Record Your Family History

Woman with photographs and genealogy tree

Tell the Story of Your Family

Your family's story is more than a box of photographs and a list of names and dates. It's a tale of triumph and resilience, of real people living real lives. However, to record this important history, you need to research the details, organize the information you find, and preserve it so that it will last for generations.

Don't get overwhelmed by the boxes of photos and blank lines in the family tree. Recording your geneaology is an act of love that takes time and perseverence, but it's not difficult. Take it a step at a time, and you'll soon have a lovely record to pass on to future generations.

Woman looking at genealogy tree

Start With What You Know

Whether you've been researching your family history for years or you're just becoming interested in genealogy, the first step is to start with what you know. It's helpful to begin with pedigree charts to help you fill out as much as you can. A pedigree chart is a document that starts with one individual and then goes back through several generations of parents and grandparents.

To get started, print four charts and use one for each of your grandparents. How many generations can you go back? How much do you know about each individual? When you run into dead ends, you'll know where to target your research.

Granny showing memories

Sit Down With Family Members

One of the most valuable resources at your disposal is your family itself. Make some time to sit down with your oldest relatives. Even if you are part of the most senior generation, take time to talk to siblings and cousins. The people in your family will remember different things and have different stories to share.

Find a quiet place where you won't be interrupted and use a recording app or other device to make an audio recording of the conversation. Ask questions about the missing information in your chart, but also request stories about the people you already know. These stories and details will help you create a three-dimensional history of the members of your family.

Manilla Genealogy

Look Through Family Files

If your family is like most, there are boxes of papers and photographs in someone's basement or attic. If you know where these are, ask to use them to compile your research. You may find everything from family Bibles with records in the front to letters, journals and old wills. Make a file for each individual or family group and sort the papers. As you go, record the information you find in your pedigree charts.

Then dig into the photos. With an acid-free pencil, carefully label them with everything you know about the people, dates and places they depict. Make a pile of those you can't identify and ask other family members if they're able to help. Scan each one and include the identifying information in the file name. Sort them by individual or date so you can reference them later.

Staying connected

Look for Public Records Online

Now that you've organized the information your family already has, you can begin searching for new information. The internet is a great starting point, since it's easy to look up people and places from the comfort of your own at home and in your spare time. Public records are a great place to start. These include birth records, census files, marriage certificates, death records and more. These are primary sources for information as opposed to questionable research someone else has conducted.

There are a number of free genealogy websites to help you get started, as well as paid sites like Ancestry.com that allow you to conduct research and organize your findings.

Viewing gravestone

Visit Cemeteries

Cemeteries are one of the best places to find detailed information about your family history. Headstones have information about birth dates, death dates, family relationships, military service and more. Keep these tips in mind for your visit:

  • Before you go, contact the cemetery management to see if they can help you locate the headstones you need. There's nothing worse that walking row by row through a huge graveyard.
  • Make a list of the ancestors you want to find. It can be overwhelming to try to organize your research time in a large cemetery.
  • Set specific goals for the information you need. You may need dates for some people, just headstone locations for others and photos of the stones for some.
  • Don't forget your camera and notebook. Your notes and photographs will be an essential part of your history.
Holding picture

Travel to Important Locations

The places your ancestors lived are more than just dots on a map; they are the settings for the stories of your family. To really record your history, it helps to physically travel to the locations that are important. It often takes a few days to a week to conduct in-person research on location, but it's worth the time and expense. Bring a camera to take still photos and videos, as well as a notebook to record your thoughts. These are some of the things you may want to record:

  • Houses and farms where your ancestors lived
  • Schools individuals in your family tree may have attended
  • Main street of town, including older buildings
  • Railroad stations or depots
  • Places where ancestors worked
Grandfather and grandson

Dig Deeper at Local Libraries

You'll find that the libraries in the towns where your ancestors lived are one of the best places to conduct in-depth research. Here, you'll find town histories that may mention your relatives. You can also look through local newspapers that will have stories about births, deaths, social events and more. There may be school yearbooks or phone directories too. Many of these materials are not available online.

To make the most of your visit, have a list of things you need. Start with basics like births, marriages and deaths, but also look for addresses as well as school and business information. Before your visit, call the library to ask about whether you need an appointment and if they have limited hours for their local history room.

Holding portrait of parents

Gather Other Media

Names and dates are important, but photographs, newspaper clippings, maps and other documents will give your story substance. You'll find many of these details at the local library, but you may also need to create some of it yourself. Ideally, you'll have one or two items besides the basic life events to accompany every name in your history. Consider using some of the following:

  • Take a photo of the house where a family member lived.
  • Copy a newspaper clipping that describes a social call made by one of your relatives.
  • Photograph your great grandmother's wedding gown to include in her file.
  • Scan your mother's baby footprints from her birth certificate.
  • Take pictures of tools people used or other family heirlooms.
Birth and Death Register

Organize Your Research by Individual or Family

At this point, you should have a fair amount of information about each person in your tree. Make a list of all the important individuals and begin organizing what you have. You can use genealogy forms to help with this, or you can create a hard copy or electronic file for each person or each family.

At minimum, you'll want to have the full name, the birth and death dates and a location. However, it's even better if you have an image for each person, as well as information about where and how he or she lived.

Senior woman writing

Write It Up

Now that you have the information for each person and the media that will help make your story more than just names and dates, it's time to actually write the family history. One way to do this is to start with a family tree. Add the individuals into the tree, and then tell the story of each family.

You can start by describing the meeting of two people, such as your grandparents. Talk about the upbringing of each person and how that might have contributed to the family they created together. Then describe their life as a couple, talking about how they lived and worked, the children they had and the trials they endured. Every person will write this differently, but using this type of narrative style can make your family history easy and interesting to read.

Multi-generation women

Create a Hard Copy

Once you've recorded the history and included the memorabilia that makes it even more interesting, you can create a hard copy. There are a number of family history book publishers to choose from, most of which allow you to print on demand. That means you can have an actual bound book of your family history with photos and clippings included, and you only have to purchase as many copies as you need.

Hard copies make heirloom gifts for family members, as well. Sharing your hard work with the rest of the family is an important part of the process of recording your history.

Surprised Hispanic woman

Share Your Story Online

You can also share you family history online to preserve your family history work for future generations. While hard copies may be lost or destroyed, adding your work to genealogy databases helps safeguard it against loss.

You can create a website or ebook with the details, or you can input the information into the genealogy websites you used to conduct your research. Either way, this allows your research and writing to become part of the record that others, including your future descendants, may access in their own genealogy work.

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Record Your Family History