At Living History Farms, we are constantly researching. Many different sources are used to provide the facts that ultimately help interpreters tell the stories our guests experience every time they come to the museum. In fact, we frequently joke that you can tell if an interpreter has just stumbled upon some good information because that’s all he or she wants to talk about! Constant research is necessary because new sources are being digitized or made available every day, and new information can help us to be more accurate and complete in our storytelling.
At the Flynn Mansion, interpreters and volunteers tell the story of Martin and Ellen Flynn, and the Flynn children. This family history research is now easier than ever. Websites and services, as well as efforts by libraries and the United States government to digitize historic materials, have allowed us to learn more of the story with nothing more than the click of a mouse. If you are curious about your own family, or would like a few ideas about additional resources to check into, here is a look into how Living History Farms is researching the Flynn story.
Des Moines’ newspapers covered not only news, but also society. Period newspapers such as the Des Moines Leader, the Iowa State Register and the Des Moines Tribune offer a look into the Flynn’s world by reporting on topics from the construction of the Flynn Mansion from 1870-1871, to accounts of parties the Flynns attended or threw for their friends. We have also found advertisements for cattle auctions and other business matters. Obituaries can also provide information about an ancestor’s parents, children, occupation, and more.
Census records can be a mixed blessing in that they are not always 100% reliable; spelling and age are sometimes incorrect. That caveat aside, they are always a fantastic starting place. The United States government has done a census every ten years since 1790, though individual listing of household members did not begin until the 1840 census. Individual states did their own censes as well. The census will include information such as name and age, as well as marital status, education level and occupation (amongst other things). The census records helped establish the birth years of the Flynn family members, and also sometimes provided insight into how long they attended school. Searching census databases can provide where your ancestors lived, if you need a starting point or a clue.
Though sometimes more difficult to track down through internet database searches, some counties have digitized these records. Once you determine the county of your ancestors’ birth, marriage or death, you can often contact the courthouse for copies of these records. There are also databases online where you can locate an ancestor’s gravesite which can provide birth and death information.
The Flynns were members of St. Ambrose Catholic Church in Des Moines; parish records provided dates of the children’s baptisms.
Once you know the city in which your ancestor(s) resided, these directories can provide street addresses (as well as interesting advertisements of the time).
Like the census, family stories are a great starting point; however, we do call them stories for a reason. Backing up family stories with facts from newspapers and census records can provide depth to your family’s existing knowledge. Even if the facts turn out to be inaccurate, hearing stories from your relatives is a fantastic way to learn about your family.
This list is not exhaustive, but it does cover our most commonly used research methods. The best advice we can offer for your own family history research is to visit libraries and internet databases, and also talk to your living relatives, particularly great-grandparents and grandparents, as well as others in their generations. Ask them as many questions as you can, and if possible, record the interviews. Look through photographs and label them so your descendants can see their ancestors’ faces and know to whom they belong. Though you may find stories and ancestors you never knew existed, you will certainly discover that your family has a fascinating story to tell.