. Stories often tend to inflate an ancestor’s importance or misrepresent one’s origins. Also, the correct information may have been inaccurately remembered as it was passed down through the family.
Be hesitant to accept family traditions at face value. Treat them as vague clues. Family traditions such as the following have often proven to be false:
- Close connections to nobility
- Three immigrant brothers who settled in different parts of America
- Radical name changes by immigration authorities
- Descent from an Indian princess (there is no such thing)
- A valuable estate that the descendants are entitled to have
Treat them as vague clues.
However, most family traditions are based on truth, and include many correct facts. They serve as clues for further research. Write down the traditions, indicate who is most familiar with the stories, and be sure to investigate the facts. Record how you learned the family stories, who told you the story, and what date did you hear this story. If you can't remember the date, tie it to an event [a reunion, a wedding, a funeral, a visit, to 'date' when you learned the family story.
Many families have kept objects that may provide important clues for further research on an ancestor. You may want to write a brief description explaining (1) what each item reveals about the family and (2) where the item is located. Look for items such as:
- Religious artifacts
- Samplers, tapestries and quilts
- Pieces of furniture or household items
- Medals, awards, trophies
- Clothing, uniforms
Great-grandpa had only one rifle, however, now has several hundred descendants. If at all possible, obtain a photo of the item and record who currently possesses the item. When writing this information on the photo, be sure to place it on a label then attach it to the back of the photo. Writing on the back of photos can bleed through. Archive responsibly.
• If it is a carving or design, ask what it means and how it relates to our family.
• Make copies of them, photograph them, or write a description of them and where they are kept if we can’t keep the original.
• Return the original to the owner.
• Write where we got them on the back of the copy.
• Keep the papers we write and photos we take in a safe place.
How to Gather Family Information
Keep a record of contacts with family members on your research log. This will help you avoid duplicating your work and can help in following up later. Write out notes about interviews, meetings, and reunions. Make paper copies of e-mails and keep copies of letters sent or received. Cite these notes, printouts, and copies on your research log.
Interviews can be face to face or by telephone. Handbooks such as the following can help you prepare for an interview:
Akeret, Robert U. Family Tales, Family Wisdom. New York: Henry Holt, 1992. (not at FHL)
Fletcher, William. Recording Your Family History. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1986. (FHL book 973 D27fL)
E-mail and Correspondence. When writing family members, follow a few basic rules:
- Don't send form letters.
- Don't send unfamiliar blank genealogical forms, especially with the first letter.
- Be reasonable. Don't ask for too much at once.
- Ask simple, straightforward questions.
- Be generous in sharing and prompt in answering.
- Show appreciation.
For more suggestions see Correspondence.
Many introductory books about family history will give you more information about gathering family sources, including oral history and additional home sources. One of the best books for this kind of information is—
Lichtman, Allan J. Your Family History: How to Use Oral History, Personal Family Archives, and Public Documents to Discover Your Heritage. New York: Vintage Books, 1978. (FHL book 929.1 L617L)
Requesting Additional Information from Your Family
As you learn about your family, you may want to share the information you find with your relatives (see Step 5). This may also be a good opportunity to request additional information from them. If your first requests were only for basic information about a few relatives, more information may be available. Your new information may jog memories of family members who may provide more clues. Also, they may have recently found the information you were seeking.
Family members who were reluctant to share information earlier may have changed their minds, or may be intrigued by the information you have found. Your information may convince them of your seriousness, and they may pay more attention to your requests.