Researching Family History: Find a missing part of your family history

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 18 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Stephon Tull did not know what he had until he was going through some dusty old boxes in his father's attic in Chattanooga, Tenn. Then he found an audio tape reel with a label reading “Dr. King interview, Dec. 21, 1960."

Borrowing a friend's reel-to-reel player, he listened to the recording, which was an interview between his father and Martin Luther King Jr. Startled at its contents, he told the Associated Press, “I found... a lost part of history.” Years ago, his father had big plans to publish the interview, but it never happened. Tull's father is in his 80s and in hospice care, so the younger Tull plans to carry out the work and publish the interview in a book.

What about missing parts of our own family history? Have we checked the gaps on our family trees? Amazing are the things which can be found after sitting for years in attics, basements and other places. Recorded interviews, paintings, photographs, newspapers, histories, maps and genealogy sheets are among the fascinating items waiting to be discovered.

To be realistic, we likely won't experience finding missing parts of our family history the way Tull did. Some documents have been lost thanks to fire, flood, earthquake and war. Many events may never have been recorded. But once in a while, we are blessed to come upon information in some obscure place during a random cleaning.

So what can be done capture missing parts of family history?

Begin the search. Some relatives of ours who were looking for any form of their family history were prepared to pull up floorboards in their parents' attic when they discovered a box containing just what they needed — in the attic.

Maybe the missing parts you are looking for turn out to be great-grandma's journal or grandpa's military-service records. Or you might find a video of grandma relating her life's story before her death. Missing pieces may be obituaries that the local historical society photocopied for Dad after you moved away from home.

But if you find nothing, it may be necessary to begin the search with what I call “raw research.” Trips to a local family history center or even the Family History Library may be necessary to accomplish this. The staff and volunteers in these centers and the library can help you know how to begin. Otherwise, it may be time to find a good professional researcher and have them begin the search through the family tree.

Whether seeking a specific item, or simply looking through resources, we may still come upon our “diamond in the rough” — but it may take a long time. Nothing in this work is ever done in vain. Eventually somewhere, at some point in time, we will find something, though it may not be what we expect. Sooner or later (and it is usually later), the payoff always comes. Remember, Jesus taught, “Ask and it shall be given you; seek and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you” (see Matthew 7:7).

One of my clients has in his genealogical collection a painting of a possible ancestor dressed in a uniform. He appears to have been a member of the nobility in Germany around the 1600s. If he is who we think he is, then he will fit somewhere on the family tree. Soon we will be approaching that generation in our search. He could prove to be a direct-line ancestor (there is no guarantee, but since the painting was found with the rest of the family records, it seems likely he must be related in some way). The painting could be a piece of missing family history already found, but it's necessary to verify the information.

Consider where missing pieces of your family history could be hiding; make a list of those places and then check them out. They may be anywhere likely or unlikely, from barrels to boxes, vaults for safekeeping, in attics, basements or under the stairs in a family home.

It's time to make that list and physically start digging. Who knows: your hidden treasure may be hiding in a dusty old box in the attic!

Genealogy graduate Russell Bangerter is president of Ancestral Connections, Inc., at ancestralconnect.com. He is a professional genealogist, author and speaker and adviser to Treasured Souls to Keep, at treasuredsoulstokeep.com.

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