Category Archives: Genealogy 101

Family Reunion Letters

It seems a lot of people are stopping by here looking for advice on writing family reunion letters. I have not actually ever planned a family reunion or written a letter, so take my advice with that in mind.

It seems logical to me that the first step involved in planning a reunion is to scout out among your family members for interest. If no one is interested, it will be an exercise in frustration. Give yourself plenty of time to plan. Large events like this don’t come together at the spur of the moment. My goal with this post is not to teach you how to put together a family reunion; however, but to help you with writing a letter.

First of all, use a word processing program like MS Word to create a mail merge file and send a letter to as many relatives as you can think of. I would create something like this:

The Huff family needs your help. We are organizing a family reunion for July 2007, and we want be sure as many family members attend as possible. Won’t you please help us? We sent a copy of this letter to the following individuals [don’t send addresses; it isn’t necessary]. If you know of someone else who needs to be included in our plans, please send their name and address to us.

Once you have collected as many addresses as possible, send copies of the family group sheet chart (look in the sidebar to the right if you need one) to each family. Ask that they send these back to you, so you will have accurate genealogical information. It would be a nice gesture to include as many family members as possible on some sort of descendent tree chart, like my grandfather’s cousin Lee did for a Cunningham family reunion in the 1990’s. However, be very careful not to include erroneous information, which can inadvertently lead to hurt feelings. A person in one branch of my family simply entered any unknown dates as January 1 of the year in which the event was believed to have occurred. An uninformed person taking that information as truth might decide to build their genealogy files upon that erroneous information, thereby introducing huge errors into the genealogical record.

If you do not receive replies from some families, you might need to contact them again. I personally would not become a pest. If someone made it very clear they didn’t want to cooperate, I would try to include his/her information as best as I could, but I would not invent dates or spellings, and I might indicate such doubts by question marks. Try to exhaust other alternatives — such as contacting other family members you think might have the information. If, for instance, I couldn’t remember my cousin’s daughter’s middle name, and she did not reply with a completed family group sheet, I could try my aunt, who would most likely know the middle name of her granddaughter and would probably reply to my letter.

Please feel free to add your comments if you have tips or advice on family reunion letters for readers of this site.

How Do I Get Started?

Are you interested in learning about genealogy? There are lots of sites on the Internet that point the way.

  • Genealogy@About.com is very comprehensive; it is designed to be a one-stop portal, like other About.com sites.
  • USGenWeb is good if you’ve already started and need more information.
  • rssGenealogy.com has an abundance of links, but if you’re a beginner it might be a bit overwhelming.
  • Cyndi’s List is a great site and well worth a visit.
  • Rootsweb.com is “the oldest free genealogy site.”

I became interested in genealogy when a photocopy of a descendant tree prepared for a family reunion was passed on to me by my grandparents. In fact, it was almost exactly like this one, but because it was prepared for a Cunningham family reunion, it included more desdendants. One of these days, I need to get more of my cousins on my own tree so they can use the information I’ve found to further their research. That was about 15 years ago. I think that’s the first time I had given thought to the fact that I was part of an extended family that stretched back into history. I wanted to know more about these people from whom I descend. I wanted to know their names, where they lived, what they did. So, I became an amateur genealogist.

At first, I didn’t know what I was doing, and I didn’t really know where to go for help. This was before the Internet, and I wasn’t really sure where to start. I found Tracing Your Ancestry Logbook at a bookstore. I was a student at University of Georgia, which has a great microfilm collection. I started with the desdendant chart I had. Once I had found those individuals on census records, I was stuck. What did I do next?

I floundered for a few years, not really knowing what to do. If I had it to do over again, I would follow this plan for compiling information:

  1. Fill out Family Group Sheets as completely as I knew.
  2. Send photocopies of my Family Group Sheets to individuals in my family who might be able to correct and add to them.
  3. Interview as many older members of my family as I could. Sadly, some of them have passed away since I started compiling family records — I will not have the chance to ask them about their families again.
  4. Take down all the information I can about individuals with the surname in which I am interested. I have had to make multiple trips to the library to take down information I could have compiled the first time I went if I had only been more thorough.
  5. I would make copies of all records I find and keep them in a binder. This includes information from books, historical records, online pedigrees or other genealogical reports.
  6. I would be more persistent about getting information from relatives. When relatives haven’t responded, I have most often let the matter drop. I should have made more of a pest of myself.
  7. I would plan my research trips. Sometimes, I went to the library on the spur of the moment, and I was not prepared for researching.
  8. I would be more judicious about what information from others’ research to include. I would make copies of anything that pertained to my family, but I would not create records or Family Group Sheets unless my information was based on solid sources.

One of the things I eventually did do right is get a software program. The first one I bought was Broderbund’s Family TreeMaker. It is a pretty good program. Essentially, it allows the user to create family group sheets and in turn, develop all types of reports. It also allows the user to create scrapbooks with image files. Admittedly, I did not have the 2005 version, which looks sleeker than the version I had, but I felt FTM was limited in that other types files could not be uploaded into scrapbooks. I also felt that the “notes” section was limited. However, it was easy to navigate.

I have recently purchased Family Tree Legends by Pearl Street Software. I am really happy with it. It seems to have all the same features as FTM, but uploading files to the Internet is easier, and many different types of files may be uploaded into scrapbooks. I also like the different options available for reports. I think the reports look nicer than those in FTM. It was also less expensive. It also has real time Internet backup. If you have ever lost a ton of data because your computer crashed, then you will grow to love this feature.

You don’t have to buy software in order to keep track of your research. After all, genealogists managed without it for a very long time; however, I would recommend it. Family Tree Legends has Internet backup of files, but I would still recommend keeping hard copies of Family Group Sheets and other reports. You might even purchase a logbook, as I did, which comes complete with forms you might use. If you prefer, you can download all you need to start here:

You need Adobe Acrobat Reader in order to view pdf files. Happy researching!

Primary Sources Versus Secondary Sources

If you have been researching your family history, you may have run into the classic pitfall. Primary sources can be expensive to obtain and difficult to find. Logic tells us that getting hold of eyewitness accounts when possible is best, but that might involve costly trips and sending away for copies of records and archives that can quickly put a dent in your budget. In some cases, primary sources are not saved or their whereabouts are unknown. Secondary sources are generally more available, but might not always be reliable.

It should be noted that primary sources may not always be correct. Eyewitnesses do not always describe things accurately (or without bias). Spelling errors are common. For example, on my great-great-great-grandmother’s headstone, her name is incorrectly inscribed as “Mary Anna Cunningham.” In fact, her given name was Mary Anne Penelope Anthony — she married Johnson Franklin Cunningham. Her family may not have realized this fine distinction and so misspelled her middle name. In a related error, Mary Anthony’s name was incorrectly transcribed by another genealogist (a common error, as handwriting can be difficult to read) as “May A.F. Anthony” in her marriage record. Also, my grandfather’s family Bible has the name of his grandfather, Johnson Franklin Cunningham, incorrectly transcribed as “Johns Cunningham.” While he may have gone by the nickname “Johns,” not realizing his full name was “Johnson” may have thrown roadblocks in my way.

Secondary sources are often good, but must be carefully weighed. When I first started working with genealogy online, I was amazed at the plethora of evidence available. I was transported into paroxysms of delight when I found the LDS site and began clicking through those Ancestry Pedigrees. A word of caution: sometimes genealogists do not take care to be thorough in their research. I have found countless errors on that site. For example, the site lists mythological Norse gods as the forebears of early English royalty. No doubt those were really taken from a book, but common sense would tell us a chronicler referring to his king as a descendant of the gods is not to be taken seriously. Yet, someone had that in his or her family record or it wouldn’t be in that pedigree file! Also, the site routinely has genealogist errors in name spellings, dates, places, and the like. You just can’t trust other genealogists to be thorough and accurate with their research. The best thing you can do if you run across a claim you believe to be dubious is research it yourself. Don’t include information you believe to be erroneous in files you share with others. That just perpetuates the cycle of misinformation. For example, I was told several years ago by a librarian that many people with the surname “Bolling” descend from Pocahontas. This is, indeed, true. I have ancestry in the Bowling/Bolling family through my great-great-grandmother, Stella Bowling. I have tentatively traced her lineage back to the pioneer, Benjamin Bolling. I found another genealogist’s family records tracing Benjamin Bolling to Pocahontas herself. I was, needless to say, excited by the prospect of being descended from a mythical figure such as Pocahontas. However, upon further research, I discovered that Benjamin Bolling is one of the infamous “blue Bollings,” so called because they appeared “out of the blue” in a family history by Zelma Wells Price in the 1960s. This erroneous information has been copied over many times by lazy genealogists. In fact, the dubious lineage was reproduced on his historical marker! DNA testing on descendants of Benjamin Bolling as compared with other Bollings descendants with a proven relation to Pocahontas have proven that he was not a descendant of Pocahontas. Take any information you find in secondary sources like other researchers’ files (including mine) as a lead for research and not conclusive proof. On the other hand, information reproduced in several secondary sources can be as reliable as (or even more reliable than) primary sources.

Nowadays, with the advent of sites like US GenWeb, whose aim is to provide free research help to genealogists, we can access more primary sources online. This is great news for those of us who can’t afford to break the bank on research trips and copies of vital records.

Update: Correspondence with Bowling cousins who have taken DNA tests has proven conclusively that Stella Ophelia Bowling does not descend from Benjamin Bolling, as other evidence previously led me to believe.  As I said in this article — be careful about sources!

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