Write your family history: How to get started

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As distancing restrictions continue, we’ve become more aware and appreciative of our social connections to family, friends, neighbors and coworkers. For many, this extended time of separation has caused frustration and anxiety, leaving people longing for the “good old days.”

You can ease feelings of isolation and nostalgia by posting decades-old family photos on Facebook, but why not go a little further? This might be the perfect time to explore your family history.

A family history can take many forms, each with their own advantages. Learn more below.

Family history formats

  • A memoir or an autobiography is a factual account written by you, about you. An autobiography encompasses your life history, while a memoir focuses on a specific time in your life and is often introspective. If you like to tell stories about your past, you will feel comfortable with this format. A biography is a factual account about someone other than yourself, for example another family member.
  • Perhaps you have saved items such as photos, letters, cards, concert tickets or other memorabilia that are attached to specific memories. A scrapbook enables you to intermingle mementos with written accounts to enhance your story.
  • A family cookbook is a fun idea that would make a great holiday gift! Share favorite family recipes and include a story about the person who originated the recipe. Ask family members to contribute.
  • Many families have cherished oral histories – tales of events or family members passed down by aunts, uncles and grandparents. You can write the stories as you remember them, journal style, or record yourself telling the story. A family gathering – even if it’s done virtually – is a great place to share and document family stories. Have a list of questions ready to spark a memory. Ask about their childhood, pets, vacations, family traditions, historical events they lived through, when and how they met their spouse. Record them telling their story for a meaningful keepsake your family will treasure.
  • The ease with which we can find and review historical documents online has peaked public interest in researching the family tree. Unlike a written or oral history, a genealogical history catalogs family connections through time.

Exploring your family history

A little research can provide context for your family history and the internet puts vast amounts of information at your fingertips. Did your grandfather own a business? Even something as simple as a Google search may yield a photograph or newspaper reference.

One of the most popular ways to flesh out a family’s story is through a genealogical study. Several website databases such as The US GenWeb Project are available to help people trace their ancestry. Some resources are free while other sites like Ancestry and Genealogy Bank require a paid subscription to obtain full access, but may offer free trials for a limited time. Purchasing a short-term subscription is another option. The cost will be minimal and it may only take a week or two to satisfy your curiosity.

Don’t overlook library and museum websites. Over the years, old documents of all kinds have been scanned and stored in internet databases, meaning you can read 100-year-old newspapers, search ship passenger and immigration lists, view military records and city directories without traveling to the place where the actual document is stored. And some public library systems might even provide card-holding patrons free access to fee-based genealogy sites!

Where to begin writing your family history

Begin with what you know and ask family members to help fill in the blanks.

Most ancestry database searches start with the name of an individual. The more details you can provide about that person, the better your chances of quickly finding relevant information. Do you know their full name, middle name or initial, birthdate, date of death or marriage, address or geographic location? How about their parents’ names? Specifics like these will help you pinpoint information and build your family history.

A single successful search can yield new facts to aid future searches. For instance, an obituary notice usually lists a birthdate, date of death, names of additional family members, and possibly other information like religious affiliation and membership in political and community organizations.

Organize your information

Careful record-keeping is key as you continue your search. Whether your documents are physical or digitized, develop an efficient system that will help you retrieve the information you need, when you need it. You may want to create one folder per family name, with subfolders for each generation or family member.

Most people interested in genealogy develop a family tree to diagram family connections. You can draw yours on a piece of paper, create it on the computer or use a variety of templates on the web. Some genealogical sites also provide a family tree builder, usually for a fee. This type of service can help you organize your information and enables you to save images and links for reference.

Researching and documenting your family history can be exhilarating, frustrating, enlightening, fascinating, time consuming and rewarding. Sharing what you discover with other family members can strengthen your connections, even while you remain apart.

Additional resources
AfriGeneas 
Ancestry.com
Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System 
Find a Grave – cemetery records
Find My Past
Genealogy.com
Genealogy Bank
India Family History Search
JewishGen.org
NativeWeb Genealogy
NewspaperArchive.com
US GenWeb Project
US National Archives 
Wiki Tree