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Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill  4/11/2000

"The Check's in the Mail . . . and Other Home Sources"

Genealogical research begins with the obvious sources around the house--birth certificates, obituaries, family Bibles, etc. To dig deeper, there are other documents one may have access to that, while not providing vital event data, may provide details that enrich the family history.

For starters, cancelled checks do not readily come to mind as a fruitful family history source. And yet, they can provide information about the details of someone's life. For instance, a can in my grandmother's basement was labeled "frozen cherries." But when the can was opened, nearly every check my grandfather had written since the late 1930s was discovered.

Cancelled checks do not typically have much genealogical use, but in my grandparents' case, there were a few gems in the pile. Early in her married life, Grandma fell through the attic floor, hitting her hip on the bureau in the bedroom below. A check to pay the doctor for his services that day was in the pile. There were numerous checks for farm supplies, seed corn, and other agricultural items. The checks spanned many years and included early ones written in pencil (I was aghast!). Unable to keep them all, I had to decide which checks to keep.

There was one from the mid-1940s that really struck my attention. My paternal grandfather had written a check to my maternal grandfather for seed corn. My parents were small children at the time. Both of my grandfathers signed the check, one in writing it and the other in endorsing it on the back. I've made certain to file it away in an archival sleeve for safekeeping. There were no other checks to family members in the pile, but I was glad to have found this one, as it was particularly interesting.

As another unlikely family history source, my mother has all the cards she received when she and my father were married. When I went through them, I knew many of the people, and she told me who the others were--except for one card, signed by an Ola Howes. Fortunately, Mom had saved the envelope, but there was only a postmark. The name was buried in the back of my mind, and I had nearly forgotten it until I happened upon an estate settlement for a great-great-grand aunt from the 1950s that mentioned a niece--Ola Howes. I knew the name was familiar, and after some thought, I remembered the card. Ola was my great-grandfather's first cousin. Now I at least know she was alive on the date the card was postmarked.

I've had luck with funeral books as well. Funeral books for my wife's grandfather and step-great-grandfather provided me with significant clues, the most important being the dates and places of birth and death. While it is only a secondary source for birth information, it is a good place to start when no other information is available. One book even had death notices and obituaries glued into it, with the name and date of the newspaper included.

Funeral and mourning cards are other excellent sources. One of my relatives had a collection of these cards, including several for people she did not know. A death notice located in the “Chicago Tribune” for this individual indicated that the person was a sister of the grandmother of the person who had the cards. If the card had been ignored, an important clue would have been lost.

There are numerous home sources that may provide useful genealogical clues. The typical sources--obituary clippings, certificates, announcements, letters, etc.--should be utilized and analyzed carefully. But keep in mind that there are other home sources that might provide information that will be just as helpful in your search. In many cases, any artifact that documents a person's existence or residence at a certain point in time may be helpful in accessing other, more detailed records.

Also, never ignore more-distant relatives who may have information. I was recently given a series of newspaper clippings, photos, and letters belonging to a granddaughter of my great-great-grandfather's sister. This lady had no children of her own, and none of her siblings had any children either. Among her papers were numerous letters she had received in the 1970s when she was trying to locate descendants of her grandparents. The names and addresses (she had kept all the envelopes) were a gold mine, especially since they were combined with birth dates and other information.

So, never ignore more-distant relatives in your quest for personal effects that may expand your area of research.

And lastly, if you do nothing else genealogically this week:

1) Make a serious attempt to identify individuals in all family photos.
2) Interview any relatives (no matter how distant) if you have not already done so. Even if you have, a follow-up interview may be appropriate.

These sources, originating in the human mind, are perhaps the most fragile of all.

Good luck!

Copyright 2000, Michael John Neill. Michael John Neill, is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the “FGS FORUM” and is on the editorial board of the “Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly”. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including “Ancestry” and “Genealogical Computing”. You can visit his Web site at: 


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