Genealogy: Where to search for your ancestors' writings

By Barry Ewell

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, Nov. 9 2013 5:00 a.m. MST



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 these six approaches suggested in Wililam G. Hartley's "The Everything Family Tree Book":

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

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