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What’s the best way to preserve my family history?

As a personal historian, I often get asked the basic question: How can I preserve my family’s history? While the question seems simple, there are many ways to answer this.

In this post, I will present a few of the options. That way you can understand what’s available and explore the best fit for you and your family.

Oral history: recording your voice

To begin, simply turn on a digital audio recorder and start to recall memories of the past.  This first recording session could be as simple as your telling your favorite family stories.  You could record memories of your mother’s great prowess in the kitchen, or your father’s antics growing up.

There are many books that can guide you through this process, providing questions and topics that you might like to speak to (see the list of recommended reading at the bottom of this post). You could also hire a professional – a personal historian to bring his or her expertise to the project.

Writing: jotting down your memories

Grab a pen and paper (or your laptop), and let the memories flow. Some of you will find this an easy and enjoyable task, others won’t. Writer’s block is a common problem, so don’t worry if you have a hard time getting started. Recording your memories takes determination and discipline. To help guide you, there are ‘fill-in-the-blank’ books that provide prompts and questions to answer.  These kinds of books can be infinitely helpful in creating content. One of our favorites is Our Family Tree and Album  – Edited by Samone Bos.

Looking for more inspiration? Find a local memoir writing class, and attend faithfully.  The class will help you with written self-expression, and the discipline needed to follow through with your story.  By the end of the class you will be well on your way to a full-fledged memoire.  These classes are typically offered through continued adult education programs at local community colleges, adult community centers, and local libraries.

Artwork: creating memories

Have you enjoyed scrapbooking over the years? Have you made a ‘shadow box frame’ containing personal memorabilia, which belonged to an ancestor?  Do you sew custom-made story quilts? Does your home have a family photo gallery? Artwork like this adds character to a home, and creates strong connections from one generation to another.  For the artistically inclined, a family history project is hard to beat.

Film: producing a multimedia experience

In beautiful high-definition, film is quickly becoming the go-to medium for personal history. Films can beautifully document a life story.  Regional accents, facial expressions, and personal recollections can all be captured on film, along with still photographs, family movies, and other personal mementos. Films also incorporate a musical score, to add drama and emotion to the story.

Click here to view some sample family history films.

This is just a short overview of some of the options you have in preserving your family history. I hope I have fueled your desire to kick off the project. You have a story to tell. Why not start today?

The following is a short bibliography of how-to books on the subject of personal history preservation:

The Story Only You Can Tell – Creating Your Family History With Ease and Expertise by Toni Sorenson Brown

Creative Journal Writing – The Art and Heart of Reflection by Stephanie Dowrick

Touching Tomorrow – How to Interview Your Loved Ones to Capture a Lifetime of Memories on Video or Audio

Legacy – A Step-By-Step Guide To Writing Personal History by Linda Spence

You Don’t Have To Be Famous – How to Write Your Life Story by Steve Zousmer

Learn more about Ethical Wills at http://www.ethicalwill.com

Check out the Association of Personal Historians’ web site for more information on personal history preservation.

Digitizing History: The War of 1812

Preservationists often encounter fragile historical records. When they do, the key is to flatten them and archivally conserve the documents to prevent further damage.

But what if they are still in use and popular with the public? How much damage can they take? Unfortunately, this is a major concern for a specific group of records: the War of 1812 Pensions.

Currently, the genealogical and historical community – people like you and me – are taking on a massive effort to digitize fragile records and make those precious original records available online. And you can help…

Who is leading this effort?

Led by President Pat Oxley, the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) is spearheading the fundraising for conserving and digitizing 180,000 War of 1812 Patriot Pensions.  She says, “…this is the first time in history that the entire genealogy community is coming together to see a project of this magnitude to completion.”  For people researching their ancestors from the “Second Revolution”, the idea that these records could be available online is of untold value.  In collaboration with the National Archives, FGS has hired a professional archival team to photograph and index the over seven million pages contained in the War of 1812 Federal Pensions.

What might a War of 1812 Pension contain?

If you are looking for information about a solider or his family from the War of 1812, you may find such gems as:

  • The soldier’s name, age, and residence
  • Widow’s first and maiden names
  • Marriage date and place
  • Children’s names
  • Other family names
  • Service information and dates
  • Bounty land granted
  • Death dates of family members

How can I help?

Due to the fragile nature of the pensions, no volunteers are currently needed.  To keep the project running, FGS is asking for your contributions.  Each page costs about $0.45 to digitize.  For each dollar you contribute, two pages can be preserved.  However, right now, Ancestry.com has generously offered to match every contribution dollar-for-dollar. Now, each of your dollars contributed will digitize four precious pages.

Many have asked if this means that the pensions will only be available for a fee through Ancestry.com?  The answer is no.  The pensions are already becoming available for free, indefinitely.  To see the progress of Preserve the Pensions project, go to http://go.fold3.com/1812pensions/.   To contribute to this worthy project, go to www.fgs.org/1812.

As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, let us not allow the patriots of that crucial time in our history to be forgotten.  Encourage your genealogical society to discuss and contribute to the Preserve the Pensions project and others like it.

Finding History in Unexpected Places: The House at 167 Corona

My grandparents Raymond and Frances Mackin married in September 7, 1929, at the Star of the Sea Catholic Church in San Francisco, California. By the end of the very next month the Stock Market collapsed, signaling the beginning of the Great Depression.

Frances, in her memoir, recalled:

“On returning from our honeymoon in Los Angeles, we rented a pleasant apartment on Washington Street, near Fillmore.  In less than a year we moved to a larger apartment on Balboa near 21st Avenue.  We were living there when my daughter, Catherine was born.  The landlady wasn’t very happy with us for having a child so we soon moved to a third floor flat on 43rd Avenue between Cabrillo and Fulton.  The stair climbing there was too much for me so we rented a small house on 40th Avenue near Fulton.  Roger and David were born while we lived there.  Our landlord was a very nice man, whom we seldom saw, and we were greatly surprised when for some reason or other he gave us his equity in the house.  This amounted to about $3,500 – a nice sum for 1935.  We soon sold the house on 40th Avenue and bought a larger one at 167 Corona Street in Ingleside Terrace.  Frannie was born there in 1939.” 

The rest of the story

You may be wondering how this information came to my attention.  My grandmother had the heart of a personal historian.  She loved to reminisce and share her life experiences.  It was this love that fueled her curiosity.  In 1984 she found out that the house on Corona was for sale (again).  My grandmother had to know the details of this house that had been her home over forty years before.  A quick trip to Franciscan Properties yielded the listing (below) and told her everything she wanted to know.

Years later, I learned more about that house on Corona Street.  My grandmother told me that they didn’t have enough money to pay the down payment, though they knew they could easily afford the monthly payments.

The owner of the house made an offer to my grandfather –if he would take over the monthly payments, my grandparents could have the house.  This would never happen in 2012, but life was a bit different back in 1935.

It turned out that the owner of the house was going through serious financial problems and a nasty divorce, and really wanted to get rid of this house.

My grandmother further told me that by virtue of owning this house, they were now well established financially.  Remember this was in 1935 – the Great Depression was being felt worldwide.  Many people were struggling financially and losing their homes altogether. My grandparents felt very fortunate.

This is just one of the stories I have learned about the early lives of my grandparents.  And finding this listing among our trove of family documents makes this story come alive for me.

Moral of this story — You never know where your family’s history will come from.

And as a side note: I Googled this house last night and found that it sold for $817,000 two years ago. Too bad it didn’t stay in our family— that would have been some return.

What tidbits of information have you found out about your family in unexpected places? Write us and let us know!

Rebecca’s Reel Hints: Online Tutorials for Genealogy

When it comes to finding education and inspiration in the field of genealogy, it is hard to know where to start.  The choices we have these days are impressive. Luckily, there’s always so much to learn.

To that end, I spend hours reading books and genealogical publications, especially the National Genealogical Society Quarterly (NGSQ).  However, I would be naive not to look to online resources as well. I admit there are so many more websites than I will list below, but here are a few I’d like you to try. Best of all, they’re free!

- Handwriting and Script Tutorials at http://script.byu.edu/.  There are early samples and helps to read English, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Spanish, French, and Italian.

- RootsWeb’s Guide to Family History at http://rwguide.rootsweb.ancestry.com/, a subject-based site organized by respected genealogists Julia M. Case, Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG, and Rhonda McClure.  Scroll down past the dancing skeleton to start at the section “Numerical Index to Guides.”

- The FamilySearch Learning Center at https://familysearch.org/learningcenter/home.html.  In the long text box on the left you can choose from different localities, subjects, and classes/tutorials at beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels.

- Podcasts downloadable to your PC or IPod.  There are genealogy-based ones, but don’t miss out on building your social history knowledge as well.  Some of my historically-based favorites are “Stuff You Missed in History Class” by How Stuff Works.com and “HIST 1301″ by Professor Gretchen Ann Reilly.  Use your search feature to find what you like.

- Cyndi’s List. If you haven’t heard of Cyndi, you’re in for a treat. Go to http://www.cyndislist.com/categories/ for links to other sites, educational articles, and more.

Know of any more?  We’d love to learn from you.  Tell us about your genealogical educational journey.  When looking to my own genealogical researching future, I hold to the old axiom, “Information is Inspiration.”

How it all Began: 15 years ago, 15 hours of tapes

Fifteen years ago, I had no idea what a personal historian did. I hadn’t heard about the value of preserving one’s life stories. And then everything changed.

My budding interest in personal history began one sunny morning in San Francisco. I was sitting in my grandmother’s lovely second story apartment.  We had just eaten breakfast together and were sipping cups of lemon tea and talking about our lives.  My grandmother, Frances was 95 years old. I was 45.

That’s when the moment happened.

My grandmother casually began to speak about her long life and the year she came to San Francisco from Sellwood, Oregon.  The year was 1922 and she was 20 years old.  She was making that big ‘break’ from the grips of parental control.

San Francisco was quite a place to live in the 1920’s.   This was a decade full of events that would forever impact a young impressionable woman from the quiet suburbs of Portland, Oregon.

My grandmother told me about dancing the ‘Charleston’, watching Al Jolson perform at a ‘speak easy’ while bottles of pure grain alcohol were hidden under the table, just in case the establishment was raided.  She spoke about her new short, cropped hairstyle, and wearing her custom-made ‘flapper-style’ hat that fit close and tight to her head (see photograph above).  She recalled hearing about Charles Lindberg’s now famous flight in the Spirit of St. Louis and about the Scopes’ Monkey Trial that shocked the nation.

I sat in awe as I listened to this sharp and introspective woman speak.  Then I stopped her. “Grandma, this is too special,” I explained. “Would you mind if I record this conversation?” She was surprised that I wanted to do this, but didn’t put up a fight. She almost seemed excited that I cared that much about her stories. So off I went to Radio Shack to purchase several audiocassette tapes so that I could record her memories.

So that was the beginning.  Over the next five years, and through many visits to San Francisco, I was able to obtain 15 hours of my wonderful grandmother’s stories and reflections. What a treasure these recordings have become to my family! Every once in a while we sit down as a family and listen to them. My kids and grandkids love it just as much as I do.

This experience turned me into a vocal advocate of preserving personal history.  I am pleased to know that since those first interviews at my grandmother’s kitchen table, I have gone on to help many many others to record their memories. And that each and every one has become a priceless family treasure, just like ours.

Are you as excited about family stories as we are? If so, tell us how you first got interested!