4 Ways to Discover and Preserve Your Family History

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine

The holiday season is here, time to step off the daily treadmill of life and reconnect with family. November and December are filled with traditions and get-togethers, why not make the most of that time in a way that will link past and present and benefit children? The holidays provide wonderful opportunities for families to dig into their unique histories to better understand the people and circumstances that laid the foundation for the multiple generations now seated around the holiday table.  

Knowledge of family history has been shown to reap surprising rewards for children. A 2001 study on the subject by Drs. Marshall P. Duke and Robyn Fivush of Emory University suggests that children who know more about their family narrative have higher self-esteem, a stronger sense of control over their lives, less anxiety, and fewer behavioral problems.

A critical piece of the study was the “Do You Know?” scale, which asked children to answer 20 questions that included: Do you know where your mother and father grew up? Do you know how your parents met? Do you know your birth story? Do you know some of the lessons your parents learned from good or bad experiences? The study found that the scale turned out to be the single best predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness. After the September 11 attacks, researchers reassessed the same population of children and found, again, that those with deeper family knowledge were more resilient and better able to manage stress.  

So how can children and families use the upcoming holidays to begin capturing the stories of generations past for such worthwhile benefit? 

1. Tell relatives that you’re embarking on family history research.

Ask them to bring old family photos, letters, mementos, jewelry or personal items like diaries or family bibles to holiday gatherings to spark the sharing of stories. Together, you can capture historical details on the backs of photos or on tags you attach to family mementos. Some relatives also may have tackled similar research and may be able to offer partially completed family trees or copies of vital records, such as birth, marriage and death certificates or census and military service documents.  

2. Capture what you already know (and it’s more than you think).

Start with basic names and life details (birthplace, schooling, profession, marriage, children, etc.) of immediate family and expand from there. Ancestry.com, the world’s largest online family history service, is one resource that offers free family tree building software and genealogical worksheets and charts to help document these details. It also offers access to billions of digitized historical records, photos, and family trees submitted by other Ancestry.com users. 

Michelle Ercanbrack, a family historian at Ancestry.com, notes that people “can use our Ancestry app to access their family tree on-the-go with an Internet connection and mobile device. You can show relatives what you’ve been working on at home and upload to your tree in real time images of family documents, portraits and memorabilia.” Family members near and far can also receive access to any online family tree to review or contribute information. 

Social media also enables geographically distant family to participate in genealogy efforts. One option is creating a private family Facebook group where members can upload and post comments about old family photos, video, mementos, etc. and weigh in on family lineage.

3. Interview family members during holiday gatherings to confirm the critical names, dates, places, and relationships, but pay equal attention to uncovering the stories of ancestors’ daily lives.

David Allen Lambert, chief genealogist for the Boston-based New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS), sees genealogy “as a way of expressing the whole story of where we came from. People should think about how to light up each of the elements on their family tree. Consider the dash on a gravestone [between the dates of birth and death]. This is an ancestor’s story, and someone just needs to narrate it.” NEHGS is America’s founding genealogical organization and largest society of its kind in the world.

The richest stories are often uncovered through group conversation, where multiple layers of a story are shared. Lindsay Fulton, genealogist and colleague to Lambert at NEHGS, believes it’s beneficial to “have family come together as a group to talk about their history. Family members can play off each other to fill in stories, help each other remember, and even check each other. People can become guarded about family history, so it should be a fun conversation about the family. Everyone will tend to give more information.” One-on-one interviews are a worthwhile supplement to group conversation. Whatever the approach, recording the conversations ensures that critical family details (and the people and personalities of the current generation) are memorialized. 

While there are countless ways to document a family narrative in the digital age, genealogists emphasize the importance of capturing family history in writing. Fulton acknowledges that “digital files are great and long-lasting, but can get lost in the shuffle. It’s important to be consistent and think about how people will find the information you collect at a later time.” 

4. Confirm the accuracy of family stories. Lambert believes that “oral tradition is a wonderful resource, but shouldn’t be the last one.

It’s good to be an investigator within your own family’s oral tradition. Often times, you’ll find you’re disproving Grandma.” Primary records created at the time of an event (e.g., marriage certificates, real estate deeds) provide the most accurate historical information. The authenticity of secondary sources, including genealogies published online, should be examined. Ercanbrack recommends “using the family information you have as a jumping-off point, but looking at what the records are telling you vs. trying to make the records fit a certain family story.”  

Such sleuthing can be put to good use as Thanksgiving festivities morph into holiday gift shopping. Meaningful historical photos or documents could be framed or captured in a scrapbook with the stories that illustrate them. A subscription to an online ancestry service or a guided memory book could be the perfect gifts to link younger and older generations in collaborative and memory-making projects. For example, publisher from you to me specializes in guided journals. Some are written by different generations, such as joint journals Mom & Me, Dad & Me, Grandma & Me, and Grandpa & Me, others solely by a parent or grandparent, Dear Grandma, Dear Grandpa, etc.