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Preserving Family Histories

When recording your own family history, it is important to preserve both the words of living individuals and objects from the past. Here are a few suggestions on how to do both:


  • Interview family members over the holidays when you come together to celebrate. The festive atmosphere might bring back memories.
  • Tape record all of your interviews and make sure you label the tape with the date, time, and place it was recorded.
  • Try to interview one person at a time. It is much easier and people may feel freer to share if it is a conversation with one other person.
  • Make sure you ask each family member who their parents and grandparents were. Try to find out the state and county where they were born.


  • Always store documents and photographs away from heat and sunlight.
  • Never use metal paper clips or staples to hold papers together. Plastic paper clips will not rust and ruin your documents.
  • Label all your photographs, keep them in acid-free sleeves and identify the people and places in each photograph.
  • Keep a list of the information you collect and store it in a separate place.


The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is one of the most valuable sources of information about the history of our country and its citizens. With locations in seventeen states as well as the District of Columbia, the National Archives is far more accessible than most people know. Anyone can visit a NARA facility, obtain a research identification card, and gain access to a broad array of useful documents. These include: US Census data, military records, US Federal Court records, passport applications, Homestead applications, immigration records, Post Office records, and many, many others. Of particular interest to researchers of African-American history is the recently completed project to preserve and microfilm the records of the Freedmen's Bureau.

The NARA web site also contains tips on where to begin or how to continue genealogical research projects. The NARA also offers periodic workshops on genealogical and other types of research at both its Washington, D.C., and regional facilities. Visit the NARA web site for more information on Archive materials and programs.


Do you want to know more about the enslaved community at Monticello?  TheMonticello Plantation Database, funded by the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies, provides answers to such questions as: How many people did Jefferson consider his property over his lifetime?  What were the ages of the boys who worked in the nailery?  Who were the Monticello weavers?

For more than a decade, summer interns from the University of Virginia’s Institute for Public History have entered data from written records into the database. The result—the Monticello Plantation Database—is packed with vital statistics, as well as details of slave occupations and the transactions of sale, purchase, gift, and hiring that were an inevitable part of the institution of slavery.

A visitor to the database website may learn about individuals or explore patterns of management and living conditions across time.  Searching by occupation can reveal that enslaved boys usually began working in the Mulberry Row nail factory at the age of ten or eleven. Searching for weavers will bring up the profile of Mary Hern, who wove cloth in the Monticello textile shop. 

The primary source for the data is Jefferson’s Farm Book, which was more a management tool than a compendium of farming activities.  From year to year, Jefferson listed his slaves, grouping them into families and noting their ages.  This was his way of determining the amount of corn, hogs, and cloth necessary to feed and clothe his enslaved laborers.  Thus the dry calculations of plantation management two hundred years ago produced a valuable human record for historians today, a collection of personal and family information that is matched at few southern historic sites. The Monticello Plantation Database may be accessed through the Monticello web site or directly from here.


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