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The Importance of Oral Histories

by Lyman D. Platt, Ph.D.
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Using and Conducting an Oral History
You can learn a great deal about your family by talking to your family patriarchs and matriarchs. Find out how to approach them and what to ask in an oral history interview.

Oral histories are stories that living individuals tell about their past, or about the past of other people. Preserving oral history is a critical first phase of genealogical research and data preservation. Because those who provide the information are generally older members of the family, both their lives and their memories are at risk of being lost to time. Therefore, it should always be the first priority of a beginning genealogist or family historian to find these patriarchs and matriarchs of the family, be they grandparents, great-grandparents, granduncles, grandaunts, great-granduncles, great-grandaunts, older first and second cousins, and even older neighbors and acquaintances of these people.

What Oral Histories Can Reveal

Treat the information you gather through oral histories as guidance, not as the ultimate source, because memories often fade and facts get confused with other facts. Sometimes, however, the information you obtain through oral interviews exists nowhere else and must be taken at face value. Of particular value are the stories, anecdotes, and family traditions, songs, and especially information associated with pictures, documents, and other records.

Recently, for example, we found that my uncle George Platt had an old picture of a missionary standing with the tribe of Koosharem Piutes in Central Utah. He had worked with this tribe in the past. As it so happened, my wife's great-grandfather had also worked with this tribe as a missionary in the 1860s and 1870s. We had one family picture showing her great-grandfather in his forties. The man in the picture with the Piutes was in his late sixties or seventies, but the resemblance between the two men was very close and we felt like we may have found something of value to the family history.

Over a period of several months we circulated the picture among the older family relatives. Two grandchildren of this man identified him as the man in the picture with the Indians. They categorically stated that that was how they remembered him as children. One of these two individuals died a week after seeing the picture. We had an oral confirmation, but still needed to do some more checking. Research at the Utah Historical Society and in local histories turned up the names of all the Indians in the picture but another name — Hatch — was associated with the man. He had also been in the area at about the right time, and others had attached his name to the picture. The process continues at this time to determine who really is in the picture. We have contacted the Hatch family to try and find a picture of their ancestor. If this is a picture of my wife's ancestor it adds a piece of history to his life that at present is unknown. It would show that he returned for a visit when older; that he stayed in touch with these people despite being persecuted as an "Indian lover," and that his association with them may have been longer than the seventeen years spent on the mission. We hope that the information given to us by the man's two children proves to be correct.

Using Oral History Collections

Transcribed oral history collections may assist researchers who are beginning their genealogies or family histories. There are many such collections in archives and libraries around the United States. They range from interviews of miners, cowboys, Indians, and early settlers, to industrial leaders, politicians, doctors, midwives, ecclesiastical leaders, and so forth. Sometimes by speaking with a relative, you'll find that they or another family member has already participated in a oral history project. That means that some of the work has already been done for you, so you can move on to other projects instead of duplicating efforts.

Other significant records may turn up in the course of an oral history interview, too. In the case just noted, a record of baptisms of all of the Indian converts came to light while interviewing my wife's aunts. The record was found on microfilm and has since been used to compare against the names on the back of the original photograph housed at the Utah Historical Society. A copy of this photo had found its way into the Platt family, but not into my wife's family, until we made the connection.

Creating Your Family's Oral History

When you decide to create your own oral history, be sure to take the time to prepare for the interview and decide on the most important questions you want to ask. Also, note that it is important to establish rapport with family members prior to interviewing them. While interviewing a granduncle some twenty years ago, it took two successive sessions before vital information came to light. I had never met him until I made a special trip to see him when he was in his nineties. He didn't know me, didn't trust me, and didn't give me anything on the first visit. Having broken the ice, however, the second visit was much more productive.

While asking him for information about his parents and siblings, my great-grandparents and granduncles and aunts, he got frustrated with the amount of information I was asking and said: "Oh, I don't know. It's all in that book right there." What then came to light was a genealogical record kept by my great-grandmother, including vital information on her children and all of her grandchildren up to the time of her death in 1845, including an autobiography of herself, and a biography of her husband. No one in the family knew of the existence of this record except this granduncle, who had kept it since 1945. He allowed me to take it to the local copy center where I made four copies, one for myself, one each for two of my uncles, and one for the Historical Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In the front of this book was a written instruction disposing of the book after his death: it was to go to a son living in a remote part of Nevada. Thus, without this trip to visit him and create an oral history, the book would have been lost for another generation, or maybe forever.

Interviewing Family Acquaintances

So far I have talked about interviewing relatives, but it's true that you should also interview family acquaintances. While talking to an associate of mine who had lived in the same town as the great-grandparents I mentioned above and who knew them very well, he said: "I'll bet I have something that you will really be interested in." He took me to the house of a niece of his and she brought forth the last of my great-grandmother's diaries, written from 1943 to 1945. It had gone from my great-grandmother to a daughter to a daughter to a daughter-in-law who was unrelated to me except through marriage. She gave me the diary because it was of no interest to her.

While reviewing the diary I found key information on the family of my friend who had initially provided the lead. It was copied and given to him for his genealogy. Still the mystery exists of where the earlier twenty-one diaries are written by this great-grandmother Mary Ellen Huntsman Leavitt. They have been traced to San Francisco and then lost. But at least one has surfaced, and this from oral history. I have included her name here because of the wide distribution of this article. Perhaps someone will give me a clue. Thus the process goes on.

To read more about oral histories and how to do interviews, see the texts listed below:

  • Willa K. Baum, Transcribing and Editing Oral History (Nashville, Tennessee: American Association of State and Local History).
  • Jessie Carney Smith, Ethnic Genealogy: A Research Guide (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1983).
  • Lyman D. Platt, Hispanic American Genealogical Sourcebook (Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research, Inc., 1995).

About the Author
Dr. Lyman D. Platt has extensive training in a number of modern languages and has taught hundreds of seminars on ancient handwriting styles. Employed at the Genealogical Society of Utah for seventeen years, Dr. Platt assisted in many of that institution's international efforts, including the extraction program, microfilming, and coordination with government and private agencies in preserving and using records. He has been at the forefront of the development of genealogical databases since their inception. He is recognized in many national and international publications of contemporary authors, having published twenty-eight books, thirty-four booklets and technical manuals, and written some fifty articles of genealogical interest.

Learn More
• Discuss this topic with other researchers
• Have a question about researching your family history? Ask an expert
How-To Article: Family Traditions — The Ties that Bind
How-To Article: Get Nosy with Aunt Rosy — Conducting an Oral History Interview
Free Online LessonOnline Lessons: Conducting an Oral History

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