By following a few easy steps you can collect family memories at holidays
and family reunions. Unfortunately, too many of us think that
the right opportunity should be planned. However, if you try to
wait for the perfect moment it may never happen. If you tarry
too long, busy schedules and sudden illness can interfere. Instead,
be prepared for those unexpected opportunities to collect your
family history and traditions. A little preplanning can help you
gather family history where and when it happens. The best way
to start is to create a family history kit that you can carry
with you or keep in your car when you visit with relatives. The
following equipment can be held in a small storage container and
will fit in even a small suitcase.
History Gathering Kit
- Pencils, notebook
- Pedigree charts
- Copies of an assortment of family photographs
- Camera with film
- Tape recorder
The contents of your kit can vary based on the materials you have on
hand, as long as you have the essential tools to document your
family history. For instance, pencils and a notebook are mainstays
of genealogical research, but more computer-savvy individuals
can use a handheld computer device to record information. The
pedigree charts and photographs act as prompts when you are trying
to encourage a reluctant relative to share their memories, and
keeping a camera and a tape recorder handy helps preserve the
details of the visit. Camcorders can be used, but it is usually
not practical to carry one with you everywhere, while the new
digital recorders that double as a still camera are nice, but
Now that you have the basic materials ready, follow these few
steps to gather your family heritage in small, manageable pieces
without becoming overwhelmed by the task
Down What You Know
The first step in any family history project is to record on
a pedigree chart or family group sheet what you already know,
including full names (maiden names), dates and places for births,
marriages, and deaths. This outline of your known family history
is a vital part of your collecting plan for the future. It provides
you with a starting place.
Identify the individuals in your family that seem to know the
most family history. Then either call them or send them a letter
or e-mail to set up an appointment to talk. This may be a personal
visit, a telephone interview, an e-mail interview, or maybe a
plan to set some time aside at the next family event.
It is important to develop a list of questions based on
the family history you already know so that you can focus
the conversation. The answers will help you fill in the
blanks on the family tree. For instance, ask for everyone's
full name including nicknames and maiden names. Make sure
you try to either videotape or tape record these conversations
so that you have an accurate record of their comments. An
amazing amount of history is passed down orally through
the generations. In some families it involves the immigration
of the family to America while in others it can be simple
things like a family recipe. Read The
Importance of Oral Histories by Lyman Platt to learn
more about why this is a primary step for genealogy research.
For a sample list of questions and a guide to conducting
interviews, check out Getting
Nosy with Aunt Rosie.
Let family members know that you are interested in seeing
the artifacts, photographs and documents that they have
in their possession and hearing stories about those items.
Artifacts have special meaning in most families, from the
sampler passed down through several generations to the souvenir
plate your grandparents bought on their honeymoon. You can
use those materials to jog memories and direct conversations.
A simple family photograph can lead a relative to recount
memories about persons and events. Try questioning relatives
about the existence of furniture, jewelry, photographs,
documents and special linens. Most of what you'll learn
will not appear in any published family history and may
not be verifiable, but it will be interesting and fun to
Track of Your Research
As you start to accumulate memories, be sure to keep track of all your
sources and data. If you don't already own a genealogical software package,
now is the time. Not only do they help you organize your notes by creating
family group sheets and charts, the programs also come equipped with
extra features. For instance, many genealogical software packages such
as Family Tree Maker allow you to add multimedia
objects to your family group sheets so that sound and video can be incorporated
into your family tree. The latest version of Family Tree Maker includes
a publishing center that enables you to create a family web page directly
from the program. As you start to gather stories, memories, artifacts
and facts it is necessary to have complete contact or source data for
them in case you need to refer to them again. It is very easy to forget
who owned the quilt made by your great-great-grandmother or even who
knew the details of the argument that divided siblings for several decades.
a New Hobby from a Family Member
Is there a member of your family that has a talent that
has been in the family for several generations? A friend's
mother develops her own crochet patterns and creates beautiful
items for special events like weddings and baptisms. A number
of women who quilt pass this skill along to their daughters.
Perhaps the men in your family share a common skill or interest.
When you seek out memories, remember to document the talents
and expertise of family members. In some families, trade
secrets are the basis for a family business. My father learned
his trade from his father and uncle who learned from their
father who followed in the footsteps of his own father.
Each generation inherited techniques and work methods.
Every family develops a set of traditions around certain holidays and
family events. Are certain foods served? Is there a special series of
events that occur at the same time each year? The next time you see
a tradition being reenacted, step back and ask a series of questions.
Find out why it is a tradition and who started it. Capture the memories
on film or video as they are happening so that you can continue the
practice. These traditions are clues to the history of your family.
In the article The Ties that Bind,
Dr. Susan Coady discusses why family traditions are important and how
we developed them.
Once you've accumulated material about the places your ancestors
lived, it might be time to actually visit those locations to see
relatives that still live in the area or find out more about your
family's time there. Most people think about overseas travel,
but your family history may be in the United States. When you
plan an itinerary, try to recreate the lives of your ancestors
by walking in their footsteps. You can take an older or younger
relative with you to explore. Be there while your relative rediscovers
their old haunts and recounts long buried memories, or help a
younger generation make new ones.
on a Legacy
Now that you've worked hard to create a legacy for future
generations, take time to put it all together so that your
efforts won't be wasted. Seek out family members willing
to help you put together a family history, a heritage scrapbook
or create a family web page. The final product is irrelevant
as long as the memories you've gathered remain intact for
others to enjoy.
As the family historian documenting each part of a family's
existence, take time to research the background of the stories,
traditions and skills present in your family. Look behind
the memories to see the historical trends and circumstances
that led to their inception. You might be surprised at what