Radio and television advertising for DNA testing and ancestor research might lead you to believe an exploration of family history begins with a google search or a leaf from ancestry.com. But the best way to start searching for your roots is in present times, at home, talking to family, friends, and neighbors about who and what they remember.
Home is where the heart and the history are.
Since writing the first book in Annie’s time travels, I have heard from cousins and other family members anxious to share stories and material that might be useful, not just in developing the next book, but in filling in the blanks that exist in my family saga. I have been surprised at the hidden gems surfacing as I reach out. One note of caution when you reach out; be prepared for surprises. At one of our family reunions, a family unit attended identifying themselves as descendants from a great-uncle that most assumed had no children.
A tool you may want to consider as you begin or expand your knowledge of family history is a questionnaire or survey for those you know well, as well as those you merely recognize as cousin so-and-so that you see at weddings and funerals.
Create a set of standard questions to ask everyone. Hearing multiple perspectives of the same story can lead to family members and information you might otherwise overlook.
Sample questions can include: • Who were your parents, grandparents, siblings, and cousins? • Can you trace your family back further than your grandparents? • What stories do you remember hearing as a child about family members? • Where did you travel as a child? • Did you visit relatives in other states?
Answers to questions such as these help in narrowing and managing your early investigation of family history.
Seek essential information outside of your core family.
Do not limit yourself to speaking only to your family members. Old neighbors, friends, even ex-spouses can be a source of information. Speak with people who might have a shared history or common family experience. I recently met a woman whose grandmother attended Ballard High School in Macon Georgia around the same time as my grandmother. Her grandmother kept a journal of her youth, including the time she spent at Ballard. The women I met has offered to scan the sections on Ballard and share it with me. How amazing it would be to find a reference to someone from my family in this woman’s journal.
A picture is worth a thousand words.
Explore old family albums and examine the photos not just for the people you know, but those you don’t as well. Look for artifacts that might reveal something you didn’t know. I recently saw a slideshow that included old pictures, and someone was shocked to see a photo taken at the home of her aunt. She had no previous knowledge that the people presenting the slideshow were acquainted with her family. We frequently come across pictures, and we don’t recognize the people in the photograph. Ask other family members if they can identify anyone and everyone who is in the picture. By all- means, preserve the photos. There are multiple services available to digitalize copies of photos.
Review personal records before heading out to the census bureau.
Bibles, yearbooks, journals, letters and other personal documentation can lead to new information about your family. Don’t hesitate to yank a few threads and see what unravels. When you are ready to move outside of the family documents, use census reports and data, military records and church archives as you get started. Contact schools and churches to determine if they maintain registers of baptisms/christenings, weddings, and funerals. From there, keep digging and don’t forget to share your experience on this blog.