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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!

Scary Superstitions

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With Halloween approaching, it got me thinking about death. I’m probably not alone. Have you ever wondered why a woman wears black while in mourning?  Or why people stopped the clocks after a family member died?  Or what the different symbols mean in cemetery art?  Or how your ancestors mourned the passing of their friends and family?

Death is a part of our lives, but had much more of a presence in the lives of our ancestors when we consider mortality rates and the shorter life-spans of some of our earlier relatives.   To better understand our ancestors, and the culture of death they lived with, try a few of these little genealogical exercises.  We may end up exorcising our own ignorance about death and funeral traditions among our dearly departed:

Read.  Some of my favorites at this time of year are -

Surf the Web.  Lots of information is available online, here’s some to get you started -

Experience:  Get out and have some spooky fun, or help make records more available for others -

  • Take photos of headstones at a local cemetery and upload them at FindaGrave.com or Interment.net
  • I am my own great-grandmother?  If you’ve got the time and are making a costume, how about a little genealogical cosplay?  Make a historical costume based on an ancestor’s time or heritage.
  • Rescue a cemetery.  So many cemeteries in our communities are being lost to neglect and swallowed up by nature.  It will take time and organization, but you may want to get together with a local historical or genealogical group to clean up a “forgotten” cemetery.

Remember.  As always, a ghost story is fun, but a life story is what genealogy and family history is all about.  Find a way to remember your ancestors in scrapbooks, narratives, or video.  Just remember and appreciate.

Nostalgia: It’s good for you!

 Nostalgia

When I was a child back in the 1960’s, I distinctly remember the unmistakable smell of burning leaves during the fall months. My father would rake leaves into a heaping pile at the end of our driveway. He then lit a match to the pile of leaves, and to the cherry tobacco in his wooden pipe.  He would attentively stand next to the burning leaves, smoking his pipe until the last leaf was gone.  I was usually sitting on the grass nearby, watching the leaves go up in smoke and talking to my father.

This memory is sheer nostalgia for me.  As I recollect this sweet memory, I am moved emotionally. A smile naturally emerges.

I recently read an article in the New York Times, “What Is Nostalgia Good For? Quite a Bit, Research Shows,” that shed some light on these emotions. The article discussed how nostalgia has been found to have real and measurable benefits. Several studies have discovered that people who reminisced about past events gained a sense of belongingness and continuity. Participants in the study reported feeling less lonely or anxious, and gained a more positive mood after reminiscing.

As a personal historian, I’ve seen this happen countless times. One in particular stands out. Some time ago I interviewed a 98-year-old woman from Oakland, California. When I first approached “Fritzi”, I explained that I would love to ask her about her memories of her childhood days.

She pushed back. “Oh, I don’t have any memories of those days,” she complained, and stared blankly at me.

I again gently asked her if we could turn on the recorder and see if any memories would surface.  She finally agreed.  Near the end of the 15-minute interview, Fritzi had told me about going to the community swimming pool near her home in Portland, Oregon. She was ten years old at the time. She told me that girls were only allowed to swim on Mondays and Wednesdays.  Boys were allowed to swim on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  Fritzi continued to tell me that she wore a dark blue striped heavy knit bathing suit and that her mother tied her long hair back on the days she went to the pool.

I was shocked at the details that came forth during those 15 minutes.

And to cap it all off, Fritzi pulled out the large family photo album, which she said she had not looked at in many years. She said she wanted to show me pictures of her family.  Within a few moments she opened to a page showing a photograph of a very young Fritzi wearing that dark blue striped bathing suit and her hair all pulled back.

After a little while had passed, I asked Fritzi what she thought about being interviewed.  She said, “That was fun!  I didn’t think I would remember anything but I did.”

She paused for a long moment and with a big smile on her face, she said, “And I loved to swim!”

What are you reminiscing about? What emotions has it brought out in you? Share your experiences with us and we may write about it in a future Reel Tributes Blog post. 

8 Tips For Hiring the Right Professional Genealogist

Are you stumped with your family history research? The information you’re looking for could be too far for you to travel, in another language you can’t read, or just outside of your experience to be able to tackle.  So you’re probably considering hiring some outside help. Professional genealogists can be a valuable resource. But before you hire one, though, here are some tips and tricks:

 

1.  Know What You Want.  Have a specific goal in mind for the researcher, and you will more likely get specific results.  Rather than asking the researcher to “Find all your Johnsons,” you might want her to determine whether your great-grandfather John Johnson was born in this country or immigrated, and from where.

2. Collect Your Information.  The more information you can give a researcher, the better their search will begin.  If you have documents such as birth records, obituaries, names of known relatives and children, or even family legends, your researcher needs to know it.  Organize the information simply, in an email or letter, with copies of documents.  Make sure to let the researcher know where each piece of information came from.  Did you find it online, or was it passed down from Aunt Mable who knew the family?  I once did some pro-bono work for a person; I asked for all relevant information on the ancestor.  I then spent several hours to find a certain piece of information which I thought was a clue finding the goal.  When I spoke to the client about it, she responded testily that they already knew that bit of information, and wondered why I wasted my time.  Because they hadn’t shared all that they knew. You’d hate for those wasted hours to have cost you money.

3. Choose a Locality-, Ethnicity- or Language-Specific Genealogist.  Would you ask your dentist to perform heart surgery?  Of course not, nor the reverse.  Genealogists have specialties too.  Once you know your goal, you can find a researcher that is knowledgeable about that place, language, or the nuances of that culture’s records and customs.  If someone comes to me asking for research outside of my expertise, I am happy to direct them to others with the experience they are looking for.

4.  Do your homework. A search engine (Google, Bing, or Ask.com) can give you pages of hits for genealogists able to research your family.  How to sort them out?  Your first email or contact with a prospective researcher can help you determine if that researcher or group is right for you and if the costs seem within your reach.  Use your search engine to look for reviews on any research firm.  Look also for journal articles or blogs that the private consultant may have written to help you gauge their experience.  As a private consultant, I offer clients a sample of work for their review or a reference upon request.

5.  Make use of professional organizations.  There are nationwide genealogical organizations that inspire high levels of ethics from their members.  These have online searchable lists to help you find a genealogist’s field of expertise and experience.  Try the Board for Certification of GenealogistsSM (BCGSM), the The International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional GenealogistsSM (ICAPGenSM), or the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG).

6. What is a CGSM or AGSM?  These postnomials are indications that the researcher has passed a professional peer review of their skills through testing or submission of a portfolio.  BCGSM offers the designation of CGSM, or Certified GenealogistSM.  ICAPGenSM awards an AGSM, or Accredited GenealogistSM.  Go to their websites to find out more about their rigorous testing requirements.  Remember, however, that there are many well-respected genealogists who do not have these certifications, but are more than worthy to undertake your family’s research.

7.  Sign a contract.  As in any work you expect to have done, having a contract is best.  Most professional researchers have contracts to help define the research goal, price, time limit set, and responsibilities of both parties.  Having this in writing helps avoid misunderstandings in future.

8. Expect quality, but be reasonable.  Unfortunately, until time machines are invented, no genealogist can guarantee that your goal will be met, especially with limited time.  What you do want is a genealogist who is experienced, efficient, and adheres to a code of ethics such as the BCG’s Genealogical Proof Standard or ICAPGen’s Professional Ethics.

Take time to choose a professional.  Ask friends for referrals or check reviews and experience online.  I know I end up “falling in love” with every one of my clients’ ancestors, because I love what I do.  Professionalism matters, especially to the quality of the films at Reel Tributes, and it is something we respect in the work of others as well.