Holiday Gatherings as Genealogical Research Tools

By Joan Young

Whether you head over the river, through the woods, by plane, train, or automobile, to grandmother's house or Aunt Anna's place, if you are like most of us, you probably travel to visit relatives during the holidays. These holiday visits can result in a goldmine for the family genealogist in many ways.

Visits to grandmother or Aunt Anna's home can also provide access to family heirlooms and photos in their possession. Ask other relatives who are visiting for the holidays to bring their albums of old family photos with them as well. Have them identify and label the people in the photos where possible. Discuss the photos during your visit to see if anyone can identify the unknowns.

Photographs may also be centered on events. Perhaps you will be able to establish that a certain photo was taken at an anniversary party or wedding. Any details your family can provide about the photos may offer clues useful in your research. Professional photographers usually include the city when they mark their pictures. This can show you the probable area where the people in the photo lived.

Having a group of family members discussing and sharing old photos may also help to jog the memory of elderly relatives about past events and people. Most family historians have attempted to interview the oldest members of the family about their early history and very often the answers are "I don't remember" or "nothing important happened." However, when prompted with photos or possessions, memories often come flooding back and the stories begin to flow.

Make a list of family heirlooms in your possession before you head off to your family gatherings and ask others in your family to do the same. Family heirlooms often provide clues to an ancestor's interests, religion, military service, or occupation. For example, I inherited a molded iron doorstop from my father. He told me his grandfather made it but never specified which of his two grandfathers. Also passed down to me from my father was a highboy he said was made by his grandfather--but again, which one? I would have loved to share these items with relatives to see if they knew more about the stories behind these items but since I don’t have any older relatives alive I turned to searching records. A check of both grandfathers in census records on proved that my father's maternal grandfather, James H. SMITH, was an "iron moulder" and Henry MYERS, his paternal grandfather, was listed as a carpenter by trade. Thus, I was able to deduce which grandfather had crafted each heirloom.

After the holidays, review what you have learned, update your trees and records and make sure to import or scan your new photos. Using your newfound information do a new search of records and of RootsWeb mailing lists and message boards. New searches can yield connections to data others have already posted that you had missed until grandma remembered her mother's maiden name when confronted with a photo she'd long forgotten or a possession passed down to her from her mother.

Consider sharing what you have learned and gathered (newspaper clippings, photos, family Bible records) with others via the lists and boards. Photos may be uploaded to the boards and links to the photos posted on a relevant list.

The holidays are a time for renewing acquaintances and giving and receiving gifts. What better gift can we, as our family historians, offer extended family than sharing family data and photos?

In a previous article the subject of what to do with the information gleaned from family stories, myths, and lore was discussed, you can reference it here.

(Posting date 25 March 2011) Previously published in RootsWeb Review: 8 December 2010, Vol. 13, No. 12. Reproduced with permssion.

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