How to Be a Great Ancestor

By Sharon DeBartolo Carmack Premium

You may not have realized it, but there’s a Golden Rule of Genealogy: Leave for your descendants what you wish your ancestors had left for you. You’ve spent years digging up data and stories to breathe life into the grandparents and great-grandparents who’ve made your existence — and your children’s — possible. But what are you doing to ensure your family’s legacy will be around after you’re gone?

Here’s something else to ponder: What if a long-ago relative started climbing your family tree, but all his efforts got pitched because he didn’t take measures to ensure his opus would outlast him? Surely you aren’t the first person in all those generations to investigate the family’s history. Take, for example, this letter I discovered tucked away in a special collection of the University of Virginia Library <> in Charlottesville:

Feb. 5th 1901

Dear Papa,

I received your letter yesterday and was disappointed, but not surprised to find that you had taken no steps to procure the desired information that lies within your grasp. All of the old FitzHughs lived, and most of them died, in Stafford and Westmoreland counties, where their wills, their deed[s], and their marriage licenses must be on record in the clerk’s offices of those counties, or in that of King George Co. which was formerly realized it, a part of those counties. A little exertion on your part in this matter would be rewarded by a world of information and enable us to process, once and for all, a correct record of our family …

Your loving son

Horace A. FitzHugh

Horace Fitzhugh was a distant cousin of mine. So what happened to his research? I’d love to know. And consider this plea, which a young woman recorded in her diary:

What if, seized without warning by a fatal illness, I should happen to die suddenly! … And after my death they would rummage among my papers; they would find my journal, and destroy it after having read it, and soon nothing would be left of me — nothing — nothing — nothing! This is the thought that has always terrified me.

Fortunately, Marie Bashkirtseff, who died in 1884, made her wishes known. Although her life lasted only 24 years, her diaries are still around. What are you doing to ensure your family history treasures survive you? Here are 16 ways to leave a legacy.

1. Start scrapbooking.

Scrapbooking is all the rage — and only your imagination limits the scrapbooks you can create. There’s the standard heritage album, but also consider these five themes:

Family reunion: Make a scrapbook of the gang’s get-together, including programs, photos and interviews.

School: Create school scrapbooks for yourself and for your spouse, as well as your children. Scan or photocopy yearbook pages and include memorabilia (report cards, your graduation tassel) plus journaled memories of events and friends.

Cemetery: Photograph grave markers, and find death certificates and obituaries.

Immigration and migration: Maps, passenger lists, passports and naturalization records document your ancestors’ travels. Record their modes of transportation with images of prairie schooners or the ships that bore them across the Atlantic (see <>).

House history: Include deeds, pictures (take photos of similar buildings, if the houses aren’t around anymore), descriptions of the furniture and décor, and information on the people who lived in each house.

Get help making archival-quality heritage albums from Maureen A. Taylor’s Scrapbooking Your Family History and Bev Kirschner Braun’s Crafting Your Heritage Album (both from Betterway Books).

2. Assemble an album.

Photo albums are a natural legacy project. Just be sure to identify the photos with names, dates and places. One must-have guide for learning how to find and identify photographs: Uncovering Your Ancestry through Family Photographs, revised edition (Family Tree Books), by Maureen A. Taylor.

But what about all those cool documents you’ve been collecting, such as military records, passenger arrival lists, vital records, censuses, and wills? Start a binder for each surname and organize documents and charts for each individual behind tabs in acid-free sheet protectors. Place a label on each sheet protector identifying the document and the source where you got it. Not only is this project a great legacy, but it also forces you to keep your research in order.

3. Transcribe diaries and letters.

Are you one of the lucky genealogists who’s inherited an ancestor’s diary or letters? Not only do you need to think about preserving them for the future, but you also should consider ways to make them accessible to other family members. For example, you could photocopy and distribute the documents, or transcribe them and annotate the pages with your research findings. Say Great-aunt Lucy’s teenage diary mentions the name (or just the initials) of a suitor. You can add context to the transcription if you find out about the mystery man and add notes.

4. Put your family history into words.

If writing is a pastime you enjoy, try one of these projects:

Book: This is the ultimate way to hand down your history legacy because you can give copies to everyone in the family — and even to libraries and archives. My book You Can Write Your Family History (Genealogical Publishing Co.) provides genealogy-focused writing and publishing advice.

Essays: Compile a collection of essays on topics such as your own experiences or memories of relatives, then copy and distribute them to kin. If you collect the essays in a binder, you and other family members can add to them easily.

Articles: Maybe you don’t have enough information to fill a book, but you still want to publish your research results or tell other researchers about a brick wall you’ve conquered. Genealogical society journals and newsletters are good places to do this. Consult Genealogical Writing in the 21st Century edited by Henry B. Hoff (New England Historic Genealogical Society) for help writing a publication-worthy article.

Letters: Whether you mail them or not, compose letters to the youngest members of your family to tell them what life was like when you were growing up. Write about your parents and grandparents, recording your fondest memories of spending time with them in addition to facts about their lives. Make copies for all the kids in your family, and present them on a special occasion.

5. Impress them with tombstone rubbings.

Remember in grade school, when you’d put a penny under a piece of paper, then rub crayon on the paper? Abe Lincoln’s image gradually emerged. That’s the concept behind tombstone rubbings. Your descendants will find rubbings of their ancestors’ headstones more intriguing than photos — and think what great conversation pieces the transferred images will make. But remember, if the headstone is cracked or seems unstable, don’t attempt to make a rubbing. And before you pull out your tombstone wax, always ask the cemetery superintendent or caretaker if rubbings are allowed. When you get home, affix a label to the back of the rubbing with the name of the cemetery and its location. Then you can frame it or store it folded in a special box.

6. Know your needlework heirlooms.

Many of our female ancestors made family tree samplers to practice and display their stitching skills. If you’ve inherited such an artifact, make sure you’re taking care of it properly by displaying it in archival materials away from sunlight, or storing it in acid-free materials. (For advice on preserving antique needlework and textiles, consult a museum archivist. Contact the Society of American Archivists at 312-922-0140 or <>.) Snap a photograph of the needlework for your family history scrapbook or other legacy project. Of course, you’ll also want to create your own family tree sampler or quilt to hand down to your children and grandchildren. Look for patterns at your local craft store and on Web sites such as <> and <>.

7. Write your life story.

Let your descendants know all about you — beyond the facts of dates and places — with one of these projects:

Journal or diary: If you don’t keep a journal or diary, it’s never too late to start. Traditionally, diarists write about experiences and emotions on a daily basis, but you can write as often as you want: weekly, monthly or whenever it’s convenient. You also can focus your journal on a topic such as your garden or favorite books. If inspiration doesn’t strike, write answers to oral history interview questions from books such as Linda Spence’s Legacy: A Step-By-Step Guide to Writing Personal History (Swallow Press).

Research journal: This type of journal is different from a research log, where you keep the facts of your investigations — the date of a search, records you found and citations for them. You can do all that in a journal, too, but you also report your joys, frustrations and feelings about the search for (or as some might call it, the obsession with) your ancestors. If you have a favorite or colorful ancestor, this is the place to write about her.

Memoir or autobiography: A memoir focuses on one aspect or part of your life, such as your college years, the 1970s or your military service. An autobiography details your whole life, which might be overwhelming to tackle. Consider writing several memoirs instead.

8. Get ’em talking on tape.

Never leave for a family reunion or relative’s house without a tape recorder or video camera. Putting off an oral history interview might one day be your biggest regret. You don’t have to plan a formal session. Impromptu talks work just as well — even better, sometimes, because the storyteller usually forgets about the camera and acts more naturally.

Every year after a visit from my dad, I’d think, “Why didn’t I just turn on the video camera while we were having dinner, and get his stories on tape?” This last time, I did just that. I invited my daughter and her boyfriend (a new audience), threw Dad a few “Tell Nate the one about …” prompts, and away he went. I now have a solid hour of my dad telling his favorite tales. Make backup copies of the tapes and keep them in a safe, climate-controlled area. Tapes and video cassettes are less stable than paper, so you’ll want to transcribe the audio.

9. Inventory ancestral artifacts.

Have you inherited some of Grandma’s dishes or parts of Grandpa’s political button collection? What happened to the rest of the set — did they go to another relative? Now’s a good time to create an inventory of your family artifacts, even those in your relatives’ possession, so everyone will know who has what. Take photographs of each item and record the following information:

• how the item came into the possession of its current owner

• the owner’s name and address

• a description of the item

• family stories associated with it

• the date it was made or acquired

• its provenance — that is, the heirloom’s history: who owned it originally, how he got it and how your family passed it down

10. Make like a museum curator.

As you collect photos of your ancestors, frame their faces for a family tree wall display. This can be quite the conversation piece, and it makes a unique collection to pass on someday. Be sure to display only copies and safeguard the originals. Pick a wall that doesn’t get direct sunlight. Depending on your space, you can hang the pictures in the form of a tree, or group them by families, generations or surnames.

Don’t keep your family heirlooms packed away-display them! Tum your living or family room into a heritage museum. Naturally, if you have pets or small children, you’ll need to take precautions so little hands or paws don’t break cherished artifacts. Display cases and china cabinets work perfectly. Number and label objects to correspond to your inventory.

11. Electrify your research.

Digitally preserving your family history is an easy way to share it with family members who live near and far. Compile scanned photographs and documents along with family stories, and create a family Web site or make a CD-ROM scrapbook. You even can include audio and video clips from interviews with relatives. If you’re going to post your family history on the Internet, be sure to follow some privacy-proteaion principles: Identlfy children only by their fist names, and get permission from living relatives before publicizing details such as birth dates or residences. Your goal is to leave a legacy, not create a resource for identity thieves. For more on how to create an electronic heirloom, see Digitizing Your Family History (Family Tree Books) by Rhonda R. McClure.

12. Feast on family food heritage.

Gather family recipes to create a book, CD or Web site for your kin who like to cook. Along with each recipe, include a photo of the dish and the cook who’s most famous for it, a brief biography of the chef, and notes about the holidays or occasions when the dish was served. If your family has a strong cultural background, such as Italian or Hispanic, incorporate some food history gleaned from ethnic cookbooks. When family members gather for a meal, don’t forget to turn on that tape recorder or video camera. Capture some of the food-focused conversation to include in the recipe book.

13. Get into the publishing business.

Do you send an annual holiday letter summarizing your kids’ and spouse’s activities for the past year? File each one with your family history research, or keep a notebook of letters that you’ve written and received from others. But why wait for December? Start a quarterly newsletter about what’s going on in relatives’ lives and include their stories about ancestors. Have fun with a variety of columns covering everything from recipes to mystery photos. You can print and mail the newsletter, distribute it via e-mail or post it to a Web site. To ensure the missive becomes part of your family legacy, keep hard copies in your genealogy files.

14. Save the dates.

Buy a special calendar to record ancestral events, such as births, marriages and deaths. Ideally, you’ll want to use a perpetual calendar: one that lists the dates for each month, but not the days of the week, so you can use the calendar year after year. List the year and type of event along with the ancestor’s name. Also record current family events. If you make your own calendar instead of using a pre-printed one, you can add photograph baby picture, a wedding photo, a graduation portrait.

15. Rerun yesterday’s news.

Create your own family newspaper-The Thompson Gazette, The Wilson Observer, The O’Reilly Times-and fill it with clippings you’ve found about your ancestors, including obituaries, news articles, marriage and birth announcements. It’d be fun to print vintage advertisements for products your ancestors rnight’ve used, old comics and political cartoons, and articles about the current events they lived through. Publish you paper annually as a holiday tradition.

16. Give the gift of well-being.

By writing a family health history, you can help your loved ones stay well while sharing genealogical facts. Begin by assembling information about your own and your immediate family’s medical issues. Then start gathering information about illnesses and causes of death from living relatives and from documents such as letters, death certificates and obituaries. My Family Health Profile, a sirnple computer program you can download from the US Department of Health and Human Services Web site, will help you record the data and create a health history chart. For information, log on to <>.

You can get guidance on health-focused genealogical research from the National Genealogical Society’s September/October 2004 NGS NewsMagazine and the American Medical Association’s Family History Tools Web site <>.

You can also visit these websites for more memory preservation ideas: 
Make these legacy projects a priority for your family’s sake. Not only will you keep the products of your efforts to discover your roots off the trash heap, but you’ll become the ancestor you always wished you had.
From the April 2005 Family Tree Magazine