Tip #4 Interview your family

We think we know them.  We think we know them well.  That is, until we go to write their story.  Our families are often mysteries to us.  This is why we must ask questions…lots of questions.

The beginning genealogist/family historian begins with the interview.  I want the oldest family member to answer my questions as soon as possible, but I’ll begin with whomever I have at hand.

I need FACTS to fuel my research.

  • When and where were you born?
  • Who were your parents?  When and where were they born?
  • Who were your grandparents?  When and where were they born?
  • When did you marry?  Where?  What county?
  • In what states and counties have your lived?
  • Did you or anyone in our family serve in the military?  When?  What branch?  Where?
  • What are your siblings’ names and approximate ages?
  • If their parents, grandparents, siblings are deceased, when did they die?  (Approximate dates are better than no dates.)

I need STORIES to flesh out our history.

  • What was your best childhood memory?
  • What was your favorite holiday?
  • Who was your favorite relative, teacher, neighbor, etc.?
  • Tell me about your best friend growing up.
  • What were your mom and dad like?
  • What were your grandparents like?
  • What is the best place you ever lived and why?
  • Where was the best place you ever visited?

Capture the facts and their stories.

  • When possible, send your questions in advance of your visit and interview.
  • If possible, record the interview.
  • Take extensive notes and “flesh” them out while they’re fresh on your mind.

I cannot overstate the importance of family interviews.  You need this information to backtrack your family.  You need this information to tell their story.  You need it first.  When you begin their story, be prepared to reconnect and ask more questions.  And you will have questions.  Every good historian has more questions.

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Getting MORE out of your field research…

How do you get the most out of your “on the ground” research time?Binoculars

I previously blogged about a trip Dee and I took to North Texas backtracking my Roberts, Byrd, Horn, Laningham and Ingram family lines.  This was an aggressive agenda of five counties in five days.  If you haven’t seen the post, you may want to read about the scope of our discoveries.

How does the genealogist/family historian get the most done in the least amount of time?  In a word, it takes PREPARATION.

I love being able to research our family in my pajamas.  The internet has made this possible.  There’s nothing like the comfort of my easy chair and laptop for making new discoveries.  But then, there’s nothing like walking the ground on which our ancestors walked.  The fact is it takes both for us to do our “due diligence” in documenting our family histories.  To do it right, you’ll have to get out of the house.

We’ll eventually have to (and want to) take to field in order to backtrack our family’s trail.  Here are some tips to make this time more productive.

 

  1. Goals, Goals, Goals
    • Have goals for your research trip. Review your work and know what information you’re missing.
    • Know what you want to do on your trip. Be specific.
    • Write it down. Aim at nothing and you’ll hit it every time.
  2. Plan, Plan, Plan
    • Now that you know what you want to do, how will you accomplish these goals?
    • What will be done and when will it be done in order to reach your goals?
    • Where, at what physical location, can you complete each goal?
    • What has to be done before I leave?
    • If you’re not a planner, please invite someone to help you plan. Tell them what you want to accomplish in your research and let them help you.
  3. Preparation, Preparation, Preparation
    • Research the resources. What family members need to be contacted?  What interview questions do I want to ask?  What courthouses will be visited?  Cemeteries?  Libraries?  Research Centers?  Have I made my appointments?  Have I checked the open and closed hours?  Will they be closed during lunch?
    • If I’m going to a library, why? Do I know what’s available?  Have I searched the online catalogs?  What about their microfilm holdings?  Have I written down the titles and call numbers of those resources?
    • Have I planned my schedule? Do I know when I’m going where?  Prepared my maps or GPS coordinates?
    • Do I have my notebooks, maps, and cameras, contact information, etc? (I once prepared my camera equipment, had all of my batteries charged, extra memory cards and then left it all!  Dee bailed me out with her IPhone.)
    • Do I know what I want to accomplish at each stop? If I have a research partner, do we know what each other will do at each venue?
  4. Be flexible.
    • Things rarely go exactly as you plan them. This is not a reason not to plan.  It’s simply a realistic expectation.
    • Plan and prepare. Work hard at making the things happen that you want to happen.  When it doesn’t, go with it.  It helps to have a partner to remind you of this outlook.
    • Enjoy your time and space and especially the people in that space!

You can go on a trip and enjoy it without doing all of these things.  But if you want to have a great family research trip, have goals, plan and prepare.

Happy trails!

Tip #3: Wealth Generates Paperwork

Wealth generates paperwork.  Deeds, lawsuits, contracts, account books, purchase records, education, etc. all produce records of our past.  The wealthier you are, the more paperwork is produced.  The more paperwork produced makes it easier to find and follow our relatives and their past.  We follow their extensive paper trail.

Backtracking the common is the challenge.  Finding and following those who have left little to follow is the task of many family historians.  You’ll need determination and tenaciousness.  You may have to get creative.  You will need the help of others.  Reach out.  Ask.  Collaborate.  Be open.  Be grateful.

Consider joining an online community like Backtracking the Common.

The Reluctant Genealogist Writes Again

I didn’t just jump into genealogy.  Perhaps you can identify with my struggle.

In my first post I shared how a wonderful couple, virtual strangers to me, introduced my family to my dad’s deceased grandfather whom we had never met.  Lawrence and Juanita Uhl of Jacksonville, Texas did their work the old fashion way.  They got in their car, drove to a courthouse, a library, a newspaper, a cemetery, made some calls and dug out the information, documented their research, made copies on bad copy machines and took Polaroid pictures.  After all, it was 1985.

What they did was to spark my interest and provide the foundation on which I now build my family’s history.  What they began continues through this blog and other efforts in the works to assist beginning genealogist and family historians.  I would not be writing this today if it were not for their efforts.

So, what took so long?  Their work on my behalf ended thirty years ago this fall.  Why has it taken me so long to shake that genealogical tree?  Well, that’s why I call myself the reluctant genealogist.

In 1985 my wife and I were 11 years into raising a large family.  We would eventually enjoy 7 children.  We were part of a growing church in a great community.  I was the lead pastor.  We were busy.  We were forward looking.  The only past I paid much attention to was biblical past and cultural past.  I wanted to bridge that past with the present and move into the future.  In most ways I still feel that way.  But not when it comes to family history.  My mortality was showing.  My family’s past was still clouded in the mist of the unknown.  No one could pass this on to my children and grandchildren like I could…and no one else should.

I began slowly, as time allowed, to collect facts, photos and do more and more research.  Dee and I began to use our away time to travel in and out of state to research the Roberts and the Ingram side of my family.  We shifted our focus this past year to the Byrds, Horns, Riggs, and allied families while my mother could enjoy our discoveries.  The Burns, mom’s mother’s family, is on our radar as well.  For three Christmases our large and growing family has played a game using PowerPoint slides.  We bring our family history to the present in a competitive format.  We spiced it up this past season with a few Riddles, Harrisons, Burges and Jordans (Dee’s family).   We call it Family Feud!

We’ve only scratched the surface in our research.  I hope to continue for many years to come.  I expect my children and grandchildren to read every post on this blog (Are you paying attention Roberts, Armstrongs, Collins and Willifords?).  I expect them to invite their friends to read it.  (Ok, maybe just their old friends).  I expect them to join the coming Facebook page and follow me on Twitter.  I…oh well, that’s enough dreaming.

Thanks for reading my ramblings.  I hope you’ll come back often, join the conversation, share how you research your family history and then share it with others.  I’ll talk about my family and in the process hope to help others research theirs.  Welcome.

The Reluctant Genealogist

I guess you could call me a reluctant genealogist.  The craft/hobby/obsession has been trying to draw me in for half my life. I finally capitulated these past two years.

Here’s how it all started thirty years ago this fall.  I had just finished conducting a graveside service outside of Fairfield, Texas when I was approached by a couple who appeared to be in their late forties or early fifties.  They introduced themselves as Lawrence and Juanita Uhl.  They thanked me for the service and my kind words and then asked me a question I had never been asked before or since at a funeral service.  “What do you know about your father’s family?”   That’s where it all began.  I didn’t know it then, but I know it now.

The truth was, in spite of my insatiable curiosity about most things, I knew nearly nothing about my father’s family.   It wasn’t because I didn’t want to know.  It wasn’t because I hadn’t asked.  I think I can sum it up in two ways.  First, my dad and his dad knew nothing about their family and its roots.  Second, unlike a good genealogist, I took their “No” for an answer.  They had nothing to tell me and I accepted their lack of information as the final say on the matter.  I lived with this false reality until the fall of 1985.

The Uhls were professors at a small college in East Texas and they both had been bitten by the genealogy bug.  They were passionate amateur sleuths, using most of their free time in the hobby (read obsession) but had hit a roadblock in following Lawrence’s father’s line.   They lost the trail in Virginia.  They later confessed to me they hoped by helping a minister that God would help them get past their brick wall and pick up the trail.

I told them only a few things at the cemetery that day.  This was all I knew.  My dad was raised in the Ft. Worth, Texas area by Gus Roberts.  While badgering my dad one day for information about his family he blurted out that all he knew about his dad’s family was that they were from a small community outside of Paris, Texas.  That’s not much to go on.

Lawrence and Juanita Uhl took those crumbs and went to work.  Two weeks later I received a call.  The Uhls asked permission to drive to our home in Nacogdoches and share what they had found.  In a few days they arrived with a notebook and large envelope in hand.  They weren’t sure how I would take the news they had to share and thought it would be better delivered in person.

Here’s what I heard and saw that day.  My grandfather, the man I knew as “Papoo”, was the offspring of his father’s second marriage.  Great granddad John A. Roberts had a nice farm in Lamar County and he worked it with his son and son-in-law from his first marriage.  His wife had been deceased for a few years when he married one of his farm workers.  She was about 29 and he was 66.  My granddad arrived in 1898.  In 1901 my great grandmother Mary Laningham Thompson Roberts and one of the hired hands named John Killian were accused and convicted of murdering my great grandfather.  They were sent to the Texas Penitentiary.  Witnesses claimed my grandfather Gus, then only three years old, was in the room when the deed was done.  He would be raised by the Masonic Home in Ft. Worth until he graduated their school at the age of eighteen.

In a flash I saw it.  I knew why my grandfather was the way he was.  I was moved with compassion for him and my dad.  My father had once described his dad as a “mean old bitter SOB”.   Dad would not escape the malaise.  He left home at 16 to wrestle with his own demons the rest of his life.  Now I understood.

My great-grandmother was convicted of murdering my great-grandfather in 1902.  Was this bad news?  Sure.  Was it sad news?  Yes.  A jury of 12 men said it was a fact.  They said it was the truth.  (I’ll have more to say about this on another day.  Hint:  They were both pardoned by two different governors!)  For now, all we had to work with was the decision of that jury.  Knowing the story allowed me to share with my father about a man he never met (his grandfather) and a man he never really knew (his father).  I saw a light in his eyes that day and an emotional expulsion from his chest.  He would live with these liberating facts for less than three years.  They were good years.

I think often of a pair of dedicated amateur genealogical detectives who made this possible in our family.  I never really properly thanked them.  I’m just now, after thirty years, understanding the impact of what they did for my family.  Thanks Lawrence and Juanita Uhl wherever you are!  May your tribe increase!  I dedicate this blog to you, your memory and people like you who are committed to the facts and will follow them wherever they lead.  I hope we all break down our brick walls together and continue to backtrack the common until we meet in a place where there is no sorrow.

Gary Roberts

March 2015