Making the Most of Family Associations

by Bob Brooke

One of the most useful tools for amateur genealogists is the family association, an organization formed by people who share a common ancestor or surname. While these organizations vary widely in sophistication, all usually join together to collect as much genealogical information as possible about their surname from all over the world. In addition, they also help organize family reunions and share current news about family members.

But the primary purpose of a family association is to promote communication among family members. Many promote the exchange of information between members, as well as gathering genealogical information. They distribute their information by publishing a newsletter, either printed, sent via E-mail, or online, or all three. These newsletters vary in both quality and quantity of content materials, depending on how large and organized the association.

Some newsletters contain articles and family recipes published by family members. Others may publish pedigree charts and family group sheets. Some offer interesting tidbits about a family's history. Some publish calendars of family reunions and other events related to their surname. And some associations allow members to notices by members seeking persons or information.

Above all, the most important use of a family association is its information. Many maintain collections of their members' family trees, so there's a good chance that the amateur genealogist will be able to find good information about the family's name.

Family associations can also offer genealogical research advice. When a genealogist stalls on a particular research problem, perhaps unique to a family's ethnicity, chances are that members of family association will have already been through it and may be able to offer advice.

There are a lot of other uses for a family association, such as kin and heir searching, for example. Family genealogists seem to be constantly searching for dead as well as living relatives. With people as mobile as much as they are today, it's often hard to find some family members. And associations, through vast research by members, can even help determine family migration patterns, determining where members of a family and their descendants moved and where they settled. Family associations can also help locate heirs for a family estate, thus alleviating long and costly legal searches.

The popularity of family reunions is once again on the rise-mostly due to the increased interest in family genealogy. Reunions aren't just a time for family members to socialize. They're also a time for serious genealogical work to be done in meetings and presentations. Some reunions feature displays of family memorabilia-birth and marriage certificates, albums of family photographs, diaries of family members, etc.

Just how does an amateur genealogist locate family associations? Some advertise in national publications such as Everton's Helper. Others advertise in smaller, regional publications in the area where a family ancestors lived.

Local libraries usually have directories of family association, such as Elizabeth Petty Bentley's Directory of Family Associations, containing contact information for over 5,250 different family associations, in their reference department.

The Internet now offers many Web sites of family associations, from the elaborate sites of larger groups to small, mostly reunion oriented sites of smaller families. A search through Google for a family surname will result in a list of sites targeted to that name.

Family associations often exhibit at county fairs and heritage gatherings. One of the largest collections of family associations occurs at the annual Les Fêtes de la Nouvelle France, a four-day festival celebrating the heritage of the French in North America. Held the first weekend in August in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada, the festival features over 50 Quebec family associations, who set up their displays in small booths that line the narrow streets of the Lower Town in Old Quebec.

Quebec family associations display their newsletters, many of which are in English and French, as well as photographs and genealogical records. While some are more elaborate than others in their allotted space, all come to the event willing to talk to anyone about their family. Having a booth also allows them to gather more farflung family members from New England since many Quebecois migrated there to work in the woolen mills in the 19th Century. Association representatives all dress in 17th or 18th-century costumes, as do all Festival staff and many visitors. Visiting the booths is a free public service provided by the Festival. In addition, umbrella organizations, such as La Fédération des Familles-Souches Quebecoises, Inc. (www.ffsq.qc.ca), representing 160 additional family organizatiions, also participate. For more information, visit the festival Web sit e (www.nouvellefrance.qc.ca).

Wherever they're located, family associations are a great way to find out important, and often hard-to-find, information about members of a particular family.

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