Family History

Home is Where the Records Are: How to Mine Your Closets for Genealogical Gems

Follow your family tree without leaving the house (or logging on). Learn more about ancestors from your own walls, furniture, photos and other genealogical gems.

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The advent of the internet was a game-changer for amateur genealogists. Now that billions of scanned documents and photographs are available online, it’s possible to discover information from other continents and centuries with the simple click of a button. However, it’s also easier to run into misinformation and head in the wrong direction, and online research is only useful for records that have actually been uploaded and published online.

Though the world is much smaller thanks to online tools, you may not need any technology at all to tap into your most useful resource: your own home. Remember that legitimate genealogy — the kind that could be useful to future generations and current distant relatives alike — is rooted in verification. While online family trees, message boards, and digital databases might give you valuable names and dates, only official records, photographs, and other authenticated sources are trustworthy enough to inspire real progress on your family tree.

Some of the most valuable and accurate information about your family tree could be waiting just a few feet away. As you comb through your closets, attic, basement, crawl space and storage shed for more information about your relatives, keep an eye out for these authentic genealogy gems:

  • Diplomas & Certificates
    Even in the internet age, everyone holds onto physical copies of certain documents and identification cards. You probably know the exact locations of your birth certificate, social security card, marriage certificate, driver’s license, passport, college diploma, and other important paperwork. Fortunately, it’s a safe bet that your relatives did too, especially those who were still alive in recent decades. If you have any boxes or old furniture that belonged to your grandparents, great-grandparents or distant relatives, check them thoroughly for stacks of old files, framed documents, laminated cards, and other official paperwork. Report cards and certificates may contain signatures of other family members, while wills, diplomas, and ID cards may contain dates and locations that help you piece together the timelines of your relatives’ lives.
  • Jewelry
    Did you inherit jewelry from a grandparent or pick out some favorite pieces after a relative’s death? Make sure you look closely at each piece. Bracelets, lockets, and rings may have tiny engraved names or dates on them, and local jewelers may be able to help you find and make sense of other clues. For example, signet rings and charm bracelets may have symbols that look like simple artwork to you, but they actually might indicate membership in a special club, attendance at a certain school, or another detail that paints a clearer picture of your family member’s life. Jewelers may also recognize serial numbers and other unique details that help you narrow down the name of the original owner.
  • Furniture
    If you’ve ever been to an antique store, you know that furniture is often treasured for many generations. Your hand-me-down furniture may be older than you realize, and it might also contain actual clues if you look at it closely enough. Check inside and underneath desk drawers; look for dates on the bottoms of chairs and tables; and, of course, make sure you thoroughly check the insides of any chests, trunks and other furniture pieces that were designed to contain keepsakes.
  • Correspondence
    Unless your attic is full of hoarded junk mail, it’s likely that saved pieces of correspondence will have some value for your research. (In fact, even junk mail could be useful if it contains forgotten addresses or aliases.) Collect any old letters, postcards, telegrams, faxes or even printed emails that you find in your family’s archives and comb through them for names and other details that you don’t already know. Some old letters may seem useless now, but they were probably saved for a reason; make sure you digitize what you find and consult other family members about any names you don’t recognize. And if any of the correspondence you find still has the original stamp, you’re in luck. The post office dates envelopes and postcards as they sort and send out mail, and even if these stamps are incomplete or faded, they could lead to specific years or towns for further research. For example, if your mysterious great-aunt received a birthday card from her college friend, the friend may have sent it from the town in which they attended school.
  • Family Photographs
    Before we carried high-resolution cameras in our pockets, most families had only a few physical copies (if that) of photos. Because these copies were precious, every photo you find is a precious tool for your research — especially the professional portraits and well-timed candids that made the cut and landed in scrapbooks or frames. Ask relatives to help identify anyone you don’t recognize, scan and upload the photos for backup and research purposes, and, most importantly, take any framed photos out of the frames and check the backs. Whether you’re researching your own childhood or your great-great-grandmother’s siblings, assume that every photo could have a family member’s handwriting on it. Look closely at those scribbles on the corners and backs of your framed photographs and keep track of the illegible scripts, because they might make more sense as you discover more names or familiarize yourself with someone’s handwriting. Pay attention to date stamps on more recent photos, too, but don’t assume they’re always accurate.
  • People
    That’s right; your best sources aren’t always files or photos, but the living and breathing members of the family tree itself. If any older relatives live with or near you, ask them about any records you find and make sure you pay attention to every story they tell. Memory isn’t 100 percent accurate, but your great-uncle’s anecdotes could contain names, dates or places that point you in a new direction for your own research. Your relatives may also be able to fill in the blanks for incomplete dates and identify people in photos.

Most importantly, learning more about your relatives’ lives will deepen your familial bond and ensure that their unique sacrifices and strengths are never forgotten. Don’t ignore any details as you take notes about the stories they share. Even if something can’t be entered into a search engine, the color of a house or the name of a favorite song could help you determine timelines or locations later. Additionally, these details will always give you a better sense of their passions and experiences. Of course, it’s important to be respectful of each family member’s boundaries and feelings if you plan to ask leading questions about their past. Ask permission before taking notes — or before recording or filming oral history interviews — and thank them for enriching your life and research with their history.

Don’t forget to check Bibles and other books for inscriptions, which may range from faded pencil signatures and gift messages to actual baptism dates and names. And if previous generations lived in your home before you, even the house itself may contain the clues you need. Inspect closets, crawl spaces and other unfinished or out-of-sight spaces for writing on the walls and doors. Good luck with your journey through your family history!


Will Moneymaker

Will established Ancestral Findings in 1995 and has helped genealogy researchers for over 25 years. He is also a freelance photographer, husband of twenty-eight years, father of four children, and has one grandchild.