5 Documents That Tell Your Family’s History
For many people interested in learning more about their family history, the process that professional genealogists go through to uncover the identities of ancestors and put together their stories is a bit of a mystery. Historical research is a true adventure, taking researchers to unexpected nations, into the lives of surprise famous connections, and more. Genealogists rely on the paper trail your ancestors left behind to help assemble the details of their lives. Ideally, your understanding of your ancestors will go beyond just a name and can tell you a bit about who they were, how they lived their lives, and where they spent their time. Here’s a closer look at five types of documents genealogists find helpful in crafting family history narratives.
Immigration documents: For the majority of Americans, our ancestors came to the US from other places within the last few hundred years. Shipboard records and other details help us understand immigration patterns, as well as the individual stories of how people emigrated from one country to another. Ship’s registries or passenger lists have a varied amount of detail. Some documents include just the basics such as names and cities of origin, while others are a treasure-trove with detailed physical descriptions, possession lists, and profession or trade information.
Death records: Genealogists rely heavily on records that note important events such as births, marriages, and death. Death records are extremely helpful, giving insight into when and where someone lived. Researchers consult a number of different sources to learn more about death dates. Typical death records include death certificates, which provide the name, date, and place of death. Obituaries may give additional context such as family names, details of the person’s life, and insights into how they died. Wills offer details into the material possessions, relationships, and final thoughts of the deceased. Tombstones and sexton’s records (details maintained by the people that oversee cemeteries) can also be helpful.
Military records: If any of your ancestors fought in wars or served in the military during peaceful times, military records can offer unique insights into their lives. Most US military records are housed at the National Archives and Records Administration. Some are available electronically, while others from wars prior to WWI have been archived. Examples of military records that could be consulted include enrollment records, discharges, muster lists, pension records, and draft registration cards. Depending on the details of your ancestor’s service, hospital records, prison records, or military cemetery records may also be useful.
Marriage records: Marriage records are vitally important to genealogy work, as they help us trace both sides of our ancestry. Marriage records often serve as one of the best clues to women’s maiden names. Common marriage records include marriage licenses, wedding certificates, newspaper articles, and more. As you move back through time, banns announcements (where the names of the betrothed were read in church for subsequent Sundays), dowry information, and private notations by pastors, ship captains, and justices of the peace that performed marriage ceremonies may also be helpful.
Family bibles and letters: Many families used their Bible or other holy books to record important information such as births, deaths, and marriages. These details can be extremely helpful to genealogists on the trail of additional information. After noting the date that the book was printed, researchers will review any information that’s been recorded. One aspect that’s helpful to determine is whether details were recorded at the time of the event or significantly afterwards. Other family papers, such as letters, daybooks, diaries, and autobiographies can provide additional context and significant detail for family research when they exist.
There are numerous sources to help uncover your ancestry, from the recollections of aging relatives to following the paper trail through archives around the globe. Genealogists explore many avenues to help bring together the story of your ancestors into cohesive narratives that help you to understand where you come from. If you’re ready to explore your own ancestry in-depth, contact us today to set up an initial consultation.
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