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.

 

Happy Mardi Gras!

cropped-ramonalogofinal.jpgParades and carnival remind me of my Louisiana childhood, but in truth, I had two childhoods. My first was in a small town, on a street where my grandmother, two aunts, an uncle, and 20+ cousins lived. Our house as always full of people visiting, talking, eating. We evacuated for hurricanes, which is fun when you’re a little kid. When I started school, I ran for the bus from our front porch because we listened to songs on the radio until the very last second. I once burst my eardrum jumping off the front porch. A tragedy happened that I did not remember for many years. My little brother and I played in the cool dirt beneath my grandma’s raised house. It was a frenetic, busy, everybody-knows-your business way to live.

My second childhood began when I was in second grade and my father and a professional carpenter built a house “up the bayou” and out of the flood zone. It was sugar cane and cow country, vastly different from a tight-knit family neighborhood. Our new house was surrounded by sugar cane fields on two sides, a bayou in the front, and cattle pasture in the back. Our closest neighbor was my father’s grandfather. When we moved, my great-grandfather Luke was 88. I was 8. He was old but he didn’t act old. He planted a huge garden, maintained a small citrus grove, had an old blacksmith shop that terrified me, and once–in his 90s–shot an armadillo under his porch. His back yard was dominated by a massive live oak that was struck in half by lightning during a hurricane.

My parents worked, so my siblings and I were on our own after school and all summer. We played together, settled our own disputes, rode our bikes on tractor paths, and spent long, lazy afternoons reading and watching TV. It was the total opposite of living in a family neighborhood.  My two very different childhoods prepared me for life as a storyteller, though I didn’t know it at the time.angel

Back to Grandpa Luke. I went off to college, and while I was gone, Grandpa Luke passed away. He was 100 years old. He was raised speaking French, spoke English as an adult, but reverted back to French when he was elderly. Though I had many memories of him from when I was young, I didn’t know a lot about him. I’m ashamed to say that, as a young adult, investigating my family’s past didn’t hold a lot of interest for me.

I moved away from Louisiana when I was almost thirty. I have never returned, other than for visits, and in stories. As I got older and my relatives began to die off, the storyteller in me began to realize that, with each lost relative, part of our family history was disappearing. There was no real family historian, so I decided to take on that role. I was late in starting, but I was determined to recover and preserve what I could. I started with the oldest relative I had known–Grandpa Luke. I interviewed my father and gathered as much information–backstory for you writer types–as I could. Now my father is gone. If I had not done that interview, what he told me about Grandpa Luke might be lost for good.

Why the walk back to the past today? Every year, I do a project during Lent called 40 Days of [something]. I’ve done 40 days of book reviews, 40 days of worksheets, 40 days of writing questions, 40 days of submissions. This year, I’m not going to do a 40 Days project, but I will do a short version. Return tomorrow and you’ll find out what my 40 day project will address. If you haven’t already guessed, the hints are right in front of you.

Also, if you are interested, PBS’ American Portrait is a new initiative that celebrates PBS’ 50th anniversary by preserving and sharing stories from everyday Americans. Why don’t you add one of yours?