My journey into researching my family history started when I was a young girl. My family lived in Tucson, Arizona, at that time, but both sets of grandparents lived in Lapeer, Michigan. Every summer, we would fly up to the colder climate for a visit. We split our time between my mother’s parents and my father’s parents. It was during these extended visits that I first became interested in our family history.
My mother’s parents lived in an old farmhouse on 73 acres of land out in the country. They had moved there in 1949 when my mother was entering the 3rd grade. Grandma never really talked much about her family history, but decades of family memories filled the house. Every object in this old house held a story that my mother and her sisters were always ready to share.
One such story came out when I heatedly complained about the wonky upstairs bathroom after hitting my head on the low sloped ceiling for the third time. The room had once been a hall closet, and, in a similar moment of frustration, Grandpa converted it to a second bathroom. At this time, no one in this rural area had two bathrooms, and many were still using outhouses. They were the talk of the town for quite a while, but grandpa was tired of sharing his bathroom with four daughters, and a fifth one ready for potty training. I only had to share my bathroom with a brother, but the experience still enabled me to appreciate his very rational desire.
Grandma Schultz lived for her family. She was close with her sister’s family and with her husband’s extended family as well. And with five daughters, who all married and had children of their own, the family was quite large. As a result, nearly every drawer in the house was filled with old photos. Additionally, every wall and nearly every horizontal surface was decorated with family photos. I spent hours looking at these photos and sorting through the loose black and white images in the drawers. Sometimes my mother or grandma would come and tell me about them. I loved hearing these stories and piecing together the series of events that led to me.
Then we would go to my father’s parents house. Their house wasn’t as old, since they had moved around a lot more. The house they lived in had not been the one Dad grew up in, but it was filled it with furniture handed down through the generations. And her family was important to this grandma too. Grandma Cetas had been going to her enormous extended family reunions every summer since leaving her parents’ house. She and Grandpa Cetas both came from a much larger farm family than either Grandma or Grandpa Schultz had. And Grandma wanted me to know them all down to the second and third cousins twice removed. She would spend hours telling stories of her family and the history of each heirloom in the house, and there were many! But over the years, many of these stories stuck with me.
Later, when I was in high school, I discovered that history was my favorite subject. Around that time, my great aunt Florence started work on her genealogy for my paternal grandfather’s side of the family. I was fascinated by the complex tree she created. I didn’t get started on my own genealogy in earnest after college, but the further back I pushed the lines, and the more I discovered about the family, the more hooked I became. The history that I’d learned in school became personal.
For those of you thinking about delving into your genealogies or writing down your family history, I encourage you to start with your parents and grandparents. I have found it helpful to go through old photographs with them or ask about specific heirlooms they have around to get the memories flowing. If you can record them as they tell their stories, that is always best, but if not, be sure to write down the stories before they are forgotten. I have found these stories to be a treasure trove, which can lead to other stories or provide clues of where to look for other bits of information.
There is so much information on the Internet now. Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org are two of the largest search engines, but there are many others too. It is, however, essential to verify the information you find. It is easy to simply expand your tree with the information readily available in other public trees out there, but there is a lot of false or inaccurate information out there. Always look for official documents to back up the information you find before entering it into your tree – birth certificates, marriage licenses, Christening records, land deeds, wills, census records, and the like.
Old census records can have a tremendous amount of information. And be sure to look at the images of the original documents too. I have discovered connections to many other family members and even some surprising links by perusing the pages. Before the digital world, census takers had to go door-to-door to interview residents for their ledgers. As a result, you can see who your ancestor’s neighbors were. Often families lived nearby to each other; you might find out that your grandma lived just down the street from the man she would marry! And before we had an income tax, federal taxes were based on property, so those census records recorded their property’s size and its value, down to the livestock and bushels of produce.
And don’t forget to check out old newspapers, ship logs, court registers, military records, and township or county histories. Some of the most exciting stories I uncovered have come from these sources! I have numerous of books that I will write someday from these ventures into the past.
Delving into the past is a mystery to be unraveled and a fascinating journey. I wish you all much good fortune in uncovering your family histories, and I look forward to reading your stories. I would love to see your comments on this topi