Who should I talk to and what should I ask?

April 6, 2012

The two questions I hear most when talking to someone for the first time about gathering family information is “who should I talk to” and “what should I ask.”

Who should I talk to


Chances are there’s already a historian in your family. I became it in mine at the age of 14. I didn’t plan on it. I’m just the only one who was gathering information at the time.

I began my research back in 1974 by talking to both of my grandparents, who were already quite old at the time. It didn’t begin as research. More like the telling of old stories about who did what back in “the good old days.”

Keep your ears open when the elder members of your family start talking. Most elderly people can tell you more about what happened fifty years ago than what happened yesterday.

I began writing down some of the stories, which I plan to share some of in this series because they’re very interesting.

I discovered a 93-year-old distant cousin through the stories told to me by my grandmother. I had the pleasure of visiting her back when I was in college. She didn’t have any stories to tell me. She had something just as awesome-a box of hundred-year-old photographs. I now have pictures of my great great grandparent’s thanks to her.

I had my old Minolta SRTMCII camera with me at the time of my visit. I had purchased a set of macro filters and was able to copy all of the photos. It was an awesome visit.

Today, I would recommend having a laptop and a small scanner/printer should you visit relatives in your search.

Coax your elderly family members into telling you stories and the names of cousins, their aunts and uncles and any other favorite relatives they may have had. I learned my great grandmother’s baby sister was still alive at the time I started my search. I visited her on many occasions until her death in 1983. She was the favorite aunt of my maternal grandfather and if I hadn’t picked his brain, I’d never have known about her. Aunt Estee was elderly and never came to visit.

I shadowed my grandfather as a child and as I grew older. He finally opened up about distant cousins who lived in the area. I also took him to see Aunt Estee. Guess what I did when I learned distant elderly cousins lived in the area? I took him to visit them. There’s nothing more entertaining than an afternoon listening to two old people with hearing problems reminiscing about their youth. I was able to document a lot of stories and to question these forgotten relatives about their lines of the family.

It’s great if you can get names and dates out of those you visit. I can’t say this enough-DON’T DRILL THEM FOR INFORMATION! The fastest way to come away empty handed is to force information from a family member. Let the telling come naturally. When the person you’re “interviewing” mentions a favorite someone, ask where this person lived and if they were older or younger than the person giving the information. You can put it all together before your next visit.

You can use a laptop computer or a pen and paper while interviewing family members. Whichever you feel most comfortable with

It’s great to be lucky enough to find a family historian because they may have a lot of information written down. Near the beginning of my family research, I had the pleasure of meeting two spinster retired school teachers named Annie Lee and Ruth Boggs. I learned from visiting the library that they were local historians. Not only were they distant cousins, I was told they knew everyone who lived in the area. They were a treasure trove of data and we all enjoyed the few afternoon visits we had together.

I hadn’t planned the local library being able to point me in the direction of someone who might know about my family. I doubt you’d be that lucky today in the days of computers. A local historical society or special group such as Daughters of the American Revolution or Sons of the Confederacy may be able to point you to someone with information.

Most of the old stories of a century ago may be dead if no one bothered to record them. All of those I interviewed in my family are now gone. So are those the library helped me found. I’m left with loads of data and only the occasional story I find online.

Record any information you learn from your family interviews into your Family Tree Maker or other software on your computer. Even incomplete information may turn up a match when you get online and search.

Plan on returning for a follow-up visit with those you’ve gathered information from. You will likely have a lot of names to jog their memory with.

Some may disagree with me on what the primary goal is when interviewing a family member. Mine is to get names that would date back to 1930 at the latest. The reason for this is the 1930 U.S. Federal Census is available online at www.ancestry.com. It will list each name in the household. This can provide names of aunts and uncles, cousins, great-grandparents, etc. Anyone who was alive in 1930 will be on this census record.

Once you have these names it will be possible to move backward to each census (a census record is taken every ten years) and learn previous generations information. Census records also show information such as race and the ability to read or write as well as information on place of birth for the person as well as their parents.

I hope this article has given you a starting point on what to do to begin building your family tree. Make it fun. Visit your older and forgotten relatives. I never dreamed I would one day be the family historian of my family.


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