Beginner Tips: Where to Look for Great Ancestor Stories

By Diane Haddad
finding great stories ancestors family history genealogy

One of my favorite aspects of genealogy is finding a good story. Maybe an ancestor took part in an historical event, clawed his way to economic success, survived an arduous migration or even committed a crime. The kinds of things you might see on an episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?

If you’re getting started in genealogy, you might think there’s no excitement in your family tree—but there probably is if you look for it. These are some of the best family story sources (and I’ll tell you where they’ve led me to juicy family history details):

  • Newspapers: You may not think of your family as particularly newsworthy, but you might be surprised. You may uncover some stories about your relatives in old newspapers that you didn’t even know about! Digitized newspaper sites include the free Chronicling America and subscription-based GenealogyBank and Newspapers.com. Visit your library or state archive to scroll local papers on microfilm.
  • Court records: Though they aren’t always easy to access—most aren’t online, and they’re not always indexed—court records are often full of information. FamilySearch has many microfilmed court records, and some counties’ records are digitized on the free FamilySearch.org.
  • Military pension applications: You may find correspondence about military service, documentation of marriage, written testimony about wounds received, photos and more. Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org have indexes and some record images for Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican War and Civil War pensions. Some of the record images are on Ancestry’s sister site Fold3, which requires an additional subscription (your library or local FamilySearch Center may offer free use of Ancestry and Fold3).
  • Family papers: Diaries, letters, postcards, scrapbooks, photos, baby books and other passed-down items from trunks, closets and attics hold “everyday life” details and stories you won’t find anywhere else. Go through your house (and your relatives’ houses, if they’ll let you) for these home sources and examine them for clues. Once your relatives start to see you as “the family historian,” these types of items—which many people don’t necessarily want to store, but don’t want to throw out either—may very well come knocking on your door.
  • Histories: These secondary sources may contain errors because they’re usually based on recollections and were edited for print, but they’re full of research clues. Local and county histories are often digitized on Google Books, Internet Archive, Ancestry, FamilySearch (some FamilySearch digitized books are accessible only from a FamilySearch Center) or your library’s website. Find print versions through WorldCat and in local libraries.
  • Censuses: Your basic census records offer clues such as school attendance (1850-on), the value of his property or home (1850-1870 and 1940), whether the household included slaves (1790-1860); how many children a woman had and how many were still living (1900 and 1910); and whether any household members had visual, hearing or other impairments (1840-1910). Don’t overlook these columns, which may prompt you to dig for the story behind the number. Free sites with census records include FamilySearch (some search results link to record images on subscription sites) and Mocavo.com; Ancestry and MyHeritage also have census records and images. Some federal censuses also were accompanied by special schedules for certain populations, such as “Defective, Dependent and Delinquent” classes (1880) and owners of industry/manufacturing businesses (1810-1820, few of which survive, and 1850-1880). Many of these records are on Ancestry.