Southern California Genealogical Society
SCGS RESEARCH ASSISTANCE - Articles

Home and Family: That's Where It Starts
By Barbara McKinlay

New genealogists are always told to start with what you know. That means searching through your home and the home of your parents for all the memorabilia that will lead to real evidence: dates of births, marriages and deaths, as well as names of relatives.

Just think how many times you have had to fill out a form that demanded your name, address, birth date and the name of your parents. Then you begin to realize that your parents and grandparents had to do that, too.

Generally, it is not too difficult to go back 100 years if you do a thorough search.

You'll want to establish some kind of filing system so that your notes, or the things you find, will be organized. The easiest way is to label manila folders with the names of all the people listed on your family group sheet.

And just look at what the possibilities are.

1) Old pictures: With older pictures, be sure to note the name and address of the photographer on the back. Clothes often indicate the period of time, and with older pictures and tintypes, if you are having a really difficult time, curators at a local museum or historical society might be able to help.

2) Newspaper articles: There are a myriad of things you may run acrossBobituaries, for one. In the past, they often were very descriptive, and names of the family members who attended were listed. It's a great way to pick up the married name of some of the women. One of the first things I found was an old article about a Richmond family reunion held in 1925 that named all the people who had attended. Handle with care. Newsprint can get very brittle. It's a good idea to encase them in archive-quality plastic sheets.

3) Books: In the past, books were a common gift, and often on the flyleaf, an inscription will be found To Forrest on his fifth birthday, November 29, 1922, etc. Even if there are a lot of books, it is worth looking at each one for clues.

4) School records: The record itself may not have much, but it will have the name of the school and a date. From that, it is easy to contact the school to see if they have old records or find out what they have done with them. At one time, I found old records of a school in Oregon in the Oregon State Library. It was the only evidence I ever found of a birth date for a child in the family.

5) Autograph books: These were very common for a long period of time. Usually, there is a date and a signature with the person's name and their words of wisdom. I have one that was my grandmother's that dates back to 1884 in Downey.

6) Church records: Usually, there are certificates of baptism or of joining a church. If there is not any specific information on them, often the church can be found, and it may have further information.

7) Postcards: These are interesting because you can follow the travels of people in the family. The pictures, the stamps and the notes people wrote are great fun.

8) Scrapbooks: If you find one, often it is a treasure, because almost anything may have been put into it.

9) Funeral programs: Some of these have quite a bit of information in them: date of birth, death
and biographical data. If there is nothing, you can bet that the name of the funeral home is there, and its records often can be traced.

10) Military service records: As with some of the other listings, they may be a springboard to other places where information can be found.

11) Work records: Sometimes you will find records of payments from a company that will show a date and a place. My father worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad, and I received a whole sheaf of papers from the Railroad Retirement Board showing his salary from the time that he started, as well as other data he had supplied about where he was born, who his parents were, etc.

12) Union records: Unions are mostly a 20th century phenomena, but are worth looking into. Several years ago, I was able to locate someone by contacting the local union representative who said the man in question picked up his mail there!

13) Insurance policies: These have been around a long time, and you have to know that the companies demanded information before the policies were issued. Also, often immigrant families lived in clusters and formed protective associations that, in turn, issued insurance policies.

14) Diaries: Sometimes they are hard reading because of the penmanship, but they are really worthwhile. They can help to fill in the empty spots of someone's life.

15) Ration books: These were issued in World War II and birth dates and family names had to be provided. As always, mistakes can be found. My husband's mother was older than his father, and she lied on her ration book and made herself the same age as her husband!

16) Marriage records: These have varying information. Be sure to note the witnesses who were close friends. Often those families have pictures and further information.

17) Organizations: Masons, Eastern Star, American Legion . . . all these groups have records and are usually very cooperative.

18) Bibles: These sometimes have great information, but be cautious. Look at the date of publication. If the date is 1920 and it contains dates from 1850, the information may have just been copied into it.

19) Baby books: These often contain a family tree.

20) Naturalization records: Often, all you will find is the naturalization record itself, which does not have much information. The next step, then, is to look for the Declaration of Intention at the county courthouse.

That's the first half of your start. The second half is to contact all your living relatives. Most of us have a bad habit of waiting to start a family history until after many of our relatives have died. Often, however, you will discover someone who had hoped to join the DAR or other organization that demands documentation about the family. That is what happened to me. I interviewed a distant relative who had a mimeographed genealogy developed for membership in the DAR. She had been hoping that someone in the family would come along and want it!

If you are going for an interview, be prepared. Think about what you are going to ask. Take along a pedigree chart and a family group sheet. Pictures are a great help, especially with older people who often will tell you that they don't know anything that will help. One look at a picture can unlock colorful memories. A tape recorder is an asset, but be sure that the person is comfortable with it. When I interviewed an elderly aunt, a discussion of my grandfather's death unlocked a great ghost story that I had never heard before!

If you can't talk to someone in person, it's probably a good idea to write to them, or perhaps get another relative who lives nearby to do the interview.

I know that beginners are tempted to rush off to the library or the National Archives, but it is worth your while to make your existing family resources your No. 1 priority.


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