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Introduction to Genealogy
Lesson 2b: Clues from Family Sources
 Intro to Genealogy:
 Lesson Two
• Course FAQ
• Course Outline

• First Steps
• Clues in Family Sources
• Gather Oral History
• Ask the Right Questions
• Previous Research
• Family Cemeteries
• Citing Family Sources
• Putting it All Together
• Lesson 2: Quiz
 Interactive Classroom

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Get Help with Lesson 2

Family documents, photos and other sources can provide you with many valuable clues to get you started on your genealogy adventure. They may include the names of ancestors, dates and places for births, marriages and deaths and insight into what life was like for your ancestors. Home sources come in many shapes and sizes:

One of the longest surviving and best cared for home sources are pictures. They depict your ancestors as they were, which makes them of great value to a family historian. On the backs of some photos you may find names and dates. Many early photos are printed on cards with the name and location of the photographer which can tell you where to look for your family in official records. Other clues may come from the types of clothing worn by your ancestors, towns or houses pictured in the background or even the way in which the people are arranged in a larger group shot.

While not as personal as family photographs, postcards can provide a wealth of information on your family. Scenes pictured on the cards may include the towns where they lived, ships on which they immigrated, automobiles and more. Personal notes can help with dates, names and relationships as well as providing you insight into the lives of your ancestors. People who moved away from home often used postcards to keep in touch with family members who remained at home. These could help you to identify the place from which an immigrant came or the place to which part of the family immigrated. Addresses and postmarks on the cards can help you to track family movements.

Official Records - Birth Certificates, Wedding Invitations...
In safe deposit boxes, scrapbooks, folders, Bibles and baby books you may run across official documents which have been kept by your family members. These include records such as birth, marriage & death certificates, baptismal certificates, naturalization papers, wills, patents, military enlistments or discharges, etc. These records can be invaluable because many copies of such records have been destroyed in courthouse, record offices and archives through fire and/or neglect and your family's copy may be the only surviving record. These records provide you with important information about your family as well as lead you to new records. Your great-grandfather's will which you found in a box in the attic, may lead you to an entire folder full of estate and probate documents at a courthouse or archives.

Diaries, Letters & Journals
These can be some of the most personal family sources and one of my favorites. They can bring your ancestors alive by telling you what they found important enough to write down. They are an invaluable source of clues as they will usually be full of names and dates. It was through letters to his sister that I learned my husband's granduncle wrote for the Western Daily Press in Bristol, England, played cricket for the Glouchestershire County Cricket Club and that "the bells rang for the Prince of Wales on his [my husband's granduncle] birthday every year" (telling me that his birthday was on the 9th of November). These types of sources are usually full of easily verified current events which makes it easier to determine how accurate the rest of the information may be.

Family Bibles
Many families used the family Bible to record births, marriages and deaths in the family. A family Bible may often be the only source for birth, marriage and death information which predates the time when such events were officially recorded in the locality. If you are so lucky as to locate a family Bible, however, you will need to evaluate it to be sure how trustworthy it is as a source. First, check the date of publication - if some of the entries are from before this date, then that means they were recorded after the event and may not as accurate (memories fade with time). Are the entries all written in the same handwriting and in the same ink? That may mean that they were all recorded at one time and again may not be as accurate as if they were recorded at the time of the event. Be sure to check each individual page for notes, photos and other valuable information which may have been kept in the Bible.

Scrapbooks can provide a delightful window into the lives and times of your ancestors. In a scrapbook you will often find newspaper clippings of marriage banns, obituary notices even family triumphs and scandals. Other items often found in scrapbooks include wedding invitations, funeral cards, birth announcements, diplomas, award certificates, recital or concert programs, school papers, ticket stubs, dried flowers and other important mementos. These may be valuable for the information they provide (names, dates, etc.) or just because they are a little piece of your past.

There are many more wonderful sources of family information than just those covered here. The key is to be open in your thinking and to be appreciative of every scrap of information which you find. Some of the items you may come across may seem insignificant on their own, but each one is a tiny piece in the large puzzle which is your family history. Keep in mind as you go, however, that family sources are a wonderful treasure but may not always be genealogically reliable. As you discover new sources be sure to take good notes and be observant. If the record was created at the time of the event (such as an obituary notice), it is more likely to be accurate. Family records created well after the event (such as a family tree in a baby book or a delayed birth certificate) may be less accurate.

Next page > Gathering Oral Histories



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