Internet Genealogy: Finding Family Tree Clues in a House Clearing

It can be sad and stressful clearing out an elderly relative’s belongings.  It can even be double the work when that relative found it too overwhelming to dispose of their elder relatives possessions. You may find that you’re cleaning out not one person’s decades of memories, but the paperwork and nick-knacks of several people!  

Too often in a cloud of grief or in a rush to empty a house or a rented space, well-intentioned  family members or nursing home staff dispose of family history information, erasing valuable family tree clues. Even when someone has no children, there are cousins and their children who would love to see old photos and find data in old documents that would complete empty lines of their family tree. What may have been embarrassing during life and not discussed even with close family members, like divorces and adoptions, can surface in a house clearing.  

Follow these 3 steps to preserve family history when facing a house clearing.

Spotting the Family Tree Clues. When one of my relatives passed away, I was confronted with a house and garage brimming with a lifetime of accumulation. A big task was made easier by having a plan in place not only for disposal, but for when to slow down and take a second look at items.  The things that deserve closer scrutiny are jewelry inscriptions, family Bibles and book inscriptions, old bills and receipts, letters, and copies of public records. Family tree researchers are interested in locations where people lived and the dates they lived there, family names, birth dates, death dates. Have a small box on hand to separate papers with important dates and family information from what will be shredded or recycled.

Preserving the Information.  Whether you’re clearing out property in your hometown or in a distant city, there are often scanning services available; check with companies like FedEx Office and Staples.  A digital camera or smart phone is also handy for photographing jewelry and book inscriptions. Scanned documents and digital photos can be saved to a disc or emailed to interested family historians.

Sharing the What You Find. Once documents and photos are stored as digital files they can be passed on to interested family members. If you, or someone you know, are members at you can upload the documents to that site. If you don’t know any interested family members, it’s easy to locate groups of people tracing a last name or interested in the history of specific location. It doesn’t cost anything to post a query on a message board, like A simple online search, like on Google, may turn up a website dedicated to a surname and location. If you email the webmaster of any surname site you are on your way to connecting with someone who would be grateful to have photos and other documents.

It doesn’t take a lot of work and the goal of cleaning out a space will be accomplished, however by preserving family documents you are preserving history.

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