Saturday, February 15, 2014

Compiling and Writing Your Family’s History

Compiling a family history is an exciting, adventurous treasure hunt. Why not share the treasure with the rest of your family?

Very few people will claim that they have no desire to know where they came from and who might be hiding among their ancestors. Am I a descendant from kings? What skeletons are in our closets? Why do I have a propensity for learning languages? Why do I have red hair? Is my surname Irish or Scottish? What year did my family come to the country I live in? Do I still have family in Italy? These and many more similar questions can be answered, for you and your extended family, when a family history comes into being.

There are a few important steps to keep in mind when compiling your history into a narrative that will keep your family members and others reading to the end.

Finding the Family

If you haven’t already done so, the first step is to put together a family tree, and the best place to start is with you. Write down your name, birth date, and place of birth. If you are married, write down the name of your spouse, his/ her birth date, place of birth and the date of your marriage. Next, write in the same information for your parents and for your spouse’s parents. If you have children, add them to the list, under you and your spouse.

If you are lucky enough to still have your grandparents, they can also provide their personal information and possibly information about their own parents. From here on, the search becomes a little trickier, but also more exciting because of the challenge in finding more information. You will possibly need to go to churches, cemeteries, and other public and private archives in order to follow the tracks left by your ancestors. However, Internet can also be a big help, as there are several wonderful genealogical sources online such as and

Be sure and include a source list of where you obtained your information, in case one of your readers would like to learn more, especially if you write the history of a surname.

Include Family Stories

On June 13, 1917, 21-year old Edith Jenkins and a group of her friends had gone on a day trip to London for a shopping spree. Edith’s best friend was getting married the following week and a few small items still needed to be purchased. Shopping in Folkestone, where they lived, was out as it had been bombed only 3 weeks earlier.

The girls had just walked out of the store, but the bride-to-be suddenly remembered something else and dashed back into the store. The others continued walking towards the train station when a loud explosion caught their attention – they turned in time to see the store where their friend was crumble, after a bomb dropped from a passing Gotha fell on it. The wedding day, which should have been a day of rejoicing, became a day of mourning.

Including stories like the one above – told to me by my grandmother – will help bring the history alive for your readers. Readers will be better able to relate to the people in their family tree if they know something personal about them. Be sure and add historical context so that people will better understand what was going on at the time the story took place. This will also help bring the stories alive. A good way to find stories is to encourage your parents or grandparents to tell stories about their youth.

You could also include a description of why you decided to write the history and even relate stories that happened to you while you were researching certain names. For instance, while searching through an old family history written on one line in my genealogy, I found a family that had eleven children listed. After doing further research on my own, I discovered a twelfth child that the original authors hadn’t known about. Think about it: twelve surviving children in a period that survival rate was about 25%, and this family had 100%! Amazing!

Add Photographs, Portraits and Illustrations

Photographs are another way to bring your ancestors to life. Some of my most prized photos were take during the American Civil War of the Grazier family and the Chadeynne family; the Graziers were fighting for the South while the Chadeynnes were fighting for the North. Another was taken in Folkestone in 1901 of my six-year old grandmother; it was considered bad luck to smile in photographs then, and there she was, wearing an ear-to-ear grin. It was very typical of an extraordinary person.

Keep It Simple

This could prove to be the most difficult of all the rules. We like to sound super-intelligent or all-knowing; however, a tendency toward language that is flowery or too erudite in your writing just won’t make it with most of your readers. The best idea is to use simple language that even the least educated reader will understand.

Writing a family history can be fun and rewarding, and can help us understand ourselves from learning about those family members who came before us. Happy writing!


Bombing During World War I, Pamela Feltus:

Genealogical Research: Hunting for Treasure worth More than Gold

Many people would like to write a family history, but before it’s possible to fulfill that desire, they need to discover who their family is.

Writing a family history can be a fun and rewarding adventure, but like any adventure, it requires a few important steps in preparing for it; perhaps the most important of all is finding and getting to know the people who comprise your family, both in the present as well as from the past.

What Materials Do I Need to Start Out?

It is always best to keep the information that you discover organized. I would suggest obtaining a two- or three-ring binder for collecting your family names; you might also consider a set of tabbed dividers to keep family groups separated. Although actual hard-copy files might seem useless at the beginning, if you are sincerely interested in searching for family names you will doubtless discover that not all research can be carried out on the computer and that the listed materials will indeed be necessary.

When doing “in the field” research, some useful items that you might like to take along could include: surgical gloves (old tomes can be very dirty and very delicate), a flashlight, a magnifying glass, and a supply of pencils.

Your research could take you to a cemetery, in which case you would need all of the above, plus: a pair of pruning shears – it’s possible that tombstones will be covered with shrubs, grass or vines and you may need to cut them out of the way (ask permission first); several sheets of paper and chalk – many times the afore-mentioned plants can also erode the writing on the stones; placing the paper over the words and gently rubbing the chalk over the paper can help bring out the writing. Again, you should ask for permission for this process.

Where Do I Start?

The best place to start is with you. Write down your name, birth date, and place of birth. If you are married, write down the name of your spouse, his birth date, place of birth and the date of your marriage. Next, write in the same information for your parents and for your spouse’s parents. If you have children, add them to the list, under you and your spouse. If you are lucky enough to still have your grandparents, they can also provide their personal information and possibly information about their own parents and/ or grandparents.

Linda Williams, a dedicated genealogist, said, “One of my biggest regrets is not talking to my grand parents about their parents, and asking my own parents for more information about their grandparents. You get totally different information from them.” Ask them for information, including episodes from their life; most people love to talk about themselves and their stories will help you understand them better.

Family Bibles

From this point on, the search can be a little more difficult, but even more rewarding when you find a name. There is a variety of places where one can look. Many family Bibles will provide lucky searchers with several generations of complete family listings. My paternal grandmother had such a Bible, with names going back to the mid-1600s; the Chadeayne family came from France, starting with Jean Chadeayne (born in 1649) and Marie Boucherie, who left France in 1690 because of religious persecution (they were Huguenots living in a Catholic country).

Census Records

If you have a general idea of a name and age of a person, you might be able to find an exact name, date of birth and name of head of household by looking through census reports. These reports also contain the names of all members of the household, including all children living in the home.

Regarding this, Linda spoke about a boy who was born in 1851. She knew where he was born, and was sure he would be found with his parents in the 1860 census; not so – he had been “farmed out” and didn’t live with his parents, which led to a dead-end. On the other hand, I was able to discover the provenance of my Cherokee ancestors by looking through census records from 1850.

Other Genealogical Resources

Church records are an excellent source for genealogical research. These records contain the full name, date of birth, gender, parents’ names (many times, these birth records will also give the mother’s maiden name), the child’s state of health, etc. Church records also consist in marriage registers and death registers. Most churches allow genealogists to use their records free of charge, but some will ask for either a set fee or an offering. Some churches, like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, even have local family research centers open to all comers.

During one of my many conversations regarding our family’s history with my maternal grandmother, she mentioned an older sister that had died before any of the other children were born, at about the age of two years. She remembered her name as being Margaret, but nothing else. While spending time in Folkestone, Kent, England, I thought I’d take a look around at the cemetery to see if I could find her grave and that of my great-grandfather. The vicar of the local parish led me to the graves, where I was able to find the full name, date of birth and death date of both my great-aunt and my great-grandfather.

It’s important to remember that many church records, especially those in foreign countries or pre- twentieth century, may be written in a foreign language, very possibly Latin. It is a good idea to learn a few topic-related words in the language with which you will be dealing.

Another item to keep in mind is a change of writing styles, even from one registrar to the next. Script in one language is not always the same as it is in another; even British script differs quite often from American. If you are unsure of a name or a page number, try every possible interpretation until you find what you are looking for. Changes in the spelling of a name may also change from one generation to the next.

While going through social security records not only did I find my husband’s paternal grandfather who had gone from Sicily to Pennsylvania in 1913, but also a whole series of cousins that he didn’t even know existed!

Family history books are another source for stories involving ancestors. Linda was able to find her missing ancestor in such a book. She said, “The name I was looking for, turned out to be a family name that had been passed on down a few generations. I sort of feel silly for not realizing that name was a family name, but I was excited at the same time, as I had done all the work and found them.”

As Linda said, searching for a family member and then finding him or her is exciting, like finding a buried treasure, but better.


  • Personal interview with Ms. Linda Williams