Some families are natural keepers of information, letters, documentation, and other such things that help us capture the essence of who they were. My father’s side of the family was like that. There were boxes and boxes of papers and photos too voluminous for a single person who has any kind of life to ever sort through and scan.
My mother’s family was the exact opposite. They were Germans from Russia, and that was all I ever knew for certain. We knew and the name of their village, and we knew the history of how the Germans came to live in Russia. But any other specific family information was disposed of long before I was born. My grandparents also died at relatively young ages, before I was old enough and smart enough to document their stories, memories, and family details either in writing or in a recording.
Luckily, I’m the one with the good memory, love of history, and a passion for learning about my family. I had to start nearly from scratch, and I have a fairly complete pedigree chart to show for my efforts.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, don’t feel like it’s hopeless. Here are a few tips for how you can start to collect the evidence you need to document your family’s history.
Write down what you know. Names, dates, places — anything helps. the National Archives has some good basic forms to get you started.
If you don’t know the name of your family’s village in Russia, check out these resources:
- United States Federal Census Records
- Passenger Manifests and Immigration Records
- Obituaries and Burial Records
Most of these records can be found on the Internet. FamilySearch is a great resource for census records. Other sites like Ancestry have large collections of information including birth, marriage, death, immigration, census, obituaries, and more, but there is a charge associated with accessing those databases. Find A Grave has a large database of burial records, and sometimes records include obituaries that have important details you can use in your search.
Census records have a field for the immigrant’s country of origin. Sometimes, in the case of Volga Germans, they will name a village and the country name. Passenger Manifests also include a field with their country of origin and the name of the person’s nearest living relative in that country. Usually it’s a parent or sibling, but sometimes the name is different and you’ll need to do some detective work. A person with a different name could still be a family member, like an in-law, parent, or step-parent with a different surname. Make a note of that name and his or her location in the United States.
I strongly urge you to find a genealogy software program in which you can store the data you collect. There may be a learning curve, but it’s well worth the effort. Keep the names of your sources with the data you save. If you find a record online, copy the link and minimally paste it into the notes section of each person’s profile that refers to that record. This makes it very easy to go back and take another look. Trust me, that happens more often than you think it will.
In my next post I’ll talk about other ways to collect pesky evidence that wants to stay hidden.