(This post is the second in a series about the different places you can find records. See Part I here.)
In my last post in this series I discussed some of the more obvious and easy to find records that contain genealogical information. In this post we will dig a little bit deeper, looking at records that are not only unorganized but hidden, forgotten, or far away. It may take more effort to find some of these records, but if you are really struggling to find information on your ancestor, the answer may be in one of these.
Unorganized records in the possession of a family member
The first place you should look for records when doing genealogical research on your family is in the basements, attics and closets of your own house and in the homes of any relatives who will allow you to search for records. Things like birth, marriage, and death certificates, citizenship certificates, photographs, journals, passports, and family bibles are usually located in the family home. Any original document that has a name and a date on it, or that tells a piece of the family story, can be helpful for genealogical research.
Sometimes records like this are left behind in the attic when people move, or are in possession of a distant cousin whom you are not aware is a family member. Researching the descendants of your ancestor can help you locate these distant cousins. Pinpointing exactly where your ancestors lived and visiting that location can help you find those records that were forgotten in the attic.
Unorganized records in the possession of a collector
Antique collectors love old photographs and documents, and acquire many records that do not belong to their family. There are places online where collectors upload scans of photographs they have found and any names associated with the image, in the hopes that family members will discover them. One such site is Dead Fred, which mainly deals with photographs. Another is the Facebook group “Heirloom’s Lost, Found & Returned” which deals with all kinds of artifacts, including things like photographs and family bibles. Visiting an antique store near the place your ancestor lived may also be helpful. There are several other places on the internet where you can view or buy antique photographs, documents and artifacts, including well known auction sites like Ebay.
Your ancestor may be mentioned in records owned by someone who interacted with your ancestor but was not related to them. This may include letters, photographs, or business papers owned by descendants of your ancestor’s friends, neighbors, and acquaintances. The internet is making these kinds of records easier to find. For example, on FamilySearch Memories, anyone can upload a document or photograph, then “tag” all the individuals in that document or photograph, attaching the record to that person’s information on the universal FamilySearch Family Tree.
Records possessed by people who interacted with your ancestor are extremely helpful for breaking down the brick walls of slave ancestor research. More records like this are coming online every day, such as this database published by the Virginia Historical Society. The database contains letters, ledgers, and other random papers found in “attics, basements or desk drawers” in the homes of old Virginia families.
Oftentimes, knowledge is not written down, but instead it is stored inside people’s heads. Do all that you can to get those stories recorded before your relatives pass away and the knowledge is lost. Talking to those who may have interacted with or heard stories about the ancestors in question may provide vital clues.
With smartphones, it is easier than ever to record and preserve family stories. FamilySearch and MyHeritage both have mobile phone apps that allow you to record an audio file and upload it directly to your online family tree.
There are several efforts to preserve oral histories and make them available online and in libraries. One example is StoryCorps, which aims to record people telling their stories in order to “build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.” There are also organizations that record interviews with people who lived through a certain event, such as Holocaust survivors, Veterans, Kansans who lived through the Dust Bowl, participants in the American Civil Rights Movement, and Japanese-Americans who were incarcerated during World War II. If your ancestor lived through a similar event, it is definitely worth digging through records and oral histories related to that event. Even if your ancestor is not specifically mentioned, hearing stories about people who lived in similar situations will help you understand your ancestor’s story.
Some communities have local projects where they record interviews with the elders in the community. Ask around at the local library or historical society where your ancestors lived to see if any oral histories exist that may connect with your family’s story.
Records that are buried, hidden, sealed or forgotten but still exist
There are stories of church books in Germany that were hidden to be protected from bombing, Nazis, or Soviets, only to be discovered decades later hidden behind a wall, under a floorboard, or buried in a hole in the ground. Many records may still exist in various places throughout the world that have not been destroyed, but hidden or forgotten. These kinds of records exist, but unfortunately, finding them is very difficult. For most of them, we must simply wait until they are brought to light. They may come to light randomly and unexpectedly. Keep checking your genealogy news sources and lists of records available for the places you are researching so you will know when they become available.
Records located in a foreign country where record retrieval is difficult
FamilySearch recently digitized thousands of records in Sierra Leone. Due to poor storage conditions, these records are rapidly deteriorating, and may of them may not be available on paper five or ten years from now. During 2014, anyone who wanted to access these records who did not live in Sierra Leone would not have been able too, because of the travel ban in place during an outbreak of the Ebola virus. Researchers have an even more difficult time getting records out of countries such as North Korea, Cambodia, and other countries where political freedoms are limited.
You may have to simply wait to obtain records from these countries. For years, researchers had a difficult time getting records out of East Germany, but now travel and research in that area is possible, and more and more records are coming available online. Keep up to date on news from that country. You may also be able to locate a mailing list or facebook group for immigrants/refugees who are in search of family members or friends. Write down everything you know, and preserve it for future generations.
Testing your DNA can put you in contact with relatives who may have records or knowledge you do not have. This is definitely a route worth pursuing, and is becoming much easier to do recently. There are other blogs and websites completely dedicated to how to use DNA for genealogy. This article is a helpful starting place.
In this series, I have attempted to give you a broad perspective of what types of records are available. If you are stuck in your research, just remember that there are always more places to look. Doing more research on specific record types, and the specific records generated in the area your ancestor lived, will help you uncover more information.
Have you had success finding your ancestors in unconventional records? Leave a comment below.