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Adding History to Our Family Heirlooms

April 16, 2019

This is part of our Midwestern Roots blog series, where we’ll be sharing exciting sneak peeks and information about the conference. Midwestern Roots Family History and Genealogy Conference will take place July 19 and 20 with preconference workshops on July 18. Find out more about Midwestern Roots and all the local and nationally-renowned speakers we have lined up for you as well as the a la carte preconference workshops in the Midwestern Roots Registration Guide. Follow us on Twitter and use #MRoots2019 to let us know how excited you are about this year’s conference.

Tediously researching census records, city and town directories, and military records to find out more about your family’s history is just one piece of the genealogy puzzle. Are you connecting it to your family heirlooms? Will the next generation know which pieces are heirlooms and which are not?

For example, I come from a long line of collectors of things and stories. I eased into genealogy and family history thanks to my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, who had been sharing stories and items long before I came around. We keep all types of things – old photos, silverware and dishes, sheet music, books, clothing, table linens, jewelry and art. I lovingly call my dad’s decorating style federal clutter. The antique items in his home that are not heirlooms are things he bought at estate and yard sales or on one of his adventures to Colonial Williamsburg. As the next generation family historian, I have started to realize that I want to bring these collections into our family tree.

Recently, I visited my childhood home, which is littered with precious family heirlooms – or is it? As I walked around the spaces I know so well, I realized that I was having a very hard time pinpointing which pieces were passed down and which were purchased recently. Was this kerosene lamp from my great-grandmother’s family, or did my dad buy it at an estate sale? Is this the rocking chair that came from the Furry family – or was it from the Roudabush family? After asking many questions, I realized I was mixing up stories – thinking of jewelry from my mom’s side of the family as from my dad’s or thinking the clothing chest was something my mom always had instead of something my great-uncle gave us.

It became apparent that even as a genealogist from a family of collectors that if I couldn’t remember the history of certain heirlooms, then maybe many others also struggle when they’re going through their ancestral home making decisions about what to keep and what to let go. Spending a little more time on the history of each item and the persons they connect to can not only add context and meaning to the items that hold pieces of our ancestors, but it can also make a world of a difference for future generations.

My parents and I are working on the genealogy of the family heirlooms in their house. Here are some steps to keep in mind when starting this process.

  • Write down everything that you know about each heirloom, including who gave the item to you, who had it before them, where the item has been over its history and any stories or memories associated with the item.
  • Research the history of the item, identifying when this type of piece was created or invented, for what purpose, the manufacturer or artist history and its cost or value.
  • Take the timeline of the item in your family and compare it to your genealogy research. Include any family photos that the item appears in.
  • Take pictures of each item and keep somewhere safe with your stories and research along with a copy of the family tree.

Check out the workshop Family Heirlooms and Family Narrative during the Midwestern Roots preconference on Thursday, July 18th to learn more about fitting your heirlooms into your genealogy research, tips to organizing your work, and how to safely identify and mark those items throughout your household.

Photo of Lauren Peightel

Lauren K. Peightel is the coordinator of genealogy and family history programs and co-chair of Midwestern Roots at the Indiana Historical Society. She believes that everyone has a story to tell and is passionate about connecting all people to their personal family history. If she's not in the office or traveling, you can find her reading, making miniatures or continuing her hunt for the perfect single malt scotch.

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