Getting Started | Clues from Family Sources
Family records, images, and other sources can offer you a wealth of information to help you get started on your family history journey. They may include ancestor names, dates and locations for births, marriages, and deaths, as well as insight into what life was like for your ancestors.
Photos are among the most long-lasting and well-cared-for home sources. They show your ancestors as they were, which is invaluable to a family historian. Names and dates may even be found on the backs of some photographs.
Many early photographs were printed on cards with the photographer’s name and location, which can help you find your relatives in official documents. Other hints may come from the attire your ancestors wore, towns or houses depicted in the background, or even how the people are positioned in a larger group shot.
Postcards, while not as personal as family portraits, can provide a wealth of information about your family. The scenes depicted on the cards may feature the towns where they resided, the ships on which they emigrated, automobiles that help date the postcard.
Personal notes can aid you with dates, names, and relationships, as well as provide insight into your ancestors’ life.
Postcards were also often used by those who moved away from home to stay in touch with family members who remained at home. These could help you figure out where an immigrant came from or where a family member immigrated. Postmarks and addresses might help you follow the movements of your family.
Birth, marriage, and death certificates, baptismal certificates, citizenship papers, wills, patents, military enlistments or discharges, and other official documents may be found being held by family members.
Many copies of official documents have been destroyed at repositories due to fire and/or neglect, and your family’s copy may be the sole surviving record. These documents contain important information about your family and can point you in the direction of additional records and new research avenues.
Diaries, Letters & Journals
These are some of the most intimate family sources. They can bring your ancestors to life by telling you what was important enough for them to write down. They are a priceless source of information often filled with names and dates and are usually full of verifiable references to events that make them easier to judge how reliable the rest of the information is.
Many families kept a family Bible to record births, marriages, and deaths. A family Bible is sometimes the only source for birth, marriage, and death information that precedes the time when such occurrences were legally documented in the area.
If you are fortunate enough to come across a family Bible, you will need to assess it to determine its reliability as a source. First, look at the date of publication; if some of the entries are older than that, it suggests they were recorded after the event and may not be as accurate (memories fade with time). Are all of the entries made in the same handwriting and ink? That means they were all recorded at the same time, which means they may not be as accurate as if they were recorded at the moment of the event. Check each individual page for any notes, images, or other important information that may have been saved in the Bible.
Scrapbooks can provide a fascinating glimpse into your ancestors’ lives and times. Newspaper clippings of marriage notices and obituary notices, and even family successes and scandals are common in scrapbooks.
Wedding invitations, funeral cards, birth announcements, diplomas, award certificates, recital or performance programs, school papers, ticket stubs, dried flowers, and other meaningful mementos are also frequently found in scrapbooks. These may be precious because of the information they contain (names, dates, etc.) or just because they are a piece of your past.
There are plenty of other excellent sources of family information besides those mentioned here. Be open to every piece of information you come across. Some of the sources you find may appear trivial on their own, but each one is a tiny piece of the larger puzzle that is your family history. However, you need to keep in mind that while family sources are a wonderful treasure, they are not always genealogically dependable.
Take good notes and be vigilant when you explore new sources. The record is more likely to be accurate if it was made at the time of the event. Family documents made after the event may be less reliable.