What about the Kids? Researching Your Family Tree’s Children

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena writes about the family history challenge of researching your ancestors’ lives when they were children.

My sons have had the opportunity to visit more cemeteries and hear more genealogy presentations than most family historians. They’ve been a captive audience as I give genealogy talks to conferences, societies, and libraries. They even have a few of my genealogy presentations memorized. Unimpressed by the family history topics I cover, my youngest always asks: “why don’t you ever talk about researching kids?”

old photo of children from Gena Philibert-Ortega's collection

Old photo of children, from the author’s collection

It’s a fair question considering that all of our ancestors started life as children. My guess is that most family historians would reply that children don’t leave a record trail, or that their lives aren’t as documented as adults—and that is why genealogists don’t spend much time researching their ancestors’ early years.

But there are instances where children do leave a paper trail. A visit to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois, reinforced this fact to our family when we viewed a photographic exhibit of Civil War soldiers. Boys as young as 9 years served in the Civil War, and some of them were photographed.

photo of an unidentified young Civil War soldier in Union uniform and forage cap, from the Library of Congress

Photo: Unidentified young Civil War soldier in Union uniform and forage cap. Credit: Library of Congress.

From: Library of Congress. Flickr, The Commons. Accessed 23 March 2013.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/library_of_congress/5229153190/

While children are too young to leave the type of documentation reserved for adults, they do leave behind records. A birth record or church christening announcement may start your search, depending on the time period. School records are another choice for researching kids. Don’t forget the variety of articles found in a local newspaper.

Obviously the era the child grew up in will determine what mentions could be found in the newspapers. But some ideas include:

Organizations

What organizations or clubs did the child belong to? By learning more about the history of the place your ancestor was from, you may identify groups that they may have taken part in, including organizations that were social, educational, ethnic or religious in nature.

The Boy Scouts of Black Wolf and B.P., Lexington Herald newspaper article 25 September 1910

Lexington Herald (Lexington, Kentucky), 25 September 1910, page 4

Although far from comprehensive, here is a list of some groups from the 20th century:

School

In a previous blog article, “Searching Family History: Old School Records in the Newspaper,” I explored the types of newspaper articles that listed teachers and students.

As explained in that blog article, there are numerous types of articles mentioning children. From their achievements and awards, to sporting events and even misdeeds, you can find mentions of school children in local newspapers. One of the pluses to digitized newspapers is that a search of just a name can assist you in finding these mentions. Consider limiting your search by date as you explore GenealogyBank, allowing you to focus on an ancestor’s early years.

Letters to Santa

Reading letters to Santa from the late 19th and early 20th centuries reminds one how much better off materially most people are now.

Letters to Santa from the Children, Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper article 16 December 1906

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan), 16 December 1906, page 9

These letters range from requests for toys or food to desperate pleas for almost anything their parents couldn’t afford. These letters often include the child’s name and, in some cases, an address. What a great find to see the requests of your family member to the jolly guy in the red suit!

Dear Old Santa Claus, Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper article 21 December 1899

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan), 21 December 1899, page 2

Social History

As with any genealogy research, consider social history when learning more about children from past generations. Use the newspapers as a local history source to get a sense of what organizations and activities your ancestors may have been involved in during their younger years. Read histories of the time to learn more about what childhood was like during their era. By learning more about the locality of your ancestor, you can learn more about what types of activities they may have enjoyed. Gaps in specific family records can be filled with broader social history information.

Keep your own children’s interests in mind! Including stories about their ancestors’ childhoods will stimulate present and future generations of children to take more interest in the family history you are documenting and preserving.

Searching Family History: Old School Records in the Newspaper

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post timed with kids going back to school, Gena shows how valuable school records—in archives and in newspaper articles—can be in tracing your family history.

Once again it’s that time of the year when children’s parents rejoice: the start of a new school year! The beginning of a school year is also a good time for family history researchers to consider how much old school records can help them document their ancestors. Compulsory education has long been a fact of life in America, starting with the first attendance law passed in Massachusetts in 1853. As long as kids have been going to school records have been kept chronicling their school days.

Looking to find information about your ancestors when they were children? Or perhaps you want to find out more about your ancestors who were in the education field, either as teachers or administrators. Consider seeking out local and school histories, school and federal censuses, yearbooks and alumni lists, just to name a few resources. As with any research project, begin by searching your home for sources like attendance records, report cards, rewards of merit, yearbooks, autograph books, and photos. Next, consult the Family History Library Catalog. Conduct a search on the place your ancestor lived and then look for the subject heading “Schools” for microfilmed records that can be viewed at your local FamilySearch Center.

Once you have searched the Family History Library for historical school records, look for collections at a state archive, library or historical society. These school records most likely can be found in a manuscript collection. A look at the Colorado State Archives showed school records that document students as well as teachers. A search using the keyword “School” on the website Online Archive of California, a union catalog of California repositories, found over 6,000 hits including photos, dance cards, report cards, student publications, school district records, and parent association records, just to name a few.

Don’t limit your ancestral school research to just documents. School life is an important part of every community, and local newspapers print many different types of articles about schools, students, teachers and administrators. Searching an online archive of historical newspapers using school-themed keywords can turn up a surprising amount of information on your ancestors. The following examples of school-related news articles are all from GenealogyBank’s online collection.

This listing of Chicago-area schools provides a glimpse at all the students who graduated in 1895. Notice that the list is broken down by school and includes names of students who won awards. These school graduation lists continue even today, especially in small town newspapers.

End of School Year, Daily Inter Ocean newspaper article 29 June 1895

Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, Illinois), 29 June 1895, page 6

School statistics can give you an idea of the school population for where your ancestor lived. Though they will not provide the names of students, these statistics give you some information about what the area was like in your ancestor’s time.

School Statistics, Jackson Citizen newspaper article 1 January 1889

Jackson Citizen (Jackson, Michigan), 1 January 1889, page 8

Individual students may have been mentioned or even photographed for a newspaper. Such newspaper clippings can provide valuable family keepsakes. Activities such as sports and student clubs are often documented in newspaper articles.

County School Boys Compete in Meet Today, Sun newspaper article 14 June 1913

Sun (Baltimore, Maryland), 14 June 1913, page 7

Did your ancestor work at a school as a teacher or administrator? Don’t forget that they too could be mentioned in an old newspaper article. The following news article provides a list of school personnel and what schools they were assigned to in Dallas.

Assignments Announced for Dallas Public Schools, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 5 August 1962

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 5 August 1962, page 6

Was your ancestor a brainiac? One way kids made it into the paper was for their outstanding academic achievements.

School News and Honor Rolls from the Cobb County Schools, Marietta Journal newspaper article, 25 February 1921

Marietta Journal (Marietta, Georgia), 25 February 1921, page 7

Today we are used to hearing about school violence but it’s a mistake to believe that this is a new phenomenon. Consider this story of a 12-year-old boy who died from a school hazing incident back in 1900. While the successes of students are celebrated in the newspaper, there are also reports documenting tragedies.

Hazing Kills Young Student, Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper article 7 November 1900

Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 7 November 1900, page 3

Remember to include school records of all kinds when filling in details on your family tree, including articles from local newspapers. You’re likely to find information and stories about your ancestors you can’t find anywhere else, especially from their younger days.