5 Ways to Jumpstart Your Family History

by | Nov. 17, 2011

1) Learn at home from:

Your own memories. There’s probably more stored in your memory banks than you think. Start a notebook or computer file in which you record any family stories that come to mind. Fill out as much as you can on a pedigree chart, which shows you several sets of parents at a glance, or on family group sheets, which each show one set of parents and their children. Pray for sharper recall of these stories and facts or opportunities to rediscover them.

Your loved ones’ memories. Ask a relative to help you fill in the blanks on your charts. Contact anyone in the family who has done some genealogy or who has all the clan documents or photos. Gather favorite stories from loved ones. (The next segment of this series will give you detailed tips on how to interview family members.)

Family paperwork. Look for birth, marriage, and death certificates; baby books; family Bibles; funeral and burial paperwork; school and church records; news clippings; old medical or insurance paperwork; legal documents; letters and diaries; books of remembrance or family histories; and photographs. Watch for names, dates, and places but also descriptions of people and their stories.

2) Narrow your focus. Family trees branch rapidly as you move further into the past. How can you choose where to focus your investigation? Ask yourself these questions:

•    Is any relative’s memory or health fading? Capture endangered memories first.
•    What fascinates you? Are you curious about who may have served in a war, immigrated, joined the Church, died in the Spanish flu epidemic? Chase those topics you care about most.
•    What information is most available to you right now? Which people or stories could you document most easily? Pick that low-lying fruit before reaching higher.

Next, decide whether to learn a little bit about many generations or a lot about one person or generation. There are advantages to each. Reaching far into the past helps you identify your ethnic heritage(s), immigrant ancestors, family migration patterns, and more ancestors for whom temple ordinances may be performed. Delving more deeply into a few lives allows you to “get to know” those who have gone before, the better to appreciate their characters, choices and circumstances.

3) Search out more information. Billions of individual records have been extracted from government, church, and other sources and entered into huge databases that you can find online. Go to lds.org's new Family History section and click on "Search Online Records."  Stop by a FamilySearch Center near you (click here to find one) to use other popular databases like ancestry.com for free.

When you find a record that appears to relate to your family, consider it carefully. Does the information match what you already have? If not, which source do you trust more? Could this easily belong to a different family of the same surname? Try to view a digital image or track down the original to verify what it says. Ask a FamilySearch Center volunteer for help locating original records. Keep notes on where you find every piece of information.

4) Flesh out the stories. Names, dates, and places can be boring without personalities and stories to bring them to life. Use what you know to learn more. Read old letters or stories carefully: what do they tell you about a relative’s personality, tastes, or attitudes? Take a fact and run with it: if grandpa was a firefighter in Olyphant, Pennsylvania, contact the local historical society or Google the town’s history to see what else you can learn about his fire company.

When personal accounts of ancestors don’t exist, study the culture, town, or era in which they lived. Visit a historic site to get a general sense of their lives. Quote the stories of people like them. Find books or documentaries on everyday life during that time or the experiences of particular ethnic or laborers’ groups. If you are tracing many generations, look at where they lived over a long period of time. See if their migrations match a larger national, regional, or cultural pattern.

5) Share family history meaningfully. Your discoveries will do no good if they sit in a file. Share short snippets in conversations. Type up interviews and write up what your research reveals. (Check out part one of this series, “Write a Family History Others Want to Read,” for more guidelines.) Print heritage books and give them as gifts. At lds.org's Family History section, click on "Getting Started with Family History" to learn how Latter-day Saints can build a family tree online and arrange for temple ordinances to be performed.

Everything you learn about your heritage builds your relationships with relatives, both the living and the dead. After all, these are the folks with whom you hope to spend eternity! So get started today, with little efforts or big ones. Soon you’ll know enough to spot an ancestor, whether you find them now in old records or someday in the halls of heaven.

Sunny McClellan Morton is a Latter-day Saint heritage writer and author of My Life & Times: A Guided Journal for Collecting Your Stories. Learn more about her at sunnymorton.com.

Comments and feedback can be sent to feedback@ldsliving.com