F is for FAMILY
Yes, family is what we’re all about, so approaching our families first seems an obvious starting point. Unfortunately, some people have no living relatives, others are “blessed” with kin who closely resemble clams. However, if you cast your net widely enough and approach extended kin as well as close kin, you have a much better chance of finding out good clues about your families’ stories. Trying to cold-call people can be truly daunting, but surprisingly I’ve had great success with mine.
By sending out a standard letter to those with my unusual maiden name, I was lucky enough to contact a surviving elderly granddaughter of my immigrant ancestors. Not only did she give me wonderful stories of their lives on the farm, but also gave me the name of a third cousin interstate who has whole suitcases of photos!! Genealogy gold!
My McSherry great-grandparents and some of their children, kindly provided to me by a cousin.
Of course not all the yarns can be relied on, as they take on a life of their own over the years. You have to use the oral history as a road map from which you can check as much as you can of the stories. Some “witnesses” are incredibly reliable, others prefer to spin a well-embroidered, if demonstrably incorrect, yarn.
What is interesting is when you hear the same story from different branches of the family who didn’t live close to each other eg “George jumped ship and went looking for gold”. I sometimes think no one came to Australia other than convicts and gold-seekers. A similar story that George Kunkel had two brothers who went to America has defied confirmation despite decades of searching, though I have narrowed down some half-siblings’ descendants in upstate New York.
Don’t forget too, that families have stashes of interesting things which can tell you more about your ancestors, especially the women who remain elusive in official records. Does your family own old address books, autograph books, newspaper clippings, crocheted doilies, handcrafts, hand-written cook books? Taking note of these and trying to find out more about them – and documenting the story once you learn/confirm it – is an important part of your research.
There’s something very special about holding an item an ancestor has held or used…or seeing their handwriting passed down through the ages on a document.
The downside is the families who move around, aren’t into clutter, or think others will laugh at old photographs or papers and burn them….it makes you want to weep.