Suggestions for documenting family history based on my recent work on family narratives. Family stories will not outlive family members.
I have become newly engaged with my family history. This fall I began work on a set of family narratives focused on my four grand parent family lines: Pickett, Muir, Platt, and Campbell. So far I have completed fairly complete drafts of the Pickett and Platt lines and have now begun to research the Muir line.
Both of the completed narratives contain a lot that the family already knew but also some important facts and events that were unknown. For example, my maternal grandfather left my grandmother with two small girls under the age of three and was never heard from again. I was able to fill in some of the missing pieces and trace his life through his remaining 30 years.
Based on these experiences, I offer four pieces of advice to those interested in pursuing their family history in an organized fashion.
First, don’t assume that someone will remember the stories that parents or grandparents tell, no matter how often you hear them. Once the oldest in the family pass on, their stories and memories pass with them unless someone has recorded them in some fashion. The easiest way to collect these stories is to carry a small digital audio recorder and then a conversation begins to turn toward those stories, just switch it on. Eventually those recordings will need to be transcribed but at least you will have captured those stories and memories.
Second, every family should try to identify a member who will assume responsibility for storing and organizing family documents and photographs. With the use of digital storage and scanning, it is not always necessary that one person physically have those materials although that is the ideal. Once materials are organizing and scanned, it is easy to make them available to every member of the family. With the explosive growth of photography, every family has literally thousands of photographs. Nothing is more disheartening than to find an old photographs with the people unidentified and with no one left living to provide any identification. Don’t assume that everyone in the future will know who is in the photos. With digital photos and digital scans of older photos, it is quite easy to include tags right in the digital file.
Third, the Internet has made family research much easier and less time consuming. I use Ancestry.com and highly recommend it along with Family Tree Maker which provides an easy way to organize the find found on the internet and in family material. Research on the web will also provide important background information and historical and social context that Ancestry.com does not provide. I found some crucial information about the migration of my great grandfather from New York to Kansas by googling “Civil War pension amounts.”
Finally, it is important to begin to create narratives, no matter how incomplete they might seem. Otherwise you will tend to lose the chronological thread of the family you are studying. A quick review of the narrative is especially helpful if you have been away from the project for a while. Ultimately, these narratives will form the basis of what you can share with family members.