Start a genealogical record for your family (1905)

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Valuable suggestions for keeping the much-needed record of family affairs

A pretty young woman, in a fresh black gown, stood the other day before the desk of a savings bank official and tried in vain to answer the identifying questions which would enable her to close the account of her father, who had just died.

“You say that you don’t know the name of the depositor’s father or his mother’s maiden name?” said the patient gentleman with the spectacles who was conducting the inquiry. “At any rate, you will be able to tell me your father’s address at the time this account was opened, eleven years ago?”

She shook her head doubtfully. “We lived at two places in Brooklyn, one year in Forty-eighth street and one year out in Orange, about that time, but I can’t remember the street. I can’t answer any of those questions except the one about mamma’s maiden name. Of course, I can tell you that.”

She was able, of course, to prove her identity and get her money, for savings banks are used to this curious state of affairs of many American families, where if the absence of history is an index of happiness, unbroken bliss should surely prevail.

In England, the parish records furnish a correct and accessible source of information as to the main facts of personal and family chronology. In France, the civil records are so minute that the head of a household may seem justified in omitting to make any records of his own. In this country, however, neither church nor state assumes the duty of historian, and the average American who wants to know anything of his family history must piece it together from the inscriptions on tombstones and the chance entries he may find in county court houses, and helped out, if he is fortunate enough to have a pious ancestry, by the yellowed manuscript pages interleaved in the family Bible.

Keeping a family record of some kind is as much the duty of the intelligent head of a family as providing food, shelter and schooling. Indeed, failure in the first case is less excusable, as the record costs nothing but the outlay of a little time. To dismiss the whole subject with the statement, “I never took much interest in that sort of thing” is evidence of thoughtlessness, to say the least.

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Any librarian will testify that his reference room is filled with people looking up simple facts of a family history that their parents could have put on record in a very few minutes, had they been willing to take the trouble. Sometimes the desire for knowledge arises from the ambition to meet the requirements of one of the patriotic societies; sometimes it is a matter of practical importance, like the establishing of a legal claim to property; Sometimes it is the mere natural craving to know something of the men and women whose mental and physical traits are our inalienable heritage — in any case, the motive is not to be condemned.

A very satisfactory record can be made on a single flat sheet of paper, not smaller than 20×20 inches and laid out precisely like the pedigree blanks used in kennels and stables. It may be suggested in passing that in many a household where there is no written record whatever of the genealogy of the human members there will be found a carefully treasured pedigree of some valued animal that will serve as a convenient pattern. The genealogy can usually be filled out to five generations without difficulty, especially if the grandparents are alive.

Click to see a larger version of this family tree template

At the right hand side of the sheet, where the entries are sparse, as in the case of parents and grandparents, there will be room to enter — preferably in red ink, so to avoid confusion with the main record — the dates of births and marriages, the successive places of residence and the names of brothers and sisters. These additional facts will give the key to any historical work the subject of the genealogy may care to pursue, as it furnishes the dates and places where legal or church records may be searched and the full names which should be sought in indexes.

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The time needed for laying out and filling in such a record will not be much over an hour, and the paper, will cost but a few cents. Care should be taken, however, to have an honest piece of all-rag record or bond paper that will stand folding and will not drop to pieces in a few years.

Promptness in making the record cannot be too strongly insisted upon, especially in the case of the first child in the family.

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A genealogy is made up of two distinct halves. In few families could the father or mother supply the necessary facts for the other side of the house, so that it is important that the record should be made while both parents are living. When the sheet is filled in, it should be folded to the size of a legal document, so that it can be readily kept with other valuable papers. The pages of the blank side can be used for recording the family’s changes of residence, if any, during the childhood of the history’s subject.

In many families these individual genealogies may be interestingly supplemented by a family scrapbook which becomes valuable for reference as years go by. Illustrated, by father’s picture when he was made president of the board of trade, Eleanor’s frills and flounces when she graduated, a picture of the cottage where a pleasant summer was passed and the portrait of the terrier who took “second” at the dog show, such a scrapbook becomes a family treasure worth far more than the slight labor it costs to make it; while the work may develop latent historic tastes in the compiler that will someday give the world a masterpiece.

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