I was recently given the chance to read an inspiring memoir, The Night Sky. (Review here) Author Maria Sutton takes us on her journey across the ocean to find out more about her family’s history. Upon finishing the novel I asked Maria if she would put together a piece for the blog helping those of us out there trying to search for our family’s genealogy. She happily obliged and below are her ideas! Thanks again Maria!
How does one begin the search for their family’s history? (A How-To Guide)
First of all, I would like to thank Kim for inviting me to do a guest post on her awesome blog. The reviews and author interviews are quite entertaining, and I am truly honored to talk about something that most people take for granted: Family. Kim wanted me to give a primer on how to go about finding your family’s history, and I will do so, but first, I think a reader should ask themselves: Why search for your family’s history? Besides the obvious medical history info, I think most people are curious about “from where they came.” Also, it’s nice to fantasize that you’ve descended from royalty or an international celeb. Dreams and discovering your place in history are an important part of why people should search for their roots. Along the way, readers will find heroes, villains, and fascinating characters and probably learn they are fulfilling the dreams of their ancestors.
So, how do you begin searching for your family’s history? First, the most important thing to remember is to LISTEN very carefully to your family stories. We’ve all sat around the kitchen table at family gatherings and inevitably the conversation will turn to Aunt Betsy winning a prize for baking the best mince meat pie in Hanover, Pennsylvania, or Great Grandfather Bill who joined the circus when it came to Iowa. Those are CLUES to places they’ve been. Write down those clues and put them in a shoebox, or wherever you keep your special cache of information about family.
Second, don’t dismiss anything as being irrelevant. When I was searching for my biological father, I had hundreds of conversations with my mother, and she mentioned an overwhelming number of towns in Germany. I wrote down every single town, followed-up with each one of them, and, after decades of getting “no record” responses, almost decided to discontinue that line of research. During one casual conversation, my mother mentioned the town of Augsberg in Germany. My initial reaction was that it would be just another town of hundreds I had contacted that would have no record of Jozef. I decided, what the heck, sending an email to one more town would only take a few minutes, so I nonchalantly sent that email, and, to my utter astonishment – that message is what solved the mystery of my father’s whereabouts!
Third, get your relatives involved in conversations about family – while you still can. Once they’re gone, they take the family stories and history with them and you won’t be able to ask those vital questions needed to put the pieces of the puzzle together. When I was in my twenties, I listened to many family stories, many of which did not seem to be significant. Decades later as I was creating my photo albums and doing write-ups of each family member, I was struck by all the dots I hadn’t connected, and wished I could ask Aunt Ida about the love of her life, or Uncle Claude about his service to America during WWI. They had their triumphs and tragedies and I wished I had captured that long-ago history.
Once you gather the basic Who, What, When, and Where, the documents you need to get, and where to get them, are:
- Archives at the County and State Vital Statistics agency will give you Birth, Marriage, and Death Records. You can find their addresses just by Googling them.
- Telephone Books
- National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)
- Ellis Island
- Cemetery Records
- Church Records
- Immigration Records
- Military Records
- American Red Cross
- Salvation Army
- Family History Center of the Church of Latter Day Saints
- Prison Records
- International Committee of the Red Cross
- Professional Organizations (Any profession requiring a license, e.g., physician, attorney)
- School Records
You don’t have to be a certified, professional genealogist to track down your family. Nor do you need to be a trained investigator. All it takes is perseverance. Happy hunting, and I’m sure you’ll find the stunning legacies your family has left behind for you.