When I started researching my family history a number of years ago, I expected my research to involve mostly, well…dead people. I quickly discovered the value of oral history and interviewing my living relatives. Every time I talked with a cousin or aunt I heard new names of more distant relatives. Sometimes I would just hear references to so and so’s son/daughter who might know something about the family history.
This refrain kept running through my mind, ”I need to talk to the them, too.”
But how do I find them?
Will they think I am a nutcase if I contact them? Will they hang up on me?
Should I even try? YES!
How do you find “new cousins” to interview?
Interview the family members you do know. Rarely will you leave one oral history interview without the names of other relatives being suggested.
Contact other researchers who are researching the same or similar family lines. They often have suggestions.
Contact the local genealogy and/or historical society for the area you are researching. Many of these members are long time residents and have a vast knowledge of the people and area.
Once you have identified a distant relative you wish to interview:
How do you contact that person you do not know for an oral interview?
If possible, have a mutual acquaintance introduce you. This can be done in person or by phone. This is the easiest and quickest way. It’s just not always possible. If not……
Send a brief note by snail mail to introduce yourself. Reference where you fit in the family tree. For example, ”I am Winnie Haley Carr’s great-granddaughter.” If you have a genealogy business or interest card, include it. If you have a blog or website, include that as well. Lastly state you will follow up with a phone call in a few days. (Make sure you do!) Remember your goal is to make this person feel comfortable enough to talk to you.
I have had great success contacting distant relatives using these methods. Obviously, I am most nervous using the second method. (I still get nervous doing this.) Let me share an example of one of my successes.
I wanted to talk with a cousin on a different Howard family line than I had descended. She lived about 45 minutes away. I sent her a snail mail note as described above. I included my genealogy interest card and stated where I fit in the Howard family line. I called her a few days after I knew she would have received the card. Her first words? ”I’ve been waiting for your call!”
Stepping our of my comfort zone and past my nervousness yielded invaluable information to my research.
Contact that distant cousin, aunt, or uncle and ask them your questions. (Leave me a comment and let me know how it went.)
A cup of coffee is the most powerful tool in your genealogy toolbox.
No, that coffee is NOT to help you stay awake while you read 1820 tax records line by line. Nor is it for those late night research sessions when you were really “just doing a quick look-up”.
Let me explain.
When I began researching my family’s genealogy, much of what I learned at first came with great conversation with older members of my family and a cup of coffee. Now, a number of years later I find having a conversation with a newly found cousins a delightful way to spend time and further genealogical pursuits.
Let me give you a few examples:
Over a cup of coffee:
I learned my grandmother sheared the door handle off the side of her car while on the way to take her driver’s license test. (Can you tell I’m in the midst of teaching a teen to drive?)
I learned the story behind a 1946 photograph of Haley cousins.
It has been cold January in NC this year. While the weather is so cold, I enjoy the opportunity to stay inside and focus on my family history projects for a while. One of my ongoing project is attempting to identify all those “unidentified” photographs I have inherited in my role as the family’s historian.
There are a lot of unidentified photos in my office, but I have hopes that one day, I will get them all identified.
How about you? Do you have a pile of photographs of “relatives” you just cannot identify? Not even sure if they are relatives?
I thought so.
May I offer some suggestions?
If you know which family the photographs came from, keep them in a group. For example, I keep all the photographs that came from my paternal Great grandmother Carr together. I may not know who everyone is, but at least I can be assured they are not my maternal Howard relative.
If you received the photographs in a photo album, leave them in there initially. If the photo album is in bad shape or one of those “magnetic” albums from the 1970′s, take digital photographs of each page before taking the photographs out. Photo albums can tell a chronological story. Often family groups or groups of friends can be determined by the order the photographs were put into the album.
Have as many people as possible in your family to view the photos. E-mail them out to relatives. Don’t forget those more distant relatives! That mystery man in a photo could be a distant who stopped by for a visit once. While not well known in your family, he could be well known in another family branch.
If you know the region or area a set of photographs came from, contact the local historical society and/or genealogical society. You may be able to post the photographs in their newsletter to increase the chances someone will recognize the photo.
Good luck with identifying those unknown photographs! (And stay warm!)
(Oh, and if you recognize the two men in the photograph above, let me know. I have not idea who they are!)
I love sharing stories about my ancestors. I don’t know many genealogists or family historians who do not.
Most people do not want to hear an hour long summary of my ancestor. Or a 10 minute summary. Or a 5 minute summary…(think teenagers.)
It seems most family members want a “quick version” when asking about an ancestor (think teenagers again!). In terms of social media, people want the twitter version, not the blog post version.
For example, when my teenager asked me about this photograph of my grandmother Cecile White Howard, he wasn’t asking for her entire life history. He was simply asking who she was. On some level, he was also asking where in the context of the family history does this woman fit. (At least that’s what I like to think.)
Could I impart enough information about my grandmother in 140 characters to peak a family member’s interest in future conversations?
Cecile White Howard – The Twitter Version
G’mom Cecile, G’mom’s mother, red head, wedding photo, made candy, great cook, smiled a lot, played board games w grandkids
Short, sweet and under 140 characters.
A conversation starter.
I think my grandmother would like the results. I know my family does.
Can YOU “twitter-ize” your ancestors? Share your versions in the comments.
No one can argue that family gatherings are a great place – perhaps the best place – to collect family stories and history. But what about when that family gathering is a sad occasion? A funeral.
My family recently said good-bye to the eldest member of our family. Anita Carr Talbott passed away last month at the age of 96. While this branch of my family tree is small in numbers, the stories are numerous.
This occasion got me thinking….how does one collect family history during a family’s time of loss? Should a family historian even attempt to learn some of the family’s story during this time?
Yes, if done with sensitivity.
Tips for oral history in the sad times
First and foremost be sensitive to the feelings of your family and/or friends. You know them best. Go with your gut feeling. If you have any thought that this is not the right time to approach someone with a question, don’t. It is best to wait.
Just listen. Remembering a loved one is natural once they are gone. Family and friends want (and need) to share their stories about their loved one. The stories flow naturally in the conversations. So…just listen. Later you can make a few notes for yourself to jog your memory.
Ask to get together at a future date. Often at funerals, we come in contact with our more distant relatives. These relatives often have a different set of memories and stories than were passed down through our family line. Express your interest in their family stories and exchange contact information. A future visit or phone call will yield more time for more in-depth family interviews.
Keep a small notebook handy, but choose your note taking time wisely. On these sad occasions, I do not take notes during a visitation or funeral. I keep a small notebook in my purse and/or my car where I can write down notes after I have left the event and before I drive home.
I’ve spent the last few days adjusting to the change back to standard time from Daylight Savings Time. The shift hasn’t been too difficult this year.
There was a time when making the adjustment from Daylight Savings Time back to the standard time was very difficult. Any parent of small children knows the havoc the changing time has on the family schedule. When my children were small it could several weeks to get everyone adjusted to the new schedule. Their little internal clocks showed no regard for the time change.
Winnie Haley Carr (my great grandmother) most definitely did NOT like Daylight Savings Time. Her clocks always stayed on standard time regardless of the time of year. Her grandchildren report she simply had no use for the changing time.
Hmmm…how did she get to events on time? Did she constantly make the mental adjustment of time during Daylight Savings months? It seems that would be mentally tiring after a while.
How about your family?
Did anyone just disregard the time change each fall and spring?
If you are looking for something to do this weekend – and even if you’re not! – check out the Family History Fair at the NC Department of Cultural Resources. You will find lots of information on how to discover your family history.
Esther’s Place will there, too. Stop by and let’s chat about family history (my favorite topic!).