Editor’s Note: This is the first of three parts in a series about conducting genealogical interviews.
“How do I get started on my family history?”
It’s the question I most often hear from those curious to learn about their ancestors. Getting started actually begins at home — or at the homes of your living relatives. This homework consists of talking to your relatives and seeing what kind of documents they’re willing to share.
How you ask questions really depends upon the personality of the relatives to whom you are talking and the topics on which you’re quizzing them. If you’re talking to Aunt Sally who is vivacious, loves to talk, and can be a bit melodramatic, you probably won’t have to beat around the bush to learn about hush-hush details no one else in the family will acknowledge.
If you’re talking to your prim and proper great-grandmother with the goal of learning the details about Great-Aunt Matilda, who ran away with the circus and “may” have had an illegitimate child or two ... well, your approach might require a bit of tiptoeing.
The lesson in how to approach these diverse types of family members is important: Make a frank assessment of their personalities and their dependability before you know how much weight to put on what they tell you.
Aunt Sally, with her flare for the dramatic, might have a tendency to embellish things to make them a bit more interesting. Great-Grandma, on the other hand, isn’t a thoroughly modern Millie. Single motherhood and independent-minded women are the norm today, but Grandma probably is embarrassed about how her sister Matilda lived.
You might have to soften Grandma up a bit by asking her to recall childhood memories that involved Matilda. Help her conjure up memories of things they did together, easing into how old she was when Matilda left home (perhaps not referring to it as “running away with the circus”). You might be able to find out if she ever heard from Matilda after she left home, whether she ever came back for visits or when Grandma thinks she might have settled down. Any little detail might provide you the key to where to start a records search.
You might even say something like, “I respect your feelings, Grandma, and I wouldn’t do anything to embarrass you, but I want to understand my whole family — taking the bad with the good. ...”
And here is a cardinal rule of relative interviewing: No matter how badly you want to know something, don’t lie or deceive the person being kind enough to talk to you.
Never tell Grandma that you won’t reveal to anyone the secrets she’s about to share with you. If someone is reluctant to talk with a device recording their stories, don’t say you’ve turned it off when you haven’t. Those are deceitful things that will hurt the person and could destroy any possibility of future interviews for you or other family members.
And you may leave Aunt Sally shaking your head in amazement and doubt at the tales she has woven for you. You are wise to proceed with caution, but don’t discount what she tells you. There usually are some strands of truth in every family story, so ferret them out with subsequent research.
And keep in mind that even colorful stories can be used to liven the history you may eventually write as long as you identify them as lore and can explain the research route you took to credit or discredit the tales.
Sharon Tate Moody is a board-certified genealogist. Send your genealogical methodology questions and event announcements to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. She regrets she is unable to assist with personal research and cannot respond to requests for locating or researching individuals. Past Heritage Hunting columns are available online at tbo.com, search words “Sharon Tate Moody.