Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Telling Your Family Story

by Jen Baldwin, Ancestral Journeys, Breckenridge, Colorado, USA

Families collect many photographs, artifacts, art projects, heirlooms, even written memoirs over the generations.  These items can be combined to create an inviting and beautiful family history.  With just a little extra work online, however, that story could easily grow to include facts, geography, and history.  I would like to introduce you to genealogy.

Pick a rainy day on your calendar, and then pick a family line to work on.  Will it be your maternal or paternal ancestors?  What about your spouse's family?

Think back to all those Sunday dinners, holidays, and special occasions when your family would sit around the dinner table and swap stories.  There is truth there; and it deserves to be remembered.  Write down as much as you can.  If you chose to share your project with family members, they will be able to contribute their memories, also.  Photos will be brought out of boxes, heirlooms and momentos will be handed around, and those stories - the ones that must live on - those stories will be retold again.

Start with what you know, or with what you think you know.  Even a rough outline here will get the job done.  So grab your pen and notepad (or your iPad!) and make a few notes.  Here's an example:

  • Grandma Helen Jones lived in Auburn, Washington.  She died there.
  • Her husband was Terrance Alvin.
  • They had children Paul, Terrance Jr., and Samantha.

From this, you can add details, and the big three are BMD: Birth, Marriage, Death.  If you are unfamiliar with the dates and locations, call a family member that might have a good idea.  Even a close guess is enough to get you started.

With those few facts, you can start looking.  I will offer you a few sites beyond Ancestry.com.  (Don't get me wrong, Ancestry.com and sites like it are wonderful and useful.  However, if you're not a committed researcher, there are other ways to get the information you seek without paying any fees.)

  • FamilySearch.org.  The LDS community has established the largest genealogical library in the world, they put more online every day.  A good way to get census records, which can give you a lot of information on just one page.
  • Bureau of Land Management GLO If you had an ancestor that homesteaded somewhere in the United States, you will almost certainly find their information here.  The benefit is that it gives you an exact location - down to the Township and Range.  You can pinpoint their land on a map; along with having the nearest town, county and state.
  • Go to the local library, and access the HeritageQuest database.  I have yet to hear of a library computer system that does not have access to this great resource.  There are several searches you can conduct: Census, Books, etc.  Try them all.  Another great way to get census images, and is easier to search with less information that other sites.
  • A quick internet search will identify local resources for the area you are looking in.  Utilize organizations such as Trails to the Past, US GenWeb and the local historical societies.  Many have searchable databases, and you'll never know what you will come across just by typing in your surname.  
  • Google.  Utilize all of its features, including images, maps, books, and reader.  You never know what you will find on a genealogy or history related blog, or in the details of a county plot map.  

Be forewarned!  Genealogy is very addictive.  There are many that have fallen to the "itch" with an innocent glance at a family tree.  The thing about genealogy is you never really answer all the questions.  We make history every day, and every day more is available online and in other resources.  You will literally never get to it all.  If you are not prepared to commit, walk away.  Just.  Walk.  Away.

If you do choose to begin your own ancestral journey, there are numerous resources available online, and a happy-to-collaborate community just waiting to help you.  Chances are, you have a cousin somewhere out there in the world that is looking at your family.  Might be a 2nd cousin, or a 5th cousin twice removed.  Either way, you have an ancestor in common, and it's possible that you have a cousin across town that you never met.

No matter what you do, take the time to digitally document your family heirlooms.  This is known to most people as taking a picture.  Try to be a bit creative, and have some fun with the project.  Find unique back drops, combine elements to tell the photographic story.  In this manner, you can share at least some of your family story without having to let go of those precious items.  One of my favorites is seen here, on this blog.  It is a photo of my father's tin baby cup, and it was passed down to me when my first daughter was born.  I set the shot with a picture of my father, the original owner, holding his brand new granddaughter about 30 minutes into her life.  When I showed him the picture, it brought tears to his eyes.

Your family story is unique; there is nothing else like it in the world.  I encourage you to begin your journey today.

You can follow Jen on her blog, Ancestral Breezes, on Facebook at Ancestral Journey and on Twitter @ancestryjourney.  


  1. Very nice post. A few years back, I began researching my father's side of the family as a way to record memories. My great-grandmother had been diagnosed with Alzheirmer's disease, and her memory was fading fast. We did make some great leads, but I had to put it away for a while because I was addicted to the process and needed to get some things done. I think it might be time to bring out the research and "dig in" again!

    1. Thank you, Shannon, and best of luck! It can be extremely rewarding, as well as extremely frustrating at times! However, there is a wonderful community out there just itching to help you along, so make sure to access that through Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other social media. Thanks for reading and commenting! ~ Jen