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records, records everywhere
they're closer than you think!

By Deborah K. Millemaci
(return to genealogy)

When researching our family ancestry, it is often puzzling for people to know where to begin. More often than not, there is information readily available in your own home. You will be surprised at the common everyday items in your home we normally take for granted that could provide you with clues to those unanswered questions. I will be dividing this article into several parts because of the resources to be covered. I will devote this first section to personal records, various certificates, citizenship records, newspaper sources, health and various family records, school records, and heirlooms.

Personal records
I will begin with some records that are of a personal nature. These would include letters, diaries and journals, old photographs, baby or wedding books, photograph albums, and handed-down personal knowledge. Letters, diaries, and journals can be beneficial as they could have been used to record an ancestors' impressions of his life back home and the dreams that would hopefully be realized once they stepped off the vessels that carried them to a land of promise. Old photos, baby or wedding books may contain comments, dates, locality, etc. that may be useful also. Your personal knowledge of a person may be one of your greatest resources even though it may not be enough right now to make sense. But trust me, it will all come together..!!

Legal records
Types of legal records, or certificates, are birth or adoption certificates, marriage and divorce, death certificates, baptismal, adoption, graduation, membership and achievement certificates which just covers a few of the many available to you. Information shown here may the date issued, names of recipients, place where they were presented, etc.

Citizenship records
Information contained on naturalization papers, passports, immunization, Certificate of Arrivals, Declaration of Intention, and Petition for Citizenship are forms of citizenship records that will provide you with the following: Certificate of Arrival shows the person's name, date, port of entry, and how the person arrived (usually the name of the vessel they were on). It will also have the city or town it was issued. A Declaration of Intention lists the city or town of issue, name of the person, distinguishing features, place of birth and birthdate, and the vessel they arrived on. It will also provide marital status, last foreign residence, and current residence. Renouncing of former citizenship is also on this form, and the date of issuance is provided along with the city this document was issued from. A Petition for Citizenship will show much of the same information listed in the previously listed documents but also includes birthdates and locality of children and the signature of witnesses verifying the information given by the petitioner is true. These witnesses were also known as "sponsors." It is important to mention that people who completed these forms (for the petitioner) did not always enter the information correctly. Names were often misspelled (I found at least 3 different spellings of my grandfather's name on one of his documents), dates of entry were not accurate, etc. Oftentimes, information was noted "as it sounded" and not as it was. This was common during the peak years of immigration when thousands of immigrants were coming through Ellis Island and other ports-of-entry to the U.S.

You will also find a vast array of information in newspapers: birth and death announcements, memorials for anniversary of death, obituary and death notices, wedding announcements; birthday and graduation notices may also be listed. Information contained may include names, dates, locality, etc. (Some people may get confused on the difference between death notices and obituaries. "Death notices" are normally a write-up of the deceased person's life, accomplishments, and affiliations. An "obituary" will list the date of death, along with where the person died, surviving relatives, viewing times, and funeral information. Sometimes a death notice will also have this information, but it is usually up to the discretion of the family. It is not unusual that family members who may have stayed in their homeland were not included in these notices. It was not intentional but most probably overlooked.)

Health records
Immunization, hospital, insurance and medical histories are important sources of health records. These are vital in determining hereditary medical conditions. They are not always easy to obtain once a person is deceased, but information can be procured. My doctor now has my father's medical records as reference to look for any possible health abnormalities (it took him three years to get them...but at least he has them. :-) You can even start a list and use it as a guide to see if a pattern exists in hereditary illnesses. (Note: I must say here using the example of diabetes - it does not always skip a generation as reported in medical information, so it is crucial to know your family's medical history and have it well documented.)

Family records
Examples of family records would be a handed-down Bible, previously started genealogy and family histories, and family traditions. Bibles may include names of family births and deaths, and places where they occurred, and personal notes by the owner of the bible. Family traditions can cover an array of subjects: special holiday observances, handed down recipes, stores and folklore from an ancestor's homeland etc. One tradition that we used to have was an annual family picnic. It included all the members of our family (aunts, uncles, cousins, godparents, etc) We would reserve a picnic shelter and arrive very early in the morning and rarely left before dark. The elder aunts and uncles always spoke in Italian and told stories to the younger members of the family. The men played horsehoes, bocce or cards, and there was always an abundance of food!! Unfortunately, once the elders passed on, it became difficult to continue this tradition, but it is one I will always remember fondly. Previously started genealogies and family histories may help fill in those blanks you may be missing in your research. That is why it is always important to question family members as to what they remember of relatives or if someone has recorded this valuable data.

School records
Yearbooks, awards, report cards, diplomas, alumni rosters, and honor rolls are what come to mind when researching school records. Dates, names, attendance and health information, subjects studied, grades, hobbies, special interests, awards presented, school locations, and more will be found in these records. Public libraries as well as the school library will contain this data.

The last area I will address in the first part of this article will be those special mementos such as old dishes, clothing, jewelry, silver, quilts, figurines, etc. - the handed-down heirlooms that can tell a story of the family member who owned them. By researching the period these heirlooms are from, you can determine the areas they were used in, about their design, where they were sold, etc. But even more important, is what it meant to your ancestors to have them. It is also important to note here that not all heirlooms are readily visible. Many clues to a family's history have been uncovered between walls, floorboards, and other forgotten areas of old homes. Many times old newspapers were used as insulation between walls. Journals and diaries, clothing, glassware, etc. have been found in rooms that for one reason or another were sealed over. Through the restoration of these older homes and the secrets they contain, the past of the former owners is coming alive again.

As you go through the records I have explained in this article, you will begin to see a picture taking shape - a picture of your ancestors. You will begin to know them as you extract information from these documents and have a better understanding of their life. What is presented above is by no means complete as they are just an overview to the many records that will be explored in greater depth within future articles.

This article is the first part of a three part series.
Read Part Two, or Part Three.
©Deborah K. Millemaci - 2002
No part of this article may be reproduced in any form without written permission from the author.


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