Genealogy 101: Contacting relatives

When contacting your relatives, the more people you contact, the better the chances of learning something new

One of the best resources for adding information to your family tree are your relatives.  If you are lucky, you may know the addresses of at least some of your aunts, uncles and cousins, and if you are really lucky, your grandparents may still be living.  Start with them.

The best way, of course, is to visit them in person.  That way they can show you their photo albums, tell you stories, or possibly even show you letters from their aunts, uncles, and cousins.

If they live too far away, (almost all of mine live in Europe), then write to them.  Most European countries teach English to their youth, so don’t worry if you don’t speak their language, they probably speak at least a little of yours.  However, it is a good idea to make things as easy for them as possible, especially when English isn’t their first language.

Cover letters are important, especially if you haven’t written them before, or to remind them of who you are if it’s been a while since the last time you wrote.  When writing the cover letter, state who you are, how you are related to them, why you’re contacting them, and then a form or list of what you already know.   I like the ‘fill in the blank’ type of form.

For the form or list, start with your parents, listing their full name, birthday, and birth place; then list their children – yourself and your siblings and any spouses and children each of them may have.  Then on a new page, list whichever grandparent is the direct relation of the person to whom you are writing, and their children (your aunts and uncles).

For instance, if you are writing to your dad’s sister, you would list your dad’s parents, and what you know of their children.  If your dad was the black sheep and didn’t keep in contact with his siblings, he may not know that some of them also got married and had kids and grandkids.

Do only one page per ‘family’, even if you only have a little bit of information, as that will leave them plenty of space to ‘fill in the blanks’.

If you have a genealogy program on your computer, it will likely have a form you can print for just this purpose that will automatically fill in the information you already know.  Some of the programs even have a sample cover letter that you can edit to suit yourself.

If you have an email address, be sure to include it, as well as any other social media contact information, such as ‘Facebook’.  Many of your relatives, especially if they are younger, will have computers, providing a great way to share old pictures, and is much cheaper than mailing stuff back and forth.

Also, choose a genealogy website that allows you to post your information and post it.  I’ve had several distant cousins contact me through such a posting, cousins I didn’t even know I had; and the sharing of information that resulted let me add literally thousands of names to my family tree.  Who knows, one of your relatives may already have done a large amount of research on your tree, and may be quite willing to share what they have learned.

When contacting your relatives, the more people you contact, the better the chances of learning something new.  If you have the addresses, write individually to each of your aunts, uncles and cousins.  After all, Uncle Joe might not be interested at all and won’t even bother to answer your letter, but cousin Pete’s wife may be really interested and will happily send you a five page letter with all sorts of information.  You never know where the ‘jackpot’ will be, so look everywhere.

Good Luck in your hunting… may you find all the closets your family skeletons are hiding in.

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