Investigating and documenting your family history can seem daunting if you are just getting started and want to learn more about your family members and their history. Our family has been investigating and documenting our family history for over 40 years. It is amazing what you will find out about your ancestors if you know how and where to find the information. These 10 tips for investigating and documenting your family history will make the genealogy process easy and fun for you.
The exciting genealogy process can uncover links to famous people, information about family members who were military heroes, or simply information about family members that disappeared. All these are the cases in our investigation of family history. We learned that some family members are related to Abraham Lincoln, Tom Hanks, Woody Guthrie, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Some family members are descendents of the Creek Indians from Oklahoma. We learned about another family member that was knighted in Germany for saving four nuns during a war.
My siblings and I never knew either one of our grandfathers because one died before we were born and the other just vanished from our lives. One day, he told my grandmother he was going to the store to buy cigarettes and he never returned. We have been searching for him for 40 years and found him from searching military records. Our family has only one known photo of him. Despite his heartbreaking behavior, that photo and the family history about our vanished grandfather has become one of the most cherished results of our family history investigation.
Here are 10 tips for investigating, documenting, and uncovering your amazing family history stories:
Get Free Online Tutorials on How to Begin Investigating Your Family History
How Do I Begin?
How Do I Locate Ancestors?
How Do I Recognize Ancestors?
Visit FamilySearch.org to download free tutorials on how to start investigating your family history. Trust me, you can waste a lot of time if you just wander around the vast genealogy universe and are not prepared to document what you might find. At the Research Help page of FamilySearch.org you can get beginner tutorials for each state in the U.S. and other countries where your ancestors lived.
One important thing we learned early on was that family names and vital statistics dates were not always accurately recorded in the early days. The tutorials at the Research Help page of FamilySearch.com will help you learn to recognize when a spelling variation of a family name is actually one of your ancestors!
Print Free Family History Forms for Each Family Member
Documenting the results of your family history investigation is the most crucial time-saving task that will keep your family history findings organized. You can print dozens of free family history investigation forms from the Forms Library of Family Search.org. This link also includes free templates for letter-writing to foreign government agencies, U.S. and foreign census search charts, family group record forms, to do lists for investigating your family history, and time line charts for getting started with your search.
Next, download the free Personal Ancestral File (PAF) software from FamilySearch.org. The PAF software allows you to document, organize, and share your family history investigation results.
Print Free Family Tree Templates
Download the free family history PAF companion product from FamilySearch.com that allows you to build your family tree. Once you have downloaded the free family tree software, you can print color family tree charts complete with family photos, copies of vital statistics documents like marriage certificates, military honors, and more.
Get the Book To Our Children’s Children: Preserving Family Histories for Generations to Come by Bob Greene and D. G. Fulford and Interview Family Members About Relatives
I have given the book To Our Children’s Children to four different family members representing four generations of our family. It is the best book I have seen for guiding a personal family history interview with Moms, Dads, Grandma’s and Grandpa’s in order to document family history stories. My daughter used the family history questions in this book to interview my Mom and she recorded my Mom’s family stories on 8 cassette tapes. We are transferring these tapes to CD and will upload it into our family history PAF software. There is nothing like having the voice of your Grandma telling family history stories, preserved for a lifetime in digital format, to be shared for generations to come.
Collect Pictures With Dates and Family Member Names
My advice is to become or designate a genealogy and family history champion in your family whose job it is to collect family photos with dates and family names on the back so you can upload them into your family history PAF software. Most family members do not realize the value of having a name and a date on a photo that might be what fills a missing link on your family tree one day. My grandmother was notorious for putting messages on the back of photos, and that is how we learned who our vanished grandfather was in the only photo we have of him.
Visit Small Towns Where Family Members Lived
One of my relatives that learned of a connection to the Creek Indians visited a small town in Oklahoma to see if she could learn more information about some of the deceased family members to make the final genealogy link to the Native Americans. She asked people around town in libraries, cafes, grocery stores and churches if anyone had known these family members. Amazingly, she met several people who told her stories about the relatives, including who they were married to and how many children they had, and where they had lived in the small town. From that information, we were able to complete the missing link.
Search Public Records for Family Members in the U.S. and Foreign Countries
FamilySearch.com has a free search service for locating public records of family members in all 50 states in the U.S. and many foreign countries. It was through this search service that we were able to learn that my great, great grandfather was knighted in Germany for saving four nuns. Supposedly, there is a church in Germany with a stained glass window depicting this heroic event. Although my Mom wrote the church to verify this story, we have not heard a reply to confirm this yet. We may have to make a trip to the church to see for ourselves. We did, however, find the family Coat of Arms from his knighthood through these foreign country searches for family members.
Search Free Online Family Trees for Famous People
When we learned through family letters and newspaper stories that one of our relatives was related to Abraham Lincoln, we set out to find the links. One way we investigated that is by searching Abraham Lincoln’s family tree that is available online from Genealogy.com From this investigation, we also found genealogy links to Woody Guthrie and possibly Tom Hanks. We are continuing this family history investigation to complete the missing links for a Hanks relative who married into the Lincoln family.
Search Public Military Records for Family Members
You can request official military records, including a copy of your family member’s discharge form DD Form 214, from the U.S. government. The military records will also include emergency information for your family member, duty stations and assignments, awards, and medals received by your family member. Information on how to search and request military records can be found at military.com web site.
Our family found out through a search of military records, that our grandfather enlisted in the U.S. Army from a small town in Illinois. Prior to this genealogy finding, we had no idea that our long lost grandfather had ever lived in Illinois. Learning of his military record led us to a more intense family history investigation of Illinois vital statistics records.
Visit a Family History Center Near You
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) that sponsors FamilySearch.org, operates over 4,500 Family History Centers in 100 countries. Each month, around 100,000 rolls of microfilm are circulated through these family history centers. Volunteers that are trained experts at family history investigations, staff these LDS Family History Centers. A majority of the records in the LDS Family History Centers are for people who lived before 1930.
To locate the Family History Center nearest you, visit the LDS Family History Center web site. The LDS Family History Centers have:
- The Ancestral File database that contains more than 36 million names that are linked into families
- Approximately 600 million names of deceased individuals
- An addendum to the International Genealogical Index contains an additional 125 million names
- The Pedigree Resource File database contains over 100 million names that are linked into families
- Approximately 200 cameras that are currently microfilming records in over 45 countries
- Family member records that have been filmed in over 110 countries, territories, and possessions