How to gather family information

With our lives in today’s world getting busier, our knowledge of our ancestors is rapidly decreasing. There definitely are some seniors in our families who know much more about our family tree, but this information, if not transferred, is bound to be lost with them. Some of it might already be lost. If you are looking to assimilate information about your family, the following sources and methods could prove to be of great help.

Family Records

family-recordLook for all existing family records you are aware of. Are there any storage spaces where old things like photographs, letters, albums, documents etc. stored? Do check them out. You can reach out to your cousins or uncles and aunts for help as well. The more the number of places searched, the higher the chances of finding useful information.

If there is any relative who already has collected this information or a part of it, it would make the search further easier. Hence it is important to reach out to relatives for searching out family records. This however requires much monitoring and caution. Does your aunt often mix up names? You could end up with wrong information if you rely entirely on the memory of any one individual.

The best solution to make sure you obtain accurate information is to look for recorded information. Official and legal documents are a great source. Some of the most helpful official documents that you can look for are –

  • Certificates of birth, marriage, and death
  • Wills, deeds, and property records
  • Military service and pension documents
  • Passports
  • Naturalization documents
  • Medical records
  • Licenses (business, marriage, fishing, driving)
  • School records
  • Insurance policies

Official documents are not always as easy to find. This does not mean that verified information cannot be found. There are various non-official yet reliable sources of information. Some of them are –

Books and Albums

  • Family Bibles
  • Scrapbooks and albums
  • Baby and wedding books
  • Books of Remembrance
  • Photograph Albums

Personal Writings

  • Journals and diaries
  • Personal histories and biographies
  • Letters and cards

Printed Notices and Announcements

  • Newspaper clippings and obituaries
  • Announcements of births, weddings, and anniversaries
  • Programs (award ceremonies, funerals)
  • Family reunion notices and records


  • Religious records
  • Fraternal or society records
  • Occupational awards

While you gather information about your ancestors, do not forget to make a note of multiple marriages in the family. In which case, it becomes essential to find information of all the spouses and any descendants from them.

Family traditions

Traditional holiday dinnerAlong with trying to identify your ancestors, it is also important to understand the family traditions. Traditions of each family provide many clues for further research. For example, a simple tradition where the entire family attends the Sunday mass together on the first Sunday of every month can provide useful links for further research. You could then visit the church and look for any records of regular church goers. Or talk to the church staff and priests to know if they can share any information of those who attended the church from your family.

Try to speak to the elders of your family regarding the family traditions. Look for the traditions that involve reunion of family members. These could be family traditions relating to marriages, birth of new child in the family, funerals or even annual get-togethers.

While you gather all this information, it is very essential to keep a track of every finding. Since you could come across a multitude of findings, it is essential to be able to sort all the information and tie up pieces to make a complete family tree. Apart from recording the information you have discovered, make sure to note the source of the information and the date when you had found it. This will prove very helpful when you have to go back and clarify anything.

One challenge that most people looking for their family information face are the contradicting facts. Imagine your one aunt told you something and the other told you something else! Such confusions can be cleared only by tying all pieces of information gathered and looking at the picture in entirety, keeping the family traditions in the background.

Family Memorabilia

family-memorabiliaRemember how your mom never let you touch that artefact because it belonged to your great grandpa? Or that ring which has been handed down generation after generation? Well, these memorabilia can prove to be a great source of the information you are looking. These items can reveal stories of the life and adventures of your ancestors, which in turn can provide further clues for your research.

Be careful however, since there could be a number of such pieces of artefacts etc. which your relatives might claim to be age-old. Hence you will have to spend some time figuring out which the important ones are. Some of the possibly useful memorabilia are –

  • Religious artifacts
  • Samplers, tapestries and quilts
  • Heirlooms
  • Pieces of furniture or household items
  • Medals, awards, trophies
  • Souvenirs
  • Clothing, uniforms

Interestingly, some of these memorabilia might contain engravings and carvings of the names of your ancestors, their beliefs, names of family members, etc. Hence studying them carefully can be worthwhile. Keep a track of the findings and click a picture the memorabilia if possible. This way, in case there is something that you have missed out, you can re-look the pictures to find it.Also keep a note of where the memorabilia is present so that you can revisit it if required.

Connect with relatives

You might not be in contact with all your relatives. There are some whom we frequently come across and others whom we only know by names (or even just the way they are related). They are called “distant relatives” for a reason. Genealogy however requires you to bridge the gaps and connect with all these relatives so that you can gather as much information as possible.

It is necessary to be courteous and considerate when you are meeting or talking to these relatives. Sometimes, you might not even be sure of the questions to ask. If you are planning to visit your relative and discuss the matter with them face-to-face, handbooks such as the following can help you prepare for it.

Akeret, Robert U. Family Tales, Family Wisdom. New York: Henry Holt, 1992. (not at FHL)

Fletcher, William. Recording Your Family History. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1986. (FHL book 973 D27fL)

If your relatives live too far and you are unable to visit them in person, correspondence over mails and emails can also be helpful. You might also want to  try find them in Facebook or Linked in, in case they already have created a profile. Be aware that if you are meeting someone elderly, they might not be well-versed with using internet and emails. Hence mails might be the best way to reach them. You might also follow a few basic rules –

  • Don’t send form letters.
  • Don’t send unfamiliar blank genealogical forms, especially with the first letter.
  • Be reasonable. Don’t ask for too much at once.
  • Ask simple, straightforward questions.
  • Be generous in sharing and prompt in answering.
  • Show appreciation.

For more suggestions see Correspondence.

There are also many books available that provide guidance in the process of collecting family information. One of the best books of such kind is –

Lichtman, Allan J. Your Family History: How to Use Oral History, Personal Family Archives, and Public Documents to Discover Your Heritage. New York: Vintage Books, 1978. (FHL book 929.1 L617L)

Share and learn

It is a great idea to share your findings with some of your relatives. Everybody loves to know more about their families, don’t they? It helps you get them involved in the process and contribute more efficiently. Sharing information with them might also help them recall more facts or provide references or clues for further research. Sometimes, they might not have taken you seriously earlier but seeing your work might get interested in helping you.

Searching family information requires patience and certain level of determination. But as it is said, the harder you work, the more rewarding your success gets. The experience of finding every bit of information is exhilarating and provides a sense of achievement. Nothing beats the joy of knowing one’s roots and having a complete family tree, all genealogists will agree.

Genealogy Research Tools 

1. FamilySearch: largest collection of free genealogical records in the world

2. WikiTree: enormous collaborative family tree

3. Fulton History: historical newspapers from the US and Canada

4. Find a Grave: locate your ancestors in cemeteries across the globe

5. Google News Archive: millions of archived newspaper pages

6. US National Archives: official US National Archives site, many free genealogy databases and resources

7. Automated Genealogy: indexes of the Canadian census

8. FreeBMD: civil registration index of births, marriages and deaths for England and Wales

9. USGenWeb Project: massive free genealogy resource directory by US state and county

10. WorldGenWeb Project: genealogy resources by country and region, not to miss

11. Cyndi’s List: highly respected directory of free genealogy resources and databases online

12. Library and Archives Canada: official archives of Canada, census records and more

13. Ellis Island: immigration records, free indexes and original records, fee to download copies

14. FreeReg: baptism, marriage, and burial records from parish registers of the UK

15. Crestleaf: various genealogy records

16. RootsWeb: world’s largest genealogy community, huge amount of free information

17. Castle Garden: immigration records, pre Ellis Island

18. Chronicling America: giant database of archived US newspapers from the Library of Congress

19. Dead Fred: genealogy photo archive

20. African Heritage Project: records on former slaves, freedpersons and their descendants

21. Family Tree Now: various genealogy records

22. Daughters of the American Revolution: military service records and more

23. JewishGen: Jewish ancestry research

24. FreeCEN: transcribed census records from the UK

25. Access Genealogy: vast family history directories and more, good Native American resources