Gathering Family History

November 22, 2011

Holiday events offer opportunities to learn more about your family history. The experts at the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) have effective tips for collecting important details while everyone is together.


If family members have traveled to be together, make the most of the occasion. Have everyone bring as much family history as possible. Chris Child, a staff genealogist with NEHGS suggests you ask relatives to bring documents, photographs, home movies, scrapbooks, newspaper clippings, family bibles, and diaries. Not only will these contain clues, but they may spark memories and open new topics of conversation.

Begin your outline by writing down everything you know. Then have relatives fill in the blanks. You can use the NEHGS site, to learn how set up a family tree. Or, you can stop by 99-101 Newbury Street to pick up a free copy of their guide, “Your Family Story Starts Here.”

Consider recording conversations about ancestors. Besides creating an oral history for generations to come, the recordings will let you review the conversation for information that might seem unimportant at the moment, but that could unlock a door for you or a professional genealogist at another point in your research.

Tips from a Genealogist

Chris Child suggests that you:

1. Ask your relatives for all the names, dates, and places they know, “including all the maiden names of all the female ancestors.” Ask about schools attended, military service, jobs, and where the family vacationed.

2. “Talk to the oldest member of your family and ask them about the oldest relative they remember. Within minutes, you’ll be jumping five generations.”

3. When someone can’t recall an exact date, try a different approach like, “How old were you when your grandparent died?” or “What else was going on in the world back then?”

4. Ask about name changes and alternate spellings.

5. Scan and photograph material to preserve and share documents. Child told of an important family register that he photographed in the mid-nineties. The original was written in pencil, and today you can’t read any of the names. His photo preserves the information that would have been lost.

6.  Attach names, dates, and places to family photos.

7. “Going to a cemetery can be useful.” You’ll find dates and full names for ancestors you know. Take photos of all the stones around them. Those may belong to relatives and could open new avenues of research.

8.  Ask family members where they met, where they went on dates, what sports they played, about avocations, and family recipes. Family lore and stories may or may not be true, but they help define and round out your family history.

9. Use NEHGS as a back up system for the originals or photocopies of your records. “It’s a benefit for a later generation, down the road, who might find them here,” Child said.

Sharing a Family Interest

A conversation on family history may extend beyond the holiday gathering. You could plan trips with family members to see ancestral homes and traditional vacation spots. A older family member might welcome younger company to visit cemeteries where family members are buried. And, you and a relative might attend a training program, seminar, or schedule a research visit to a place like NEHGS.  A holiday conversation could create a new branch in a family relationship.

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