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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill - 1/19/2005

Writing Your Relatives

The immediacy of e-mail makes it easy to forget that there are other ways to communicate one-on-one via the written word. The handwritten letter sent via regular mail is not dead, a fact which I am now absolutely certain. I actually received a handwritten letter recently from a relative whose existence was previously unknown to me. It has been a very long time since I have received a "snail mail" letter about genealogy.

Frequent readers will remember that I have spent time recently locating living family members in an attempt to locate more information. There are two families in particular where contact with living relatives may be the only way to solve my problem. I have put off writing the letters because it seems I rarely use paper and envelopes to communicate any more. After all, email is faster. Letters mailed in a mailbox take days to reach the recipient and take days for a response to be returned, if a response is even sent. A letter I received myself has pushed me to begin writing those letters I have been avoiding.

The letter was addressed very simply as:

Michael Neill
Math Professor of Carl Sandburg College

It was delivered in my mailbox at work two days after it was written. While I am not advocating using such an address, I am very appreciative of the U.S. postal service for getting this envelope to me.

The writer had seen my picture in a magazine holding a picture of my great-great-grand uncle, George Trautvetter. The writer thought the man in the picture looked like a picture she had seen as a child of her great-grandfather Trautvetter. She did not know the great-grandfather's name, but told me the name of her grandmother, Frances Trautvetter Elder. The name immediately connected in my head, and I knew my correspondent was related. In fact the writer's grandmother had been named for my great-great-grandmother Frances Bieger Trautvetter, a sister-in-law of the man whose picture I was holding.

As I read the letter and began formulating a response, I decided there was no reason I was not writing a few letters of my own. After all, I was not going to make any connections with these off-line relatives if I kept procrastinating.

Before Writing
Avoid asking for the world in your first letter and remember that not everyone shares your genealogical enthusiasm (obsession?). Make certain that you clearly explain your relationship to the family or person on whom you are seeking information. Your reader might not be even be aware of your existence and could be concerned your motive and intent. Provide just enough details to help the person make the connection, but do not overwhelm them with information or prattle on for five pages about how you have been looking for information on great-grandpa Jones for fifteen years and he never did marry that third wife of his (or was it fifth) and you think he was in a military prison, but you are not certain and it never made sense why he supposedly could not hear out of his right ear . . .

I think you get the idea.

If you suspect there may be some "issues" in the family, tread lightly and indicate that your intent is not to open past wounds or to broadcast them on the Internet or anywhere else. Make it as clear as you can that you are looking for information in order to allow you to extend the family lines and learn more about where your family was from. Some individuals may be concerned that your goal is to "spread" unpleasant information as far and wide as possible.

Be Polite and Gracious
If you are asking about copies of old photographs or obituaries, offer to reimburse the individual making copies. Include a self-addressed stamped envelope. Include an e-mail address just in case the person really is online and only "does e-mail." And offer to share what information you have as well.

What follows is a letter I wrote to the woman I believed to be a first cousin of my grandmother:

Dear Mrs. Jones

In researching my family history, I think you and I may be related. I am looking for Mrs. Jones who is the granddaughter of Mattie Greenstreet who died in New England in the late 1980s. If you are not that person, please accept my apologies for the intrusion.

The Mattie Greenstreet for whom I am looking was born in Illinois in 1890 and was a sister to my great-grandmother Ida Sargent Trautvetter. Mattie and Ida have the same father: Ira Sargent, but have different mothers. I am trying to locate more about where Ira was from before he came to Illinois. I know some details of his life in Illinois and would be happy to share that information with anyone who is interested. Mattie and Ida had another sister Ella.

Ida married George Trautvetter in Hancock County, Illinois, in 1898 and died in 1939. They stayed in Illinois and had seven children. Their youngest daughter was Ida Trautvetter Neill, my grandmother who died 1994.

Would you possibly have any information on Mattie or her parents that you could share with me? My intent is not to cause any difficulties, but rather to learn where the family was from so I can continue my research.

I thank you for your reply and have enclosed a self-addressed-envelope. I can also be reached via email at:

Did I Get a Response
Not yet, but little time has elapsed since the letter was mailed. I'm hoping to get a response and learn more about the family but realize I have to be patient. We will keep readers updated on my success and encourage readers to write letters to their relatives as well.

Readers with suggestions are encouraged to e-mail them to me at We may use some in upcoming columns as we give readers additional ways to try and connect with the living branches of their family tree.

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 Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at or visit his website at:, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Copyright 2005,

Used by the author on his website with permission
Michael's Other Genealogy Articles