How to Write a Family History

Writing a family history is an enlightening process that will help you form an appreciation of your heritage and the characters who helped forge it. On one hand, you’re playing detective: immersing yourself in research and stumbling upon discoveries. On the other, you’re a storyteller: gold mining for the ingredients of a rich narrative through the lives of your ancestors.

Illustration: a man writing

It is a highly rewarding exercise both for you and for your next of kin, who will benefit from your findings. That said, the act of writing your family history isn’t all glamor. Not all genealogists have a natural knack for storytelling. In unpacking how to write a family history, we wish to present a simple structure to serve as a guideline for what we promise will be a worthwhile process.

Do Your Research

Before you can start the process of writing your family history, you must immerse yourself in family research. Depending on the amount of ancestral data that you have access to, you may want to grab from a number of sources and throw yourself into a variety of records, archives, and articles in order to piece together the puzzle of your heritage. Genealogy records that you might want to search when tracing your family history include:

  • U.S. Census records
  • Newspaper archives
  • Family stories and diaries
  • Court records
  • Congressional records for private claims
  • Military records
  • Passport applications

Newspaper archives are an invaluable resource for finding facts and stories about your ancestors that have been lost over time. From marriage and birth announcements to long-lost family photos to articles about local events, you’ll learn more from old newspapers than just names and dates. In newspaper archives you can also find obituaries to learn more details about your ancestors’ lives, and many obituaries include photos and mentions of related family members.

Another powerful genealogy resource for compiling data for your family story are U.S. Census Records. The Federal Census can help track down valuable information and serve as a direct tool connecting you to deceased relatives.

Additional Records for Writing a Family History

Government records are another centerpiece to tracing your family history. Understanding your family timeline through clues deducted from land deeds or cemetery maps is a key research tool. Also, finding widows’ claims or war pension records can help to decipher accurate dates and length of life.

Choose a Writing Style

When documenting family histories, writers tend to adopt one of two major writing styles: descendancy or ahnentafel. Descendancy (otherwise known as register style) is the most common. This is a linear chronological story starting at the point of immigration to the United States, documenting through generations until reaching your contemporaries.

Alternatively, some family historians prefer ahnentafel style as their methodology: a reverse documentation starting with the most recent generation and tracing the lineage of couples back in time. This follows a numeric system that increases per generation. For example, where you might be “1,” your parents would be “2,” grandparents “3,” and so forth.

Consistent Use of Abbreviations

Ease tedious repetition by adopting commonplace genealogy abbreviations. This will greatly increase the flow of your writing and allow you to quickly work through laborious details and organize your thoughts. Use our guide explaining family tree relationships to help make sense of who is related to whom.

  • Div. – Divorced
  • Bap. – Baptized
  • D.Y. – Died Young
  • unm – Unmarried

Write Your Family Story

When writing your family history, be sure to document the facts, details, and stories that captured your attention. Chances are, they will interest your wider family too. Quirky details or anecdotes of relatives are always a pleasure to discover. Stories breathe life into the endless cycle of dates and statistics; the great responsibility of genealogy enthusiasts is to be accurate, and to make sure we treasure and value these stories for generations to come.


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