Buried Treasure: Discovering hidden clues

Buried Treasure: Discovering hidden clues

As genealogists, both newcomers and experienced, we’re always searching for clues about our ancestors and for anything new that we can discover.

We search through census and index records. We check postcards and old letters for hints. We view old photographs, paying attention to details such as dress, style of posing, or design of the studio. We will do anything to find clues about the time period that our ancestors lived in.

Here are some new places to search for that next genealogical breakthrough:

  1. Church, synagogue, or other religious group membership lists.
  2. City directories for the places where ancestors lived.
  3. Old newspapers from neighboring cities, states or even countries where your ancestors lived. These are especially useful, if your ancestors lived in smaller towns located a short distance from a larger metropolitan area.
  4. Luggage tags or stamps from your ancestors’ suitcases can reveal where and when they traveled.
  5. Records such as coroners’ reports, police reports, funeral homes and cemeteries, and probate records.
  6. Bring jewelry heirlooms to a local jeweler who may have information about the piece, its age and place it was made.
  7. Check inside or the backs of framed paintings, mirrors or photos. Open them up and see if anything was placed or written on the inside.
  8. Search online for people selling old postcards or memorabilia from towns where your ancestors lived.
  9. Family bibles or religious books belonging to your ancestors may be goldmines of information. A century ago or more, it may have been the only book in the house, and important information, such as the births and deaths of relatives were recorded.
  10. Family recipe books. Search old family recipe books for clues about where your family came from. Look for names of ethnic dishes or unusual ingredients. The names of family members who contributed recipes might be listed.

We never know where our next clue will come from. Always keep your eyes open and never be afraid to look in unusual places.

Do you have any ideas to add to this list? Let us know in the comments below!


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  • Linda Schreiber

    January 9, 2014

    Look carefully at *every* piece of ‘family stuff’ you may have. I don’t have much, but two fruitful examples:
    1. A little thin gold cup that looked like the cap for the end of a pool cue, inscribed “Adams Hotel” and a year. No idea what it was, or from whom. Turned out that was where my mystery GGrandfather worked and boarded, and placed him in-city a year before the directories. Apparently he won some tournament.
    2. An envelope with little scrapbookish things from a different line. One was a small town cute ‘social’ clipping that mentioned no one I knew, but was clipped for a reason. Mentioned a Bob Johnston from a nearby town who attended. GGrandmother married a Johnston. Turns out it was this Bob’s brother, but I wouldn’t have been looking in that town. Bob may have introduced them.
    Look at everything with a detective’s eye.

    • E


      January 12, 2014

      What great advice, Linda!

  • Liora Livni Cohen

    January 10, 2014

    Old diaries! If you can find them 🙂 For me one little sentence meant a huge breakthrough.

  • Jan

    January 13, 2014

    Diaries! Found just excerpts from my grandfather’s diary and it helped me sort out a whole section of my family tree that would have gone uncorrected ~forever~! Also, old letters and old jewelry. Quite interesting that I found a picture of my great-grandmother wearing a pin … that is now in my possession! Old pictures – analyze them carefully! Last, but not least, do check BEHIND framed photos – found a wonderful picture of my grandfather behind a picture of my mother!!!

  • Brenda Benefield Abbott

    January 13, 2014

    Socials were a big thing which was advertised or written about in Newspapers. I found one which my Grandmother attended before her and my Grandfather married. Also reading just an article which was one or two sentences you can find what kind of livestock someone had raised in the past etc.

  • Brenda Benefield Abbott

    January 13, 2014

    Oh one connection of helping to see who is who in photos. Especially for women. Look for jewelry they wore. See if this Jewelry was in other photos it will help to identify people in those photos. Or for instance its wonderful to find photos of a Grandmother who had a pendent given to her by your grandfather and she is wearing that pendent in a photo, and you today own that pendent. These are not only fabulous memories, but really add to your life’s story.

  • Maureen Hurst

    June 17, 2015

    Google books, put the name you are interested in the search box and any book that is online with that name in will come up. It helps if the name is not usual but you never know what comes up. I found the father of an ancestors wife a minister in New York . It was in her obituary and it said wife of and daughter of .. in a religious yearbook.

  • Roisin Lafferty

    June 17, 2015

    ha ha,, was looking for the death date of my husbands grandmother Ellen Lynch, in Eskaheen parish in Donegal., ireland .. this is hard to believe but a local man who was clearing out an old disused henhouse found a box of funeral cards there, and among them was that of Ellen Lynch.. these were printed by the funeral undertaker showing date of death and time of funeral… they were handed out to the neighbours at the time of the death,,, we are more than grateful for this gem…..