Using Home Sources to Build Your Family Tree

Sunny Morton

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Clues for building your family tree may be sitting around your house—or a relative’s home. These “home sources” can help you extend your tree and learn family stories. These tips will help you find them.

What are “home sources” for genealogy?

Some of the most valuable information you can discover about your family may be within easy reach. You don’t need genealogy website subscriptions or a trip to a distant library to find these. All you need to do is dig into your own family’s records.

“Home sources” is a catch-all term used by genealogists to describe the various family documents and artifacts your family may have held onto over the generations. Obituaries clipped from old newspapers. Photos from a long-ago reunion. Grandpa’s work ID card or insurance paperwork. The little name-and-birthdate tag that was clipped to your newborn mother’s bassinet in the hospital.

Items like these were likely kept by someone who had a strong emotional attachment to them. Over the years, other relatives recognized they shouldn’t be thrown away—or perhaps they just ignored them. Now they may be tucked in an album, a box or bin, or sitting on a shelf, gathering dust.

These are more than just sentimental keepsakes. Many times, they hold vital clues that can help you reconstruct your family tree and history. Any of those items might identify an unknown relative, or reveal a birth or death date. They might help you place your family in a certain place or unravel mysteries.

How to find home sources

Finding valuable home sources starts with your own personal stash. Even if you’re not someone who has kept a lot of keepsakes, it’s worth thinking about what you might have. Did anyone ever give you a box of odds and ends from grandma’s house, or a family album or diary? A packet of old letters, military memorabilia or family Bible? Might you have kept paperwork pertaining to a relative’s estate, insurance, or employment? Might you have tucked away a loved one’s obituary behind a framed photo?


Searching for documents and photos among your own keepsakes often reveals forgotten treasures. Spend some time looking through your own belongings for any of these.

Next, ask your relatives about old family papers or photographs they might have. Some relatives would love to show them to you. Others, not so much, if they’re not interested or they don’t want to have to look for things—or if they bring up painful memories. Depending on your relationship with a relative or the situation, you might consider:

  • offering to help look through old family memorabilia with them;
  • telling them why you’re so interested in your family history;
  • asking about something specific—a death certificate, obituary, or yearbook—and then promising to follow up in a week to see if they’ve found it;
  • scheduling a video conversation with a distant relative to virtually look through their keepsakes;
  • offering to reimburse them for their time if they would be willing to scan or photograph items and send them to you;
  • asking about a specific blank spot on your family tree to see what they know (even if they don’t have any old papers).

Watch for items that identify your relatives: their full names, including maiden names; identities of their relatives; and details about births, marriages, divorces and deaths in the family. Look for clues about where your family lived. All of these can help you reconstruct your family tree and recognize relatives in censuses or other documents you may later find online.

Adding them to your family tree

Previously, we’ve written about how to build your family tree. The building blocks of family trees are those names, dates, places and relatives’ names that may appear in your home sources. As you find any piece of information, add it to your family tree. These clues add up over time and may lead you to new discoveries later.

When you add each piece of information to your tree, be sure to attach a nice, clear image copy of your source and a note about where you found it. Even if you think you’ll always remember where it came from, it’s important to keep track of where you find each detail.

Read more in our Family Tree Basics series

You’ll have a much more effective DNA matching experience when you have an excellent family tree!


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