Researching one’s family history makes for a great multi-generational quarantine project.
Engaging isolated and older relatives safely by interviewing them over the phone, or if they are able, via Zoom, can help reestablish connections and create a wonderful bond. Collecting as many firsthand facts as possible about the family and personal history will make it easier to verify other information you might uncover.
Making a simple family tree including names, dates of birth and death, and places lived is an organized way to start.
If you’ve been cleaning out your closets and have stumbled upon old Kodak moments, cataloging pictures is as easy as it is fun. It’s always a good idea to label pictures, whether on the back or on a corresponding list (paper or online).
Remember that while photo subjects may be familiar to you, take the guesswork out for future generations and label even the most obvious family members. Digital preservation is optimal, and you rarely need fancy equipment; often, a standard printer-copier will suffice, and you may even wish to simply take pictures of photos with a camera.
If you’re struggling to identify people, or just want to share old memories with your family members, Zoom screensharing is a great way to view photos together. Your relatives will enjoy a trip back in time, and it can be valuable to learn more about the people or events in the pictures.
Once the family has been interviewed, there are lots of strategies to continue your research. If you’re staying at home, Google can be your gateway to searching for information online. There are a few tricks to maximize your efforts.
Try looking up a relative’s name along with the town they lived in, or the university they attended. One easy way to get hits on the Internet is to place a name within quotations. If one searches for the name John Doe, results may turn up for websites or documents containing John Smith and Mark Doe; however, by putting the whole name within quotations, the search will prioritize results where “John” and “Doe” are together.
You might find Census data, newspaper articles, or social announcements. You could learn where your great-grandfather graduated from college, or what style dress your grandmother wore at her wedding.
FindAGrave.com is a crowdsourced website to find cemetery information and pictures of headstones across the world. If you know the state or county where your relatives are buried (or even the place they last lived), it may help narrow your search.
Not only is it interesting to see the headstones, but it can be valuable to learn dates of birth and death, and to see who your ancestors are buried with — siblings, children, parents, etc.
Obituaries are also particularly helpful in trying to ascertain dates, places, and relationships. More recently, obituaries have been posted online, but newspapers have also put older scans on the internet. If your relatives lived nearby, you may be able to visit their community’s local library and look at old newspapers, microfiche scans, town reports, or high school yearbooks.
Historical societies are also great sources of information. In some larger cities, organizations offer services wherein a reasonable fee is charged for two hours of work by a researcher who then compiles information about your family from their archives. This is an often-overlooked way to access documents from hundreds of miles away while supporting the work of these important groups.
The National Archives is the nation’s foremost collection of records and offers thousands of documents through their online platform at www.archives.gov/research. The Archives offers research tools and guidance for investigating your family history through different databases.
For example, searching through US military records can yield not only your grandfather’s enlistment record, but also his civilian occupation, years of college, and enlistment year.
Additionally, some records contain medical information, widow pension applications, and land warrant applications, spanning from the War of 1812 through the Vietnam War. If you’re looking for some guidance, the National Archives is a great place to start your search.
Remember to consider all options when searching for records online. If you get no hits, try a maiden name instead of a married name, or an alternative spelling. You may also want to ask older family members if your relatives went by a nickname or middle name, so you can start searching with their legal name. Take everything with a grain of salt — if some detail seems off or dates don’t line up, it may not be the right person. However, if you can be reasonably sure of the accuracy of a piece of information, you may be surprised what you find.
Another option to preserve family history is to use a trained family history recorder, such as Michelle Beckman of Sunday Dinner Stories in Tewksbury. Beckman conducts interviews of family members and organizes and saves the voices of relatives, creating a memoir which goes beyond names and dates.
Capturing voices, anecdotes and little-known stories, this kind of research can add more texture to the entire project and is really invaluable for generations to come.
However you decide to conduct your project, consider expanding your knowledge of your own past history as a way to use this pandemic to create a valuable treasure for the future.