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5 Places to Search for Finding Clues to Your Family History

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Your genealogy. Your heritage. Where do you start?

We all lead busy lives. Few of us live out our lives in the place where we were born, returning “home” to visit family only on holidays. And questions about family history rarely arise on a daily basis. But when friends, relatives, and acquaintances get together at a wedding or funeral, or when a news story or topic of public discussion piques our interest, we start wondering about our genealogy and about the people whose descendants we are.

You probably remember your grandparents, or at least have heard stories about them from others. But what about your great-grandparents? Where did they come from? What were their names, and who made up their immediate family? Try constructing a family tree that goes back at least four generations. Can you do it easily? If not, perhaps you should think about starting one. Recording information about your loved ones and their loved ones in turn, as far back into family history as you can go, would make a wonderful gift for everyone you love, to cherish now and to pass on to the next generation. If you can record even a few stories about the names that will appear on your tree, you’ve taken a major step in creating your family’s oral history.

So let's discover your family tree.

Tracking down information about your ancestors need not be difficult or tedious. It will take some time, of course. But think of the fascinating material you’ll be gathering as you populate the branches of your family tree and add to the treasury of oral history that forms a very large part of who you are. As one of a growing number of amateur genealogists, you'll be taking a significant step in communicating across generations.

To get you started, here are five places where you can begin your search for the history of the people in your past. The places aren’t listed in any specific order, so you can jump in at any point. But start as soon as you can: there are some records of the past, such as personal letters, diaries, and mind-stored memories, that are extremely fragile and quickly lost.

Informal Oral Records

One of the easiest ways to start recording your ancestry is by asking questions and noting down the answers. Let your family, friends, and acquaintances know that you are constructing a detailed tree, and ask them to gather together as much information as they can remember or put their hands on. It’s helpful to provide a list of names and specific questions to help jog their memories. For example, if you’re looking for background information about your father’s uncles and aunts and can remember their names, ask specifically about them and about any anecdotes that your informants have heard. Do you have an object or piece of jewelry you've inherited from a loved one? Put a photo of it on Facebook and ask family for anything they can remember about it. Make it clear that any and all information is welcome. Starting an email newsletter in which you record what you’ve gathered so far and which you regularly update with new data can inspire family members to contribute on an on-going basis, and even to scout out more material for you.

Family Records

It used to be a tradition in Christian families to present a newly-wed couple with a family Bible, a large and solidly bound volume with sections in the front and back in which to record important happenings such as births, weddings, confirmations, deaths, and the like. In Jewish families, the sacred Scriptures (Tanakh) are also traditionally available with pages in which to record family history. If someone in your family has such a book, it can be a source of valuable information. Diaries, journals, Christmas card collections, even cookbooks (you’d be surprised how often a busy cook will record family information in a margin or on the flyleaf while cooking!), school records such as textbooks, high school yearbooks, and report cards, baby books and Sunday School certificates: all can be treasuries of valuable information about your relatives. If you’re fortunate enough to have family photographs from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, check to see if there is information written on the back of the pictures (remove them carefully if they are framed). Remember that one of the best ways to conserve old photographs for the next generation is by entrusting them to a company such as Heritage Photo Restoration and Genealogy. Using reliable old photos restored by a company like Heritage can contribute substantially to your family research.

Public Records

So much information is available nowadays over the internet that a lot of the legwork has been taken out of tracking down data about your family. Old newspaper archive websites are a valuable source of information about events in the past; obituaries are a particularly useful source for gathering family records, since the obituary writer has already done much of your research for you! You could also try your local land office for information about deeds of sale, property ownership, and the like. Vital records such as birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, records of judicial actions and verdicts taken, are all on record and many can now be accessed digitally. Military archives are another source of valuable data. Old church records often contain a wealth of fantastic information. Some churches maintain scrapbooks filled with photographs of members covering all stages of life. (If the church is willing, consider having some of these restored by a professional restoration service such as Heritage.) Churches maintain records of baptisms, christenings, confirmations, weddings, funerals, and other liturgical functions as well; in the case of Jewish families, a synagogue will keep similar data as well as records of circumcisions and bar/bat mitzvahs. And if a retired pastor, priest, or rabbi is still living in the neighborhood of a given church or synagogue, his or her memories about one of your family members could be a rich source for your family records.

Professional Genealogist

If you’ve run out of time, or if your research has reached a dead end, you might consider employing a professional genealogist. Trained in archival and computational research, the trained genealogist can ferret out in record time information that has eluded your efforts for years. He or she is also aware of the professional standards and rules that apply to such research, and can separate fact from fiction when tracking down and writing up the material that's pertinent to you and your family members. Professional genealogists often work as teams, each member undertaking a different area of research.

DNA Testing

Researching ancestry through the DNA testing of biological descendants may sound a little like science fiction. But it makes a lot of sense if, for example, you or one of your parents were adopted at birth. Sometimes the awareness of a congenital condition or disease in a given family impels people to learn more about their past through DNA testing. By getting a DNA test, you can learn a great deal about who you are and what part of the world your ancestors came from. It’s a fail-safe test when carried out by professional DNA genealogists. DNA testing is also more popular than ever - there are over a dozen places on the internet to conduct genealogy-based DNA research.

Constructing a tree that illustrates your family’s history can be a fascinating undertaking, and the results of your genealogy work will be treasured by everyone. You can do a lot of research on your own. But don't stop there. Try using the services of a respected firm like Heritage Photo Restoration and Genealogy for your photo restoration, digital photo scanning, and genealogy needs.