Let's face it, some of your family members think our "obsession" about
family history is a bit peculiar. On occasion, some relatives are downright
hostile about our search. It's like they are afraid we are going to uncover
some deep, dark family secret that they would rather not have come to
light. In reality, they may not even know if such a secret really exists!
And, if a secret does exist, it is probably so minor that it is inconsequential.
So what if Uncle Harry lied about his age to join the Army, it was a patriotic
thing to do.
They may not want to hear about our fascination with past generations.
We are certain they have information useful to our search, but they aren't
interested in helping us. How can we get them more involved? Since summer
is the season for family reunions, it is the perfect chance to get some
of those family members involved in your research!
No, you don't need to drag them, kicking and screaming, to your spare
bedroom, filled with files and your computer. No, they probably won't
sit still for a "presentation" of your latest findings. And they certainly
aren't going to let you rummage through that trunk of memorabilia in their
How then can you get them involved? Consider the following ten
Don't Try to Crack the Most Difficult Relatives
Begin with the easiest relatives, siblings, cousins, and others already
interested in the information you are gathering. They may not have much
to offer, such as great stories or collections of documents, but begin
by getting them involved (using the following suggestions). One after
another, your relatives will begin participating in your search, and many
of them will begin to find the same joy and interest as you have found.
Whatever you do, do not focus your efforts on the more difficult relatives
at first. Even if cousin Larry has the cherished family Bible, if he does
not want to talk to you, don't invade his space. You have limited fire
power. Don't unleash your efforts on the strongest, most reluctant, relative.
Begin by winning small battles; get the more willing ones involved first.
Eventually most of the others will assist you as well.
After you identify the most willing relatives, begin by interviewing
them about the family stories and relatives they know best. As people
are asked for their opinions and their memories, they feel they are helping
and begin to take an interest in the project. Even if they are telling
stories you already know, or ones you are certain are not true, listen.
Take notes. Be interested. At some point in their ramblings they may mention
a fact, or describe a situation that is new to you. That could be the
beginning of an important research breakthrough! It was only after listening
to my father-in-law's uncle tell about a childhood visit to relatives
on Long Island that we got the clues we needed to locate that branch of
my wife's family.
There are many books and web sites that will provide instruction about
how to interview relatives. Remember, interviews
don't always need to be formal, especially as you are warming up the relatives
to family history and your searches. Eventually you will want to record
(audio or video) a formal interview, but begin by simply asking a few
questions over a family dinner. And of course, always begin with the oldest
relatives. Sooner than you think, they will be gone. Not only will they
take precious information with them, but they will also not be around
to engender interest in the younger generation in your research.
Begin with Small Requests
Years ago, when I needed a copy of my birth certificate quickly, to apply
for a passport, I asked a cousin who lived next to the town where I was
born to pick it up for me. We were not particularly close, but she was
willing to stop by the vital records office and obtain the copy. It was
faster and easier than working through the state office, and it strengthened
the bonds between us. She has become a major participant in family reunions,
and due to her proximity, she attends them much more often than I can.
People tend to develop softer, tender feelings for those whom they help
out. Ask relatives to do something simple and easy, and you will strengthen
the connection between the two of you. Perhaps they still live in the
town where a relative died, and they can go to the local newspaper and
get her obituary. Maybe your aunt can go to the cemetery where her grandparents
are buried and photograph the tombstones.
Over the course of several small requests, you will learn which relatives
are the most interested in your research, and which are the most competent
to help you. Perhaps then you can ask them to help with more challenging
tasks, such as getting copies of all the deeds for your surname from the
county recorder's office.
Collect and Share Photographs
Documents are boring to the typical relative. They don't want to look
at the census, and are put off by old deeds or probate inventories. Pictures,
on the other hand, are much more engaging. Pictures testify that ancestors
lived, and many relatives will see a resemblance between images in an
old picture and a living cousin. Pictures are real, almost three-dimensional,
and add texture and vibrancy to names on a chart.
Of course, as a family historian, you long ago learned that
pictures seldom give you birth dates or places. They often don't add much
pure knowledge about an ancestor, but to your relatives, they add much
more. As you gather pictures, consider passing out copies at the next
reunion. Give framed copies of photographs as gifts. As you share an adequate,
but not so great, picture of Aunt Martha, someone else may admit to having
a better picture. All of a sudden, you have drawn another relative into
your web of family history. Having admitted they have a picture makes
it very hard not to let you make a copy of it. Just like that, they are
helping your project!
Heap Praise on Family Members
It's human nature. We want to be recognized for the good
we do. Even those who seem embarrassed when publicly thanked are pleased
by your gratitude. As your relatives provide assistance, be certain you
thank them both privately and in public settings. By evidencing an "attitude
of gratitude" you will open more doors with the more reluctant family
As your reputation spreads in the family as "a good egg,"
one who is grateful for assistance, many more relatives will help when
asked, and even volunteer to assist in ways you never though of.
Utilize Their Talents
People also like to feel needed. Among your extended family,
you certainly have a variety of persons with incredible talents and abilities.
A niece may be studying film-making in college. A cousin may be a computer
whiz. An uncle may be a great storyteller, while an aunt may be an excellent
writer. I am sure you can find a way to incorporate all of these talents,
and others, in your family history activities. Maybe your cousin the CPA
could establish a tax-exempt family foundation to help fund the more expensive
aspects of family history (such as difficult research which may require
a professional, or converting old pictures and slides to video or CD-ROM).
Almost every senior citizen I know who is involved in genealogy
has had one or more grandchildren help them learn about the computer.
In fact, those grandchildren often do data entry into grandma's genealogy
A couple of years ago, my now elderly mother wanted to preserve
and distribute some of her, and her mother's writings. Some dated back
over 80 years and were truly part of our family history. My sister the
English teacher helped Mom (now vision-impaired) select the writings,
performed minor editing, and determined the arrangement. My artistic younger
sister sketched dozens of drawings to illustrate some selections. Ever
the editor, I created the electronic text, formatted the material, and
had it published locally. We even asked the two geographically distant
siblings to contribute a preface, foreword, and epilogue to the finished
product. Thus, this element of family history also became a family event.
Give Local Assignments
You can't be everywhere, and you can't travel everywhere needed for your
research. Usually you will find some relative living very near a place
with records you want to obtain. Maybe they live near a National Archives
branch and could look up a census or passenger list for you. Perhaps they
are going to visit friends or other relatives near an old home site and
they could check the local library for an index.
Analyze where your relatives live, and who seems the most helpful. If
you ask nicely, and don't request too much, you may get a very favorable
Have Relatives Give you a Tour
Invariably, when family historians take a vacation, it includes family
history sites. Often we work in visits with distant relatives we have
only corresponded with. Often we meet new cousins we have only heard about.
Many families still have relatives who live near the old homestead. When
you arrange for such a visit, ask those relatives if they could give you
a brief tour of the community.
Usually they will be delighted. People like to show off their hometown,
and at the same time, like being perceived as experts about the history
of the family in that locality. They can tell you stories that have been
passed down in their branch of the family. You will learn what the most
picturesque local scenes are. They will also probably know where the library
and courthouse are, and their hours of operation. Again, they will become
part of your research, and may even want to help you read that old newspaper
on microfilm at the public library.
Be sure to bring a hostess gift, and send a nice thankyou note after
the visit. Once you have established that warm relationship (and are sending
them annual holiday greetings), they may be more than willing to look
up an occasional record for you as needed.
Make the Ancestors Come Alive
Perhaps one of the best ways to get family involved is to make their
ancestors "real" to them. Once they feel the ancestors were part of history,
they will be more willing to help you. This means you need to learn stories
and history about your ancestors, not just names to enter into a database.
Some years ago we learned about my wife's ancestor who was scalped by
the Indians during the Revolutionary War. The county history included
a detailed narrative of the event, taken from one of the daughters who
witnessed it. Later, on a trip to that part of the country, we arranged
our travel schedule to have a picnic lunch at the cemetery where Baltzer
Kleinsmith was buried. Standing around his grave, I read the story to
our children, pointing out the ridge beyond the church where the event
happened. All of a sudden, Indians, the Revolutionary War, and our ancestors
became real to three teenage children.
Just five miles down the road we stopped at another cemetery, where the
next generation of the family was buried. It was not as neatly kept up
and it was difficult to find the family tombstones. Eventually, with the
help of a published collection of inscriptions I had brought with me,
I found Henry and Sybilla Miller, whose daughter married a Kleinsmith
ancestor. While admiring the tombstones, my 17year old daughter found
their daughter, Mary, in the row in front of their stones. It had the
same appearance and read "Our Sister" where the others read "Our Father"
and "Our Mother." I stared at the stone and then at my list of inscriptions.
Mary (died 1871) was not on the list. My daughter found someone Dad did
not know about! An unmarried girl, forgotten by history, suddenly found
124 years later by a teenager. She was excited, and family history had
now come to mean something to her.
Earlier on that same trip we had stopped at Ellis Island. When the children's
grandfather arrived there, in 1909, he was about the same age as our youngest
at that time. We walked the floor he walked, and saw the sights he saw.
The concept of Papa as a young boy, with parents who didn't speak English,
became a reality for them.
Family participation is vital to your success as a family historian.
You cannot succeed nearly as well by yourself as you could with the help
of you family members. Remember, this is all about family. Working together
to solve ancestral mysteries is one way to build stronger family bonds.
At the same time, it provides vital assistance to your research into your
family. Relatives have stories and facts you may never find on a microfilm
or on the Internet.
Take the time and make the effort necessary to work with a variety of
relatives. The ideas given above are only some suggestions. As long as
you are sincere in your desire to get closer to your family and share
your family history with them, you will find an increasing number of relatives
who want to help in your quest. With that help, you will find more success.