Left Behind Family History

Hope Cemetery. Waterbury, Vermont. Thorndike Family Grave Markers.

Hope Cemetery. Waterbury, Vermont. Thorndike Family Grave Markers.

My wife Sandy, and I like to go to estate sales. We have found many good buys for ourselves by doing this. I am an avid reader and have found many books and old magazines to read that I never would have obtained otherwise. Sandy, collects old kitchen gadgets and tools that she displays on a shelf in our kitchen. Night stands, desk, chests, dishes, jewelry, art, and much more have found a place in our home or our children’s from these estate sales. We have a pleasant time and it can be very entertaining watching people haggle over a price. Yes I also like to haggle a little myself.

As much fun as an estate sale can be there is one thing that disturbs me.It seems at every sale I find family pictures, (at times boxes full) letters, scrapbooks of family memories, yearbooks, family bibles, military records, and the list goes on and on. These items are left behind by the children and other relatives that are over seeing the estate. I remember once I bought a large box full of different size picture frames for which I paid a dollar. I noticed that many of the frames had family pictures in them. I offered to take them out but was told they go with the frames. The relatives did not want them. I have seen oil paintings of the family being sold for a few dollars. Last week I was in the basement at an estate sale and someone had spilled a large box of family papers all over the floor. As I picked them up I saw several picture books and many loose photographs. Also many letters. When I went back up stairs I gave them to the people who were running the sale. They told me I could keep them as the children of this estate did not want them. I took them home and took a closer look. In the box were 158 family letters. The earliest date that I saw was 1948 and ran to 1962. What family historian wouldn’t like to get their hands on those letters? But I have more. Also in this box I found over 50 news clippings of all types about the family. Lets not forget the pictures, and about 15 years worth of school report cards including college. As I was leaving the sale the lady who was in charge called me over. She took out a stack of about 25 pictures that were professionally done in a studio. The dates ranged from the 1880s up to the 1920s. Some were group pictures some were of a single person. They were all named. She had tried to give it to the three children of the estate, but along with the other items I listed above they did not want them. She was keeping these for herself.

As the self-appointed family historian I at times wonder what will happen to all my work. I have filled bookshelves of binders with family history, photo albums, books that talk about my family and many other related items. I am sure that if you have been working on your family history for any amount of time you have a good size collection yourself. We should start at once to take steps to safeguard our family history. Find someone in the family that will look after our collection. Find a local genealogy society, or a library that would add it to their collection. We should clearly mark our files so that anyone can tell what it is at a glance. In future blogs I hope to address this issue as I myself take action. Would like to hear your thoughts.

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42 Responses to Left Behind Family History

  1. Betsy Dakin says:

    You make a great point about designating a place for all your family history after you are gone. What I have done is to put a note or label on items as to what they are, and then made a list as to what might be a good place for their next home. Of course what is done with them will some day be out of our control. So let’s pursue our genealogy hobby because we enjoy it, not for the next generations who may have other interests.

  2. chmjr2 says:

    I agree that some day all of our genealogy collection will be out of our control. That’s why I think it is better to get them in the hands of a library or genealogy or local history society. But in the end all we can do is hope for the best.

    Thanks for reading my blog and your thoughtful comment.

  3. Great questions and comments!

  4. chmjr2 says:

    Thanks for reading my post and your comments.

  5. That’s interesting that so many families do not want those personal items. Usually there is at least one member who is interested. And I also work on family history because I like it, and believe it is important to share stories, especially through albums. As said before, though, all we can do is our best, and I am definitely enjoying it! Thanks for posting.

  6. Kim Simpson says:

    Great idea letting us Dakin descendants know you started this blog! I’m hoping to get one up within the next month. Excellent post–but it got me upset reading it!!!! Unbelievable these items were not wanted–I’d kill for some of those records and photos! I have talked with my daughter and informed her that if she didn’t want my collections, they were to go to a specific library. However, as she gets older, she is becoming more and more interested, and the last time I talked with her she said she’d take over. True, future generations may not want this “stuff”–but it has taken a long time to accumulate, and I’ve worked hard and spent a lot of money just to document my ancestors, and I want to be sure SOMEONE or SOME PLACE has this stuff! Keep picking it up when you find it, and perhaps post them on line and perhaps someone, somewhere, will appreciate you rescuing a piece of their family history!

    • chmjr2 says:

      Kim thanks for reading and commenting on my post. It is good that you are getting your family history all in order to be past on. Let me know when you start your blog as I would like to read it.

  7. charts2012 says:

    I became interested in family history in 2006 but didn’t fully get into it until I retired in 2008 when I had more time on my hands.
    However, Dad died in 2002 and as I lived some distance away I hoped that my sister would sort through a fair bit of what was in the house before putting it up for sale. Trouble is… my sister’s notions of what was ‘valuable’ were not always in keeping with my own notions. The result is that a fair number of photos have ‘gone with the wind’. In addition, I’m sure that some documents have ended up in Australia because he lived there for many years and, I think, took things over but failed to bring them back again.

    So – yes – a great many things that I remember from the past are just no longer to be found.

    However, there are one or two good things that I’ve managed to keep or archive. Firstly, my dad’s WWII medals (plus the miniatures) are with me and will go to my son. He’ll be more than happy to ensure that they’re either given to an RAF Museum collection or similar.

    He wrote an (unfinished) autobiography on his laptop until he was too ill to continue any longer – from his birth to about the first 10 years or so of his career in the Manchester City Police. This was, to me, like manna from heaven!

    I decided that his war experience sections were too interesting to lie festering without readers and, together extrracts from his immediate pre-war section I wrote an introduction and had them published. The result was ‘Of Stirlings and Stalags: an air-gunner’s tale’ by WE ‘Bill’ Goodman.

    This also left the section on his police career without any ‘safety net’… so I contacted the Greater Manchester Police Museum and asked if they wanted to have that part of his ‘life’ for their archives. They were more than happy to take them – so at least his memories of the ups and downs of his early police career are safe. Ironic really… as the actual dates of his police service, promotions etc have been erased from the records! I was very disappointed at this discovery and felt even more strongly that I’d done the right thing with regards to his memoirs.

    So… I’ve learned that all my research should be in various places and in various formats: online, in hard copy, on hard drives etc – but the problem still lies with the objects and the original documents. I’m kidding myself if I think that my children are as interested in our ancestry as I am currently… but, there again, I was over 60 before I became addicted, so there’s hope yet.

    However, I read your post with mounting dismay… thinking about what has now been lost. I think that, in future years, those folk who left their family history behind in such gay abandon will regret their loss.

    However, it has to be said, if folk like you are keeping them and can keep them together with the details of where they were obtained it may happen that, one day, someone will come looking!

  8. Pingback: Left Behind Family History | chartsblog

  9. chmjr2 says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful reply. Your father sounds like he lived a full life. I would have liked to have met him just to hear the tales he could tell. I am trying to write my family history into a book. That way I know the information will be out there for someone to find. Best of luck to you.

  10. I’ve seen the same thing at an antique shop I like to visit — old photos and postcards. I bought a perfectly lovely cabinet card that’s identified as a wedding photo on the back — I think from around 1880-1890’s. Why let something like that go? I haven’t seen old letters or family Bibles for sale at this particular shop, but I’ve seen them on eBay before. I guess not everyone gives in to their sentimental streak as often as I do, but I love the mystery of such things.

  11. chmjr2 says:

    Thank you for your comments. I just came from an estate sale and I saw two different 8×10 framed wedding photos that I would guess to be 40 – 60 years old. I did not see any names for these four people but I would guess someone in that family knows. How I wish for the type of things for my own family that I see being left for junk.

  12. It is sad to think that so many are discarding things that we would consider priceless. I am about a year into my family history research, and would dearly love to have such precious items. What few things I do have, I’m preserving in whatever way I can. Thanks for your blog. I’ll be keeping up!

  13. chmjr2 says:

    Thanks for reading and your comments.

  14. The Queen says:

    Love this post! I have lots to say about this and have been planning to do a post on this subject for a long time. You’ve pushed the story ahead of others. Thanks! I have found unimaginable wonders in what others consider piles of trash…letters from uncles who wrote letters from the battlefields of WWII and….the Civil War! Can you believe it? I’ve found more…but will save that for later. So glad to have found your blog!!!

  15. chmjr2 says:

    Thanks for your kind words. I look forward to reading your blog on this subject. It seems you have much to say on this subject also.

  16. corinthrose says:

    I agree with The Queen’s comment when she said, “I have lots to say about this “subject.” From another self-appointed family historian who weeps at times about the lost stories, photos, and ancestral histories. Thanks for the like on my blog and thanks for this post!

  17. chmjr2 says:

    Corinthrose, thank you for reading my post and your comments.

  18. Rich says:

    It is interesting hoe this works out. My grandfather ended up with two family Bibles of cousins not in the direct line. I’d love to find somebody in that line to give them to but I think they may end up in county archives instead. This one reason I’ve started blogging my family history, I put it out there for any distant cousin that might care.

  19. chmjr2 says:


    Sometimes (most times) I think that I will give my little collection to some type of archive. However I want to get a book published, to get the word out. Thanks for reading and your comment.

  20. Su Leslie says:

    That’s incredibly sad. One of the biggest challenges I’m facing researching my family is a lack of photographs and personal papers. I know that my aunt threw out virtually everything in my grandfather’s house when he died (inlcuding some quite valuable antiques that she just didn’t like). She didn’t consult my parents and there was nothing they could do once everything had gone to the dump. I’m sure this happens a lot and it makes me want to cry. Your line about finding oil paintings was particularly poignant as I’ve just read my 2x great grandmother’s will which makes specific reference to three “portraits in oils” to be given to one of her sons. That son was childless, and I have no idea what happened to the paintings (it was back in 1912!), which could have been the only images of those people. Thanks for posting about this; you’ve made me even more determined to make sure the material legacy that does exist for my family is properly preserved.

  21. chmjr2 says:

    Thanks for taking time to comment and to share your story. I can recall several large pictures that my grandmother had, that I have no idea what happen to them.

  22. gaphodoc says:

    Have you considered donating the papers and photos unwanted by this family, to a local historical society? If the photos are generally taken in the same location (city, town) and identified, and especially if they have studio front and/or back marks, these would be welcome by a local or state repository “worth their salt!”
    Enjoyed your post and thoughts, keep up the good work.

  23. chmjr2 says:

    A very good suggestion. I will look into it.

  24. karinboutall says:

    Quite thought provoking suggestions. I am looking into them.

  25. I think about this quite a lot; one reason I started my blog was to get “out there” what I know of my family history in case someone in the future will find it helpful or of interest. A descendant of my grandfather’s brother, whom I only became acquainted with (online) a few years ago, was telling me once how they caught their granddad getting ready to burn a ton of old family photos (some 19th c.) saying nobody would want them. Thankfully they retrieved them from him before they were lost to the flames forever. I also know of some distant cousins who lost everything in a house fire–tons of photos and old correspondence. At least by getting it all in electronic format we are doing our best to keep our information “safe” from such accidents and natural disasters. Sadly we cannot do anything about those who lack an appreciation for the family tree. I agree with others, that it’s a good idea to find like-minded cousins — no matter how distant — or an appreciative historical society, just in case the upcoming generations of our immediate families either aren’t interested or don’t seem mature enough to handle the responsibility. I’m hoping someone will want to carry on the mantle some day~ But I do intend to have a back-up plan!

    • chmjr2 says:

      Getting a book done is the best way to save your family history. At least it will be out there for others to find. Thanks for your thoughtful comment and for reading my blog.

  26. jenorv says:

    These are snapshots into someone’s soul, if the family doesn’t preserve them, the person is gone forever.

    • chmjr2 says:

      Unless years from now someone doing genealogy work on this family can find a few of these snapshots. I find it very sad. Families should treasure their history and those that came before them.

  27. Very sad to hear that some families are just tossing away treasures like that. I’ve “rescued” a number of things in my own family. A painted portait of my grandfather in his WWII uniform was sitting in a moldy old basement of one of my relatives for years. I happened to see it and was told I could have it! I’ve gotten photographs that way too. It’s definitely important to find the next generation’s steward in each family.

  28. chmjr2 says:

    I could not agree more.

  29. mckaysl says:

    Thank you for doing what you do to preserve history! I think it’s amazing! Also thanks so much for visiting my blog. I will look forward to your new ones, as well!

  30. locksands says:

    I’m like you. I hate seeing family items being discarded as uninteresting. However, appropriate museums can benefit. I volunteer curate the one dedicated to my home parish in Wiltshire, UK. Many of the 8000 or so artefacts we have came from childless people with nobody to pass on to.. That’s sad as well, but through them we can show the more general history of our parish.

    Keep up your good work. Your blog is a good read…

  31. I’m concerned about the family records as well. My daughters and husband have instructions to send all info & images to the Tazewell County Virginia Historical Society. I have backups as well that family can always use. But yes, let’s just enjoy it now while we can.

  32. Great post with reminders to have a long-term plan in place. While it pains me to see valuable keepsakes and photos lost by some, it’s important to remember that not everyone has had a positive experience with their family members and there are those who want no tie to a lineage that has caused them pain. I am not one of them, but I can certainly understand that sometimes things happen that cause people to walk away. It’s a shame they don’t find someone to pass them onto though. Makes me all the more grateful for the family I have.

    • chmjr2 says:

      We all should have a long term plan for our family items. I also know people have grievances with family members. However I feel that is no reason to trash the family pictures, and other items. Genealogy societies, historical groups, libraries, and the list goes on that these items could be sent to. That allows other branches of the family a chance to discover them as well as future generations. Perhaps the children and the parents had a bad falling out but why should the records and photographs of the generations before be lost also.

      I have said it many times that each of us should do a book. A simple print on demand book would be possible for most of us. This is a great way to save the family history.

  33. lee says:

    I have awarded you the Liebster Award, for a great blog with less than 200 followers that I think people are missing out on. I particularly enjoy your genealogy tips, as well as reading about your estate sale and flea market finds. I hope you keep posting for years to come! See http://atypicalamateur.com/2014/01/19/liebster-award/ for more information about the award.

    • chmjr2 says:

      You have done me great honor. I write these posts for me and with the hope someone else will also enjoy them. If my tips and stories help someone along the way, the satisfaction that it gives me is all I need. I hope to be blogging for many years and people like you help me to keep going.

  34. Pierre Lagacé says:

    Old pictures, looking for ancestors, visiting cemeteries, using Find A Grave, using Facebook… Sharing what I find… Blogging about it… Great pastime, I mean addiction.

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