Family History Project

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Family lasts forever, even after its members die off, but only if someone records the details. Details are births, deaths, marriages, but a life is more than facts and dates. The purpose of this post is to give you questions that go beyond the facts and investigates what your ancestors’ lives were like.

If you are lucky, you will have an older relative to interview. I was fortunate to ask some questions of my grandmothers, and later my father and mother. If you don’t have anyone left to ask, use what you already know. You can print these questions and store in a notebook. I have a notebook that includes the questions, plus some family pictures, and a section at the end where I record anecdotes. The goal is to put in writing the history but also the personality of those relatives who came before you. Consider it a social family history.

Answer the questions as fully as you can. For instance, for the question “Did anyone run a family business?” the answer “Yes” won’t share much info. A more complete answer would be “My three great-uncles ran a mercantile in downtown Chicago until the  youngest joined the circus and was never heard from again.”

If the question is about disasters (hurricanes) or movements (Great Migration) or war service, record any anecdotes or stories you may have heard about those experiences.

First, some general questions to get started:

How would you describe your cultural background? For example, I am mostly French and Acadian French on my mother’s side, and Italian and Spanish on my father’s side.

When, how, and why did your ancestors come to the US?

Who is the primary source of information about your family background?

Who is the person putting together this information? (That would be you.)

Questions about family history:

I began by asking about grandparents because mine were still alive at the time. Adapt to yourself and your family. Beginning with grandparents might be the best place because most people remember their grandparents. If you don’t, that’s okay. Record as much as you know about your grandparents, and then use these same questions to record what you know about your parents, and then the same questions again about yourself.

Where and when were your grandparents born?

What were the circumstances of their births? (Home, hospital, midwife)

How many siblings did they have?

Did all of the siblings live to adulthood?

Did any die by accident or disease in childhood?

Did anyone else live with the family (grandparents, cousins, orphaned children)

Where did your grandparents grow up?

What was their childhood or family life like?

What language/s did they speak growing up?

Did they go to school? How far?

Did any of the children have to go to work at a young age?  Why?

What were your grandparents’ professions?

What was the community/town/city where they grew up like?

Did anyone grow up in a family neighborhood?

How many places did they live as children?

Were any of those places plagued by natural disasters such as floods, tornadoes, hurricanes?

Did they play any games, sing songs, etc. that were passed on?

Who were their childhood playmates, outside of family?

Are there any family heirlooms or treasures from your grandparents?

Were they members of a church?

Was anyone in the family a member of clergy or missionary?

Did the family practice religious traditions?

Were there any other family traditions?

Are there any special recipes handed down from your grandparents?

Do you own any cooking utensils, dishes, linens, etc. handed down from grandparents?

Are there any repetitive family names? (My family is full of Stephens in different forms: Stephen, Estev, Stefan, Etienne)

Is there a reason why the name was repeated?

Were there any nicknames?

Was anyone in the family famous or renowned?

Did your grandparents receive any school or civic awards?

Were any relatives public servants or elected officials?

Were there any family scandals?

Did anyone in the family go to jail?

Was anyone in the family murdered, died suspiciously, or disappeared?

Is there anyone in the family nobody talks about?

Did anyone break social conventions (elope, divorce, children out of wedlock, mistresses)?

Was there a family rebel or black sheep or adventurer?

Were there any family feuds or estrangements?

Did the family take regular outings somewhere (the beach, the mountains)?

Did the family take vacations?

What did they do for entertainment, either at home or away from home?

Were there any entertainment traditions, such as going dancing on Saturday nights, or Friday  night card games, etc.?

Did they live through or participate in any historical events? (Great War, Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, Holocaust, civil rights movement, etc.)

Did any relatives participate in events such as the California Gold Rush, the Great Migration, the Oklahoma Land Rush, or pioneers in the migration West?

What did your grandparents look like?

Do they resemble anyone else in the family?

Is there a particular physical family trait (hawk nose, curly hair, long legs, droopy eye)?

Was anyone in the family disabled via birth defect or through disease/accident?

Did anyone survive, contract, or die in epidemics such as yellow fever, polio, Spanish influenza?

Did anyone survive or die in ethnic cleansings such as the Holocaust, the Acadian Expulsion, Armenian genocide, Native American or indigenous peoples massacres?

Did anyone in your family participate as the aggressor in ethnic cleansing or mass killings?

Were your grandparents musical, artistic, or talented in the arts?

Were any particular artistic talents handed down to later generations?

Was anyone in the family a professional entertainer?

Did anyone work or start a family business that lasted generations?

Did anyone start a new business or was an entrepreneur?

Were there any financial catastrophes, such as losing everything in the 1929 Crash, Dust Bowl, or Black Monday?

Did they belong to a particular group of workers, such as fishermen, coal miners, farmers, mill workers, doctors, teachers?

Did anyone in the family have an unusual occupation, such as lighthouse keeper or town sheriff or rodeo clown?

Is any building, street, town named after a relative or the family?

Were there any early working women in your family?

Did any women participate in the suffrage movement?

Were there any widows or widowers or bachelors or spinsters?

Anyone participate in war, social, or civil protests?

Did any of your ancestors fight in wars?

Did anyone die in war?

Were any buried away from home, such as a foreign battlefield cemetery or at sea?

Did any soldier participate in a famous battle?

Was anyone awarded an honor or medal for military service?

Did your grandparents tell stories about living during WW2 or the Depression, etc?

How did your grandparents meet one another?

What were their courtships/weddings like?

If they were married, did your grandparents remain together until death?

Were they divorced, widowed, etc?

Did they remarry? If so, was there a “second” family?

Are there any unsolved family mysteries?

Are there any anecdotes told over and over among relatives?

This is my list. What did I forget? Please use comments to add any questions you think should be included.

 

14 thoughts on “Family History Project

  1. Thank you for this wonderful list of questions. I know so little about my family’s history, especially on my mother’s side of the family. She died months before my fifth birthday. These questions might lead me to some answers and a gift I can leave my sons and grandchildren.

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  2. Ramona, thanks for this list of prompts! Just reading though it gave me a semester’s worth of ideas for memoir essays about growing up on the bayou. It will help me with fiction, too, by asking “what if” about my characters. I’m going to pass this along to my writing colleagues.

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  3. I wish I had had a list like this–or the sense to ask ANY questions–while my parents were alive, let alone my grandparents. The gaps in my family knowledge are chasms.

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  4. Wow, Ramona! These questions are inspiring on so many levels, beyond family history, but also for creating vibrant fictional characters with depth. You constantly amaze me! I’ve started handwriting a journal about my WV grandparents and my mother for my child to one day discover (or accidentally incinerate, if she never adequately learned cursive), and this will be super helpful.

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