Genealogy: Where to search for your ancestors’ writings

Ancesor writingsBy Barry J. Ewell

The writings of your ancestors hold many wonderful clues and stories that can dramatically aid your genealogy research. The hard part is knowing where to search for your ancestors’ writings.

The following are few ideas to aid your search:

1. Getting access to ancestors’ writings that are in the possession of others
These journals, letters and writings of our ancestors are very precious to those who own them. The owner’s response to your request to access them depends a lot on how well you know each other. If they know and trust you, they may allow you to take the documents on loan for a specific time period — usually 24 to 48 hours — to scan or photograph the article.

In cases where information is a little more difficult to secure, consider the following approaches:

The insurance copy argument: If they have the original item, remind them that it could be lost or gone forever in a house fire or other disaster; by letting you copy it, the family gains a backup, security or insurance copy.

Broker: Offer to make them a copy when you make a copy.

Trade: Offer to exchange copies of records or items that you have in return for them letting you copy their materials.

Family project: Design a family project — biography, photo collection or newsletter — for which you need to copy and use their materials. This links your request to a family cause rather than just being personal.

Purchase: If the person’s reluctance to share is because of the monetary value of the items, consider buying the material, or at least a part of it.

Take pictures: They might have an heirloom locket or Civil War uniform or other valuable items they won’t let out the door. In such cases, take pictures of them and offer to share copies of your photos.

2. Searching the Internet for ancestors’ writings
The Internet is an incredible resource in finding diaries, journals, postcards, letters, and other writings. I have found family documents on Internet sites of library collections.

For example, as I was doing research for a presentation, I found 30 letters that were written between Thomas Jefferson and my ancestors in the Jefferson Papers, and 15 journal entries relating to my ancestors’ pioneer experiences in the Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel, 1847-1868 collection.

To search the Internet for ancestral writings, enter the following information:

  • Names of ancestors (direct and collateral lines)
  • Surnames (include various spellings)
  • Names of individuals the ancestors were known to have worked with or had relationships with
  • Places they lived and visited
  • Important events they lived during or were a part of, such as the civil war, influenza, or pioneer treks

A note about spellings:

You will find that spelling was informal and inconsistent in old records. Do not dismiss the name “Hewes” if you are searching for “Hughes.” In an early census enumeration, census takers reportedly spelled the surname “Reynolds” 34 different ways. As you get deeper into genealogical research, you will become an expert at guessing how many ways a name may be spelled (or misspelled).

Keyword searches

  • diar* and literature (will retrieve “diary,” “diaries,” and so on)
  • diar* and bibliography
  • Virginia and diaries (for locating many individual)
  • diar* and statesm*n
  • memoirs and wom*n

Subject searches

  • American diaries women authors
  • Women United States diaries
  • Women diaries
  • English diaries
  • Personal narratives [relating to individual events or time periods]

Searching in libraries and archives for ancestors’ writings. I have found journals, diaries, and letters that have been preserved in local historical societies, universities and other institutions where they are available to researchers. Some have been published as books, and increasingly many are available on the Internet. A good place to start is searching for writings in the areas where your family lived.

One genealogist told of an experience where she found a diary of an ancestor, who lived in Virginia, in New Mexico. The descendant who inherited the diary lived in New Mexico and gave it to a repository.

3. What to do when you still can’t find the written word of your ancestor
My mother passed away in 1997, and I realized there was a lot I didn’t know about her. I began to interview family and friends to gain their insights of her. To my joy, many of these people had kept letters, greeting cards and postcards that she had sent them over the course of her life. The information provided insights to her feelings about her children and her pains, joys and desires. I was allowed to scan and photograph these documents.

Strategy 1: Your first option is to contact all of your relatives and see if they saved the writings of ancestors with whom your family may have had a relationship. Letters and diaries written by your ancestor’s relatives, friends and neighbors may contain material about your ancestor. These letters and diaries will give you a glimpse into what your own ancestor’s life was probably like, since relatives, friends, and neighbors probably came from the same socioeconomic background as your ancestor.

Several of my ancestors were Mormon pioneers in the mid-1800s. Although there are no surviving journals from my family of this time period, I have found journals of people who were part of the same wagon train or handcart company. I have been able to review these writings and gain a better understanding of what my ancestor may have experienced. I found an entry about my progenitor from the Dan Jones Emigrating Company, Journal 1856 May-Dec.

Sept. 9, 1856

Tuesday 9th(.) The remaining Waggons taken over the river(.) finished at 2 p.m. A yoke of Oxen belonging to the Church was missing. several brethren sent to search for them, and they returned to camp with them at 4.15 p.m. Bro. Elias Jones lost two gentle Cows on Sunday last and up to this time they have not being found. We moved forward at 5 p.m. and camped at 8 p.m(.) travelled 7 miles along the banks of the Loup Fork.

Strategy 2: Look for writings that discuss the same time period, event and so forth. Circumstances similar to theirs may be available in a personal account written by another person from the same area. If you can find a relationship, either through blood lines or common bonds, you’ll discover a way to understand and add depth to your family’s history. Look for similarities in lifestyle, social status, profession or neighborhood. All of these can give you a good sense of how your ancestors lived and what they experienced.

Strategy 3: Place a query online or in a genealogical magazine or message board to see if some distant relative might be in possession of an ancestor’s writings. On one occasion, I had received a clue about a letter that existed from a relative in 1862. I had seen the text — a photocopy of photocopies — but I wanted to see the original. I placed a query on the message boards and, in time, received a clue of where to go. I eventually found the owner and was able to get a photograph of the letter.

Summary checklist: Where to search for ancestors’ writings. The following is a recap of where to search for writings (diaries, journals, letters or postcards) of your ancestors:

  • Ask relatives if they possess any ancestors’ writings.
  • Put queries in genealogical magazines or message boards and online, seeking writings from distant “genealogy” cousins.
  • Write to historical societies, archives and libraries in your ancestor’s locality to see if your ancestor’s writings were deposited there.
  • Check reference guides to help locate writings in repositories.
  • Look for published writings, including anthologies.
  • Look for writings of your ancestor’s friends, relatives and neighbors.
  • Look for writings of people, like your ancestor, who lived in the same geographic area during the same time period and from the same socioeconomic background.

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