Category Archives: Holidays

Holiday Gatherings: A Perfect Time for Family History

holiday dinner

As we prepare for the holidays, let us take advantage of the time we spend with relatives to ask about their own lives or the lives of ancestors they may have known, or might have inherited documents or stories about.  One of the most effective family history research tools we have is our living family.  Holiday gatherings are a perfect time for meeting with family members for stories or an interview.  Planning ahead is the key to success.

To prepare for an upcoming gathering where you might be able to find out more about ancestors, try one or more of these ideas:

Decide which family groups or stories you want to talk to relatives about.  It’s best to focus and not try to overwhelm the people you are interviewing with all your questions on the family.  Choose one or two family groups to start with, for example, ask about Great-Grandpa’s three wives and 17 children, or if Great-Uncle Dolphus really did go west to pan for gold in ’49?  Often, those stories will lead to others.

Ask ahead for an interview.  Call or contact the people you want to talk to at least a week or two before your holiday gathering. Let them know what you’d like to talk about and what to expect.  Giving your interview subject a chance to think about the ancestors you are interested in gives them time to think and they’re less likely to be stumped for story ideas.  They may even remember some family photos or memorabilia to bring with them.  Most of all, they will likely be more willing to talk if you ask ahead than if the first they hear of it is over the table at the holiday feast, just as they’re contemplating their after dinner nap time.

Read up on interview techniques and questions.  I like the basic interview questionnaire prepared by FamilySearch (a printable pdf document).  Other great resources are Kimberly Powell’s article, “50 Questions for Family History Interviews,” or  Alice Chapin’s book Reaching Back. AARP also has some fun Story Starters. Many of these are designed for a person to record their own family history, but the same questions can spark family stories of ancestors of long ago.

Plan how to record the interview: There are three basic types of ways to record your interviews.  1) Taking notes by hand, 2) audio recording, or 3) video.  The pros and cons are:

  • Taking notes by hand.  Pro:  The least intimidating to the shy interview subject.  Con: It’s slow, you are likely to miss things, or garble your own notes.
  • Audio Recording.  Pro:  Not very intimidating or distracting to the interview subject.  Con:  Background noise!  Even worse is when you have more than one person in the room answering questions over one another, its hard to transcribe later.
  • Video.  Pro:  This is my favorite method.  If multiple people speak, it is easier to distinguish the speakers.  You also have some great footage for future video productions, such as a Reel Tributes personal documentary.  Con:  Your interview subject may be so shy or uncomfortable in front of the camera (How’s my hair?  Is this my best side?) that you may not get the information you need.

It’s not a test.  Many interviewees may feel like the interview questions are more like test questions, despite your best efforts to make them comfortable.  Start off with something you know that they know, not a question they may not have the answer to.  Start with leads like, “I heard you got in trouble for smashing a cookie jar when you were little…”  or “Didn’t you have a dog named Buddy…?”  Also try taking photos with you that might inspire stories.

Accept now that you won’t get everything in one interview.  Sometimes we are so anxious to get the information we want, we may cut off some stories the family member is telling to get to what we believe is the “meat” of our interview.  Sit back, relax, and enjoy. You won’t get everything you want in one interview.  What you will do, though, is build a stronger relationship with the interview subject.  This may lead to that person calling up later with photos, memorabilia, or information they found, especially if the interview was a positive experience.

In essence, family history is about family.  Enjoy your time making new memories about sharing old memories, and build those relationships even stronger.  Happy Holidays!

Giving Thanks for Our Immigrant Ancestors

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Did your ancestors participate in the very first Thanksgiving?  Tough to tell. Very few of us can trace our lines to those early immigrants.  We can, however, appreciate what our own ancestors did to come to this land, and why they made those choices.  Thanksgiving isn’t just about Pilgrim stories, its also about those who brought their own families here over the generations.

What is Your Immigrant Story?

Let’s take some time to appreciate our immigrant history, and ask questions or research their stories.  Ask yourself:

  • Did your ancestors come because of religious persecution?  To avoid war?
  • Did they only intend on making a living and go back to the mother land, but never actually returned?
  • Did they come through Ellis Island, or even before that?
  • How did their American experience change their culture, customs, and names?
  • Does your family still carry on any customs from your immigrant ancestors’ lands?  Foods, language, holiday traditions?
  • Did they travel first class or steerage?  What was the difference?
  • What jobs did the ancestor take when they came?  What challenges did they face?

How Can I Research My Immigrant Family?

Here are some tips to starting a research project on discovering your immigrant ancestor:

  • First, ask the family for stories – what have they heard?
  • Researching an immigrant from the 1900s is easier than researching one in the 1700s.  Start with later generations.
  • Do you really know where they came from?  Start with censuses.  For example, one census may say they were from Poland, another may say “Galicia.”  Poland was broken up into three parts in the mid-1800s and Polish immigrants from Galicia were on the Russian-controlled side.  Research the history of the lands for better insights.
  • Death records may give more information on birthplaces. Check the death records for their children too.
  • Church records sometimes state the place your ancestor “removed” from when they came to that congregation.  Which churches were closest to where they lived for their denomination?
  • Check for cemetery headstones – they may have specific birthplaces or symbols that indicate origin.
  • Did they naturalize?  When did they arrive?  The 1900 census asks those questions, and some others ask related questions.  The dates given were sometimes  incorrect, but it gives an idea of where to start.
  • They may have petitioned for naturalization in a local county court or in federal court.  Check both.
  • Many websites give information on a particular culture or immigrant group.  A good link to these is on Cyndi’s List and the FamilySearch Wiki.

Above all, spend some time this Thanksgiving holiday thinking about our ancestors who made the brave journey to America. Take the opportunity of  quality time with your relatives to discuss the family lore and uncover new stories about your past. If you learn something exciting, let us know!

Love and Marriage: Genealogical Records of Walking Down the Aisle

Marriage records are some of the earliest records available in the United States that offer a wealth of genealogical gems.  They may include the ages of the bride and groom, their residences, and sometimes a parent or other relative’s name.

Modern marriage records can help us understand earlier records.  If you are married, think about the variety of records leading up to the wedding.  Did you go to the courthouse to apply for a license?  Was a notice of the engagement, or of the wedding placed in a local newspaper?  Were you married at a church, and did the church note it in their records?  If married at the church, the pastor/priest/officiator was required to report his or her completion of that ceremony to the local court.  If married civilly, was there a record of the wedding at the courthouse separate from that first license you applied for?  Did the court and/or church give you a private certificate, suitable for framing?  Did you send out invitations or annoucements? Were photos taken at your wedding?  Did friends or relatives write or blog about the celebration?  Looking at all these situations, we can see at least eight different types of records created about the event.  Think of your ancestors’ weddings in much the same way: if a record of the marriage isn’t in one place, it may be in another.

Here’s a very brief review of the types of marriage records that may be available in a variety of places:

State and Local Records

Marriage records are not federal records.  They have always been maintained and governed by the county or state in which they occured.  Investigate the laws regarding marriage in your ancestor’s state and time period.

  1. Consents:  Written parental permission for a child to be married, especially if underaged.  Sometimes these are found to confirm that the child is of age.
  2. Marriage bonds:  A financial contract to hopefully avoid litigation of the marriage is nullified.  Usually signed by the groom and a male representative of the bride’s family.
  3. Marriage banns: Church declaration or posting of an intended marriage, to give the congregation an opportunity to oppose the marriage if there is a just cause to prevent it, i.e. the groom has another wife in the next county.
  4. Applications:  The application to marry often asks the bride and groom about ages, birthplaces, parent’s names, and previous marriages.  Check to see how early these were used in the county you’re searching.
  5. License: Court approval of the marriage application.  These are often found at the bottom of the application in most pre-printed court books.  Note that the date of marriage application or license is not always the same as the date of the wedding!
  6. Minister’s Returns:  Sometimes these are separate reports from ministers or Justices of the Peace that a marriage ceremony was preformed.  The clerk should be noting these at the bottom of the marriage application/license.  If there is no return it may indicate that 1) the marriage did not occur, or 2) the minister didn’t make it back to the clerk to report.  If there is no return, you may need to look for other indications of co-habitation after the date of the license.
  7. Divorce Records:  When couples break up, they make a lot of records.  Early divorces were granted only on the state level, but were overseen later by county courts.  Check Chancery and Equity records, or ask the clerk of the court.

Church Records

  1. Minister or Church Clerk books:  Church records vary from church to church and often from one minister to another.  The marriages may be recorded together, chronologically, or mixed in with other rites, such as baptism or burials.
  2. Church minutes:  If there are no records of marriages, check the minutes for listings of members.  Spouses may be referred to when they join or move.

Newspapers

  1. Wedding Annoucements:  For my own grandparents, I found multiple news articles.  There were at least two listings of bridal showers, the pre-wedding announcement, the post-wedding announcement, and an entire article on who attended and what they wore with a photo of the happy couple looking dubiously at a wedding present they’d just unwrapped.  Thank goodness for small town newspapers!  Don’t forget to check for those silver anniversary announcements too.

Private Family Records

The wonderful thing about family records of weddings is that they are so diverse and can be held by so many different family members.  Get to know second and third cousins who may have inherited unique memoribilia.  These may include:

  • Invitations
  • Marriage Certificates
  • Photos
  • Journals and Letters
  • Family Bibles

Take some time to “walk down the aisle” with your ancestors and search for their marriage records. Find out more by reading up on early marriage practices and customs.  If your ancestors were of African-American descent, be aware that sometimes those records were kept separately.  If your ancestor participated in the Revolution, War of 1812, or Civil War, look for evidences of marriage produced by widows and heirs in pension applications.  For more information, read the wonderful article by Johni Cerny and Sandra H. Luebking, “Research in Marriage and Divorce Records” in the Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy.  You can also check for online guides about marriage records that are specific to time periods or countries at FamilySearch.org.  Happy Valentine’s Day!

 

This Year, Store Your Memories in a Jar

 

2013 has just begun and undoubtedly will be a year full of grand events and stories.

But how will you remember them all?

We’re here to tell you about a fun and easy way to preserve the year’s most pleasurable and meaningful memories. This idea is one that could be particularly sweet for families with school age children.

As memorable events occur throughout the year, take a few moments to write about the highlights of that event on a piece of paper. Then place the note in a jar.  Keep scrap paper, pen and a glass jar in a prominent place—ideally your living room or kitchen— for easy access.

This effort can be a wonderful activity for a family to do together. By June, you might even need to get a larger jar!

At the end of the year, set aside a special time, perhaps during the holiday season, to read and share with each other the year’s memories.

Here are just some of the possible results of this effort:

  • Family bonding throughout the year and especially over the holidays
  • Memories recalled and cherished for years to come
  • Validation of children’s favorite stories and recollections
  • Memories preserved for future generations

Think how cool it would be if you had a jar full of memories from when you were 10, growing up in a very different time from today.

It’s never to late to start this activity. What sorts of memories do you think you might be sharing by the end of the year?

Get your jar ready and find out. Happy 2013!

The annual letter: A cherished family tradition

Twenty-four years ago I decided to enclose a one-page personal letter with each one of our Christmas cards.

My goal: to share with our family and friends the highlights of the year’s activities.  Fifty or so people have received our letters and the response from them was positive. We, in turn, received many interesting and creative Christmas letters.

Fortunately, I had the good sense to keep a copy of each year’s Christmas letter.  Every year I place the newest letter in a Christmas green binder for safekeeping. This year as I read those letters once again I realized that the letters give a pretty good history of the highlights of our family’s activities over the last twenty-four years. Little did I know just how precious these letters would become as the years have passed by.

In 1988, the letters recall our being stationed in Nicosia, Cyprus and living a cautious and careful life of an American Embassy family. On December 21, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 departing Heathrow Airport was bombed while flying over Lockerbie, Scotland.  One of our own security officers was on board the flight.  Several days later, my husband and I attended the memorial service to honor this young man at the US Embassy in Nicosia.  After this tragic event our ambassador ordered that Americans should not meet in large groups for fear of additional attacks.  As a result my two daughters’ school Christmas parties were canceled and Americans did not gather that year for their traditional Christmas party at the Marine House.

In 1990, we were living outside of London and my young daughters attended a British school for two years. Before leaving England, my friends gave a party in my honor.  The party took the form of British High Tea – a dressy afternoon event where fancy finger foods and punch were served.  Within a week’s time, we were back in Virginia and attending the Prince William County Fair.  By the end of that day we had seen pigs, sheep and cows and even watched a truck pull.  I thought to myself, what a change of lifestyle! In the next years our two daughters grew from being little girls with pronounced British accents to young and independent American women. From learning to ride their bicycles, to working on Algebra and French homework, to taking drivers ed and scaring the daylights out of their parents, and then going off to college— it is all there on the pages of our family’s Christmas letters.

Thirty-eight years ago, it was just my husband and me. Today, our family has grown to eight people.  The lives of all eight of us are recounted on the pages of those Christmas letters.

As I read these letters I realized how many things had slipped from my memory. And what a shame it would have been if those family memories had been lost forever.

And that reminds me…I’d better get writing this year’s letter.  Our friends and family are waiting and my Christmas green binder has an empty page protector marked “2012”.

How about you?  Do you write a yearly letter? How do you record the history of your family?  If you don’t, perhaps 2012 is the time to start. Enjoy!