Genealogists Share Heirlooms and Tell Stories from Their Family Tree

August 7, 2015  - by 

All families have heirlooms they hold dear. We cherish these physical objects because they represent a link to our past, a way to understand more about the people responsible for us being here today.

To explore the power of these objects, we asked family historians to share a favorite family heirloom. From a cake plate passed down generations to weathered family photos to a long-cherished doll, heirlooms and the stories behind them can add life to any family tree.

Incorporating heirlooms into family gatherings can be a powerful way to get loved ones to open up and share stories about relatives, past and present.

Let the following genealogist stories inspire you to share stories of family heirlooms at gatherings to illuminate the lives of ancestors. Then download the FamilySearch Memories app to record these stories from your family tree to preserve them forever!

Favorite Family Heirlooms of Genealogists

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Our first story of a family heirloom comes from Rhonna Farrer, founder of Rhonna Designs.

My Granny was famous for her sweets. She made the best fudge, ice cream, cookies, pies, and cakes. Even after she’s gone, our whole family shares her sweet tooth and recipes to keep her legacy going. We even created a cookbook filled with her favorite recipes and, after we printed it, we realized that the desserts section was the largest. As it should be.

Granny was way ahead of her time. She not only had the sweet talent to whip up a batch of fudge in no time flat, she brought in her creativity. My mom remembers how she used a doll inside a round cake to look like a princess, using the metal frosting tip to put on top of the princess’ head and frosted it to be the cutest little party hat.

My mom tells us that Granny made any cake you could possibly imagine. And she always put the cake in her Fostoria crystal cake plate. This cake plate soon represented this legacy of creative sweets and we all loved this cake plate.

I grew up with my mom continuing the sweets legacy and creating castle cakes, car cakes, and anything we could dream up. After my Granny was gone, my mom served on Granny’s crystal cake plate. One day it broke and we all mourned the loss of this beloved cake plate. We missed the memories this cake plate evoked in us.

Several years later, my youngest sister was at an antique mall and found a Fostoria Crystal cake plate. She was so excited she took a picture of it and sent it to us all to see if it was THE one. We all agreed! It was one exactly like Granny’s cake plate!

My sister bought the cake plate and we surprised my mom on Mother’s Day – best Mother’s Day present ever! This cake plate may not be the exact one my Granny used, but this is an heirloom we all love and it brings such happy, sweet memories we can pass into our own children!

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Our next story comes from Randy Seaver, founder of Genea-Musings.

My favorite family heirloom is the Union Case with two photographs of a man and a woman, who I believe are my second great-grandparents, Isaac Seaver (1823-1901) and Lucretia (Smith) Seaver (1828-1884), who married in 1851 in Massachusetts.

Isaac is my only Civil War soldier ancestor. Maureen Taylor, a photo dating expert, indicated that the clothing was typical of the 1850s. The photos are ambrotypes encased in a gutta percha hard plastic case. I am told these were typical photographs taken before a man left for Civil War service so it may be dated about 1863.

I received this Union Case from the estate of my father’s youngest sister, Geraldine (Seaver) Remley in 2007. She likely obtained it when her mother died in 1962. It had, apparently, been handed down through four generations of my Seaver ancestors.


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This family heirloom story comes from Carol Rice, founder of Family Storytelling.

I was 18 and had moved away from home for the very first time. All the way from Utah to Idaho – a whole state away. I wasn’t worried though, I was brave. Or so I thought. After the excitement of the first few nights wore off I was ready to go home and sleep in my own bed. I was ready to have Mom make me some dinner – all I’d done is kind of snack on stuff in my kitchen. I was ready to get a big, warm hug and have someone ask about my day.

I worked up the nerve and swallowed enough pride to let my mom know how I was feeling. It wasn’t long after that that she and a friend of hers decided they wanted to make a road trip – to Idaho. My mom arrived with a big, warm hug, made me dinner and asked me how everything was going. Then, as we sat there on my dorm room “cot,” she told me a story.

I’d heard the story before but it had never meant so much. She told me about a young girl who lived in Ireland and lost her mom when she was about 12 years old. She was a good girl and took care of her little brothers so her dad could still provide for them. She kept house, she made meals, knew her place in her home and was happy with it.

But a few years later when her dad remarried she didn’t know her place as well anymore. She missed her mom more than ever and was invited by an aunt to go to America. So at the young age of 16, she packed up her courage, and utterly alone, got on a boat. As she waved goodbye to her home in Ireland – she knew she would never return to the land and family she loved.

I hugged my mom and thanked her. All of a sudden things didn’t seem so bad compared to what my great-grandmother had done. Her blood ran through me and her story reached out to me like a lifeline – if she could move a world away, I could handle one state. After that Mom pulled out a little package. Inside was a doll dressed in a little red, wool tartan and carrying a bag with a luggage tag that said, “To America, From Ireland.” I love that doll – to this day it is still a reminder that I can do hard things.

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Our next story comes from Sharon Leslie Morgan, founder of Our Black Ancestry.

This is a photo of my paternal great grandparents – Tom and Rhody Leslie.

Rhody is a six foot tall Redbone, conspicuously devoid of a smile. Tom looks like a little emperor, his face resolute. What a couple!

My father said they (his grandparents) left slavery from Lowndes County, Alabama. I have spent decades trying to uncover (and make sense of) their origins. They are the inspiration for why I am a genealogist. When first I saw this photo, it demanded that I honor the people who experienced the disgrace of slavery . . . mitigated by the glory of Emancipation.

Surely they had dreams. I am proud to be one of them.

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Our last story of a family heirloom comes from Allison Kimball, founder of simple inspiration.

What treasures do I have? What part of history and heirlooms can I share with my children, I wonder, as I make their favorite breakfast, chorizo with fresh homemade tortillas? I suddenly stopped and looked at that simple tortilla and realized that without even knowing it I was already sharing an heirloom each time I mixed the masa for a new batch of tortillas.

I learned to make tortillas from my mother. She learned from her mother, who learned from her mother, and so on. In my life I have rolled tortillas not only with my mother and grandmother, but as a child with my great grandmother in her kitchen in Mexico. Laughter and wisdom have been imparted with the push of a rolling pin and the smell of heaven cooking on the griddle. Personal stories of faith, like the widow’s mite, are intricately tied to a single food that can be eaten with everything.

I do not have my great grandmother’s rolling pin, I don’t know if anyone does. Even if it were still around only one person in her vast number of descendants could actually treasure it. But I smile because I don’t need that actual rolling pin to remember the stories of sorrow or the triumphs over difficulty to have an heirloom in my life. Treasures can vanish as I remember my grandmother telling me about the great flood that destroyed her small town. Records, photographs, homes washed away as the river rose, but resilience and faith through even greater trials are now interwoven into my life through her experiences.

The sound of laughter brings my thoughts back to the present. I look over at my girls now and focus on their conversation as they are rolling out the tortillas for breakfast. A new generation of strong women is learning and growing with a little flour dust sprinkled on their cheeks and the light sound of rolling pins on the counter. My stories are now intermixed with the generations before me and they are shaping the lives of my children all with a simple tortilla that I can share with everyone.

Collect Stories About Heirlooms from Your Family Tree!

Whatever heirlooms you and your relatives hold dear, make sure to document the stories behind them. To get started, encourage family members to show and talk about heirlooms during family gatherings. As you explore the significance of these objects from your family tree, record the tales they inspire with the FamilySearch Memories app. You’ll be preserving stories of heirlooms for future generations to come!


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  1. When I left South Africa in 1971, my father handed me a large amount of photos, newspaper cuttings, watch and silver albums. I had to pack it up, knew nothing about who was who, had no idea what it was all about. I carried these items, eventually looking at what it was all about, the newspaper cutting were babies born to my grandfather (he died when I was 1 year old, so did not know him). Eventually I got started on family history, now the photos can be added electronically, had no idea that these photos, etc would one day would an absolute treasure to myself. Had no interest in family history before, had no idea why my father passed this on to me, have 1 brother and 5 sisters, I was leaving the country. what was I going to do this these “Papers” but my most treasured item today – family history.

  2. My great-grandfather was born in Australia, son of an English transportee. When he was 16 in 1886, the family returned to England. Great-granddad kept a journal of the six-week steamer trip, recording all the sights he saw every day: camels, dolphins, whales, the Suez Canal… On the last few pages he has jotted down some recipes for bread and buns. Later in life this 16 year old became a master baker and confectioner! This little book has been preserved and handed down to me. It is a very precious heirloom which I will pass down to one of my children some day.

  3. I have many family heirlooms that are precious to me, but not one of my children or grandchildren want any of them. I am now 84 and don’t know what to do with them. They are going to be tossed out when I’m gone. Any ideas?

    1. I suspect that many of us are worried about what will happen to treasured family items when we are gone. Take photos of them and put them with your family history. Encourage your family to read the stories, which might include tales about objects, and hope that someone might decide they want to keep something. Even if they don’t, your stories about these objects and an image of them will be preserved for future generations.

    2. I am in the same situation. I am taking pictures and telling the stories that go with them and then posting them on family search.
      I am donating one to a museum that has other items connected with it.

    3. If your children or grandchildren aren’t interested in your family heirlooms, perhaps you have (grand) nieces/nephews who would treasure them?

    4. I love the idea to take a Photo of the item, write a story about it for your family history and maybe you could have a grand child or someone in your family add the photo and story to Family Search site under the persons name. That way ALL your relatives and cousins can enjoy what you shared. You may want to pray for direction of which person you should have help you. Though they might not want the heirloom, they will remember the story.

    5. Do you have a neighbor or a friend that would be willing to hold on to them for you for awhile? How old are your grandchildren? I personally, didn’t care much about family photos or heirlooms until I was in my late 20’s and had my first child. It could be that although your grandchildren aren’t interested right now, they might later in life. Do any of your items have historical value to the township you are in? Maybe a local historical society might be interested. It never hurts to ask.

    6. Jane, I would donate all items to local or county historical society to be kept in your family history file. Someday all of this will be the information that opens doors to your entire family. Include pictures, notes, documents, and thing that has family name on it. Believe me family will be so glad you did this.

    7. A genealogical library or society in the area might be a place to give these items to. Also give them your family tree history and papers.

    8. I am not sure what your family history is. However have you done genealogy or written a family story explaining your history and what makes your items so valuable to you. If that does not does not do the trick. Hopefully you can find someone to sell them to who will love and cherish them plus add to your funds, My Mom is from London and was evacuated during the bombing . my Grandmother has past but she was very poor until we got older and could send her money for living and things for little extras she never had. I have some of her trinkets which make me think of her so foundly.. I hope some one can learn to love them as you do. I miss my Grandmother, Best Wishes. Leslie Hall

    9. Hello Jane, I am also questioning myself for the same reasons. I am thinking that the local genealogy department of the earliest in your tree would be a good place, or at least our local genealogy or historical museum, to start asking.
      But, I am wondering–I have found some of my ancestors were Wilsons from Kentucky. Could any of your information be my possible connection–I had a hard time finding what I believe are the correct ones.

    10. Donate them to the historical society or museum if there is one in the town/s where your relatives lived or were born. We find that local historians cherish those mementos as do prospective researchers who visit the local historical museums

  4. I remember as a child going to auctions with my Grandmother. She loved bidding on boxes and paying only a dollar or two. Then taking them home to discover what treasures she had purchased. Years later after she passed away, I inherited all of our family diaries and photos, along with an account given by my Great Grandmother of our Family History. In this collection of things, I found a stack of very old pictures, many have names written on the back. They are very, very old and not of my family. I am positive these things would be priceless, if I could find the family they belong to. I am trying to figure out the best way to locate these family members. My Grandmother would have gone to these auctions in Barry County, Michigan. I think the chances of these ancestors living in Michigan are great. I appreciated any help give me in locating the rightful owners of these pictures.

    Charmae Wiest

    1. I’m sure there are many ways to figure this out. If it was me, i would be searching on the photo to see if the name of the photography co could be on it. Zoom in and see it their are any clues for the time frame this photo was taken or where the photo company resided. What is the photo made out of, etc. Then I would find on face-book the town or county or area that it might be from and then type in a name like the county or town and type historical society. each town or county seems to have one. Then i’d just post and ask someone in the society what they might do to get the photos out there. I hope this makes sense and good luck!

    2. Charmae –
      I would go to the Barry County historial website to search for photos or images section to upload those ‘treasures’. Post any info you can on each, but even without info they miraculously survived the decades & searching family members may recognize them! Good luck!

    3. Charmae, Have you checked Ancestry?
      The have message boards for just about every state, county, city, town or if you can’t fine one you can start your own. You can add a message on all boards that may be the location of the pictures. I have found answers this way and also met cousins I didn’t know I had.

  5. I am so sorry to say this but I am so disappointed in this site, mainly because it has allowed others to muck up my tree that I have lovingly spent 40 year building up. There are photos put there by another person that are my living brother . It is so convoluted to try and unstitch bad genealogical input from others . I have reported it , I have emailed her all to no avail. I can barely recognise this as my tree anymore and am upset this is or should be a problem. I have personally done temple work for many only to discover that through this constant muck ups ordinances are showing not to have been done. This is so unfair , just look at my website see how easy it is to get around and no interference with incorrect data being added.

    1. I am also against this site. Not moly is it hard I can’t find things that I know to be correct! This app and tree are awful and I really want to delete it all!