In Search of Your Ancestors?
A column on genealogy by George Farris

June 23, 2011

24. Family artifacts, mementos, letters, etc. as a source of genealogy information

Many families have a few (or sometimes many) items that have been passed along by their ancestors. Often these are simply favorite utensils, furniture items, photos, postcards, letters, tools, or other artifacts that may have belonged to various members of the family several generations back. If you are lucky, there may be stories associated with some of these items that make them especially memorable - and of value to you and your family as mementos though maybe not of any significant intrinsic market value. But sometimes such items have another type of value - as links to some of the family history that isn't otherwise documented. As such, they can be an important genealogy aid in researching your family history. And, since such items are often scattered among various descendants, what you have may be only a part of what is available if you can find the other pieces. More reason to make connections with scattered extended family members before such items become further dispersed.

Of course, some such items can be a real source of frustration in your research - such as photo albums or collections of photographs that are obviously of members of past generations of your extended family - but that contain no identification, no dates or names, and no one seems to know who they were anymore. These collections seem to be all too common.

In this column I'll address examples of some of the items that I have inherited from my ancestors that I've found useful in my own family research. Perhaps this will spark some ideas for you regarding the stuff in your attic or an old trunk and how it might be useful in your research.


One of my gr.grandfathers had a collection of some of the letters that he had received from family members over a period of more than 40 years, beginning in 1864 while he was serving in the Civil War. Somehow these survived and are now in my possession. Over the years, members of this Creighton family had scattered from Stark County, Ohio, to many different places in Illinois, Iowa and Missouri - and later to Kansas, Colorado and Washington. As I was researching this family, these letters provided a pretty good guide as to where each of the brothers and sisters were living and what they were doing over a period of many years - so I knew where to look for other records involving them. And, of course, these letters provided a great deal of insight into how these families were living and interacting, what the local conditions were around them in various places, and some of their thoughts on politics, economics and other matters. A few of the letters were written by my, describing her situation back in Waynesburg, Ohio, as the rest of the family members left home - and, ultimately, her decision to also leave Ohio and join family members then living in Illinois. This collection also included a few letters from my gr.grandmother's side of the family that were very helpful in tracking where her McIlravy siblings were living and what was going on in their lives as they also migrated westward from Ohio.

Civil War Letters

A couple of the letters mentioned above were written to Robert Creighton by one of his brothers who was stationed in Springfield, MO, while Robert was with Sherman's army on the campaign leading to Atlanta. In these, his brother James was curious about the political leanings of the men on the front lines - while stating that most of the people that he associated with in Missouri planned to stick with "Old Abe" in the upcoming 1864 presidential election.

Another interesting source of letters involving the Civil War era consists of supporting letters in Civil War pension application files. In Robert's pension application file I found several letters from old comrades who described what was happening around the time when Robert's horse fell on him during their rapid march toward Knoxville after the skirmish at Campbell's Station, TN. And in another pension file involving a more distant relative, I found a letter from a Civil War widow involving her pension which went into quite a bit of detail regarding the difficulties of her life. It also identifies the father of one of her children that is not documented anywhere else - and does not seem to be known by most of her descendants. All of these letters help add color and detail to what we know about the lives of our ancestors and their families.

Family Bibles or Similar Documents

Family bibles are often very important sources of vital statistics regarding a family - since that's where the family often documented births, marriages, and deaths. But I've often found more than just these lists of names and dates - including obituaries, funeral home bulletins, photos, and other memorial items; receipts for tombstones and coffins, and letters and newspaper clippings involving family members.


We have a variety of objects from different ancestral families of both myself and my wife. Some of these have stories associated with them which help us to better understand our ancestors' lives. One example is an old dresser that belonged to my gr.grandparents on which sits an old Seth Thomas clock that has been in use in my family for all of my life. The glass front of the clock has a crack all the way across it. The story is that the clock was wrapped in a blanket and lying on top of this dresser riding in one of the wagons when my grandparents were moving from Illinois to Iowa in 1881. Somewhere along the rough road the clock fell off the dresser resulting in the glass being cracked.

On the Farris side of my family, one of the artifacts is an old violin that belonged to my gr.grandfather. As far as I know he was the only member of the family that ever used it. I had often wondered how long ago he acquired it. While researching my Farris ancestors in Fulton County, Illinois, one of the many documents that I uncovered was a court document from 1852 in which a general store owner in Lewistown, Illinois, sued my over an unpaid bill. The document includes a very long list of his tab over a period of more than a year in 1850 and 1851. It appears that many members of the extended family had charged numerous items on his tab over that period - and that he had neglected to pay the bill at the time the extended family left Illinois to move to Iowa in the summer of 1851. (In 1852 Jeremiah Farris returned to Fulton County on other business, including administering the estate of his brother, and apparently settled the bill.)

The list of items purchased included basic foodstuff such as sugar and salt, many yards of cloth and needles & thread for making clothing, boots, and a wide variety of other household items. But, interestingly, it also included several purchases of violin strings. My gr.grandfather was about 18 at the time they left Illinois - and, apparently, had been playing the violin for a while before that. I later found that the violin, which was made in Paris by one of the Salzard family of violin makers, was considered to be a "trade fiddle" - of which many were made and distributed in the United States by Sears & Roebuck during the 1850s.

While such artifacts and mementos are of interest in themselves, they can also provide insight into how our ancestors lived and interacted and what was happening around them in the times and places where they lived their lives. As I've commented in previous columns, the purpose of genealogy is not just to gather the dry facts of ancestors names, birth, marriage and death dates and places, but also to try to gain an understanding of the lives of these unique individuals in the context of the times and places where they lived.

Previous Columns in this series

1. Beginning your search
2. "Source Data"
3. More About Data Sources
4. Additional Data Sources
5. LDS and Data From Other Countries
6. Census Records
7. Military Records
8. Land Records
9. More About Land Records
10. Land Records as a Source of Family Information
11. Wills and Probate Records as Sources of Family Information
12. Biographies, Obituaries, Old Newspapers, and Family Lore
13. Sharing Family History Research
14. Some Genealogy Web Sites to Use With Caution
15. Genealogy & Local History
16. Tracking One Specific Ancestor
17. What Next?
18. Tracking One Specific Ancestor - 2
19. Importance of Family Groups in Tracking Ancestors
20. Two new on-line genealogy research tools
21. Some books for family history researchers
22. Census time again
23. A tale of the professor and the horse thief

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