Genealogical New Year’s Resolutions

I don’t know about you, but I’m stuffed!  Too much ham, too much pie, too much of everything.  So, as I enter 2019 I will have the usual resolutions related to diet and exercise.   Perhaps the same is true for you as well.  I wish I could help with that, but that’s not my area of expertise.  But if you are interested in taking on some genealogical resolutions for 2019,  I do have some suggestions, a short list of tasks you might undertake to make your family history research even more successful in the New Year.

The common theme of these Resolutions is that they are things, like diet and exercise, that we tend to neglect or put off, but if we don’t get them done, we’ll regret it later.

Resolution 1: Interview elderly relatives

This may already be on your list of things to do.  It is time to get it done.  Trust me, if you wait until it feels urgent, there will be so much else going on, and events will be unfolding so quickly, and mental and physical facilities will be in such decline that you will have difficulties.  Do it now, when memories are riper and thoughts are more lucid.

I like starting with questions that skip back a generation or two.  Tell me about your grandparents?  Who was the oldest person you knew when you were a child?  What did your grandparents say about their youth?  What stories did they tell?  I also like asking about holidays like Christmas and Easter, where old family traditions might be especially resilient.  Visual memories can be especially vivid.  When interviewing my late mother-in-law, when she was 87, she was able to describe her childhood home, room by room, the details of furnishings and decor.

There are various websites that will get you started with lists of questions you might ask (here, here, here and here).  There is also a software package, Personal Historian (from the makers of RootsMagic), that can be used to help organize your work.  There are also some books that go into more depth on how to do family history interviews.

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Recording the interview can allow you to focus on the conversation rather than on taking notes.  This can be done with your smartphone.  Or, for $20-$40, you can buy a decent standalone digital voice recorder that can run for many hours on AA or AAA batteries, saving your phone battery.

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Resolution 2: Get DNA tests for the older generations.

A good way to think of an autosomal DNA test (atDNA) like those given at, 23andme, or Family Tree DNA, is like a beam of light from a flashlight.  It starts out crisp and bright but the further out it goes the dimmer and fuzzier it gets.  An atDNA test works best for finding relations back to 5 or 6 generations.  After that it can fizzle.  But if you can test a parent (or an aunt or uncle) or a grandparent (or grand aunt or great uncle) then you can add a generation or two to your reach.   As with Resolution 1, make this a priority.  Once the opportunity is gone it is gone forever.

Note that what matters here is not physical age, but the number of generations back.   So even the youngest member of an older generation has DNA that is worth testing.


Resolution 3: Start Writing it Down

If you are like me, you enjoy the “hunt” of genealogy, finding new stuff.  It is almost like an addictive video game.  Each new date on the tree is worth a point.  Each new person is worth 4.  And, of course, each maiden name before 1700 is worth 10 points.

It truly is fun.  And there is nothing necessarily wrong with collecting a lot of data.  But you need to ask yourself, to what end?  And when is enough?  Do you want to be the author who spends all her time researching for some new historical novel, visiting locations, scouring museums, reading the primary and secondary literature on the time period, etc., but never gets around to writing a word of her novel?

At some point you should bite the bullet and start writing it down, distilling all your accumulated notes into a written genealogy.  It can be a daunting task, and you might wonder how to start.  When I work with my clients on this, I usually recommend an ascending narrative genealogy.  This is one where you start with yourself (or some other person of interest as root, like a parent or a child), and trace them back, generation by generation. For each person you give the standard birth/marriage/death facts, as well as a narrative describing their life.

For more recent generations the narrative can be quite detailed, and might be accompanied by photographs, newspaper clippings, letters, etc.  As you go back, further and further, details are harder to come by.  At some point the details apparently vanish.  That creates a new challenge for you.  Instead of the “game” of collecting names and dates for your tree, it is the new game of finding details that put flesh on the bare bones of some ancestor who before had only a name and a date.  You learn to look deeper, at tax and church records, to interpret the inventory from a probate file, to look at the ancestor in the context of his community and his times, and so on.  Trust me, this can be just as fun as looking for new names in your tree.

And if you need help getting started, there are quite a few books out there dealing with genealogical writing in general, or writing a narrative family history specifically.  Check your library or your favorite bookseller.

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(Photograph is a crop of “Coeds with Hoes,” by unknown photographer, ca. 1945, Harriet’s Collection, HC972,  Oregon State University.)

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