Sunday, June 1, 2014

Conversing with Your Ancestors

A wonderful tool for genealogists is the mailing list. In a post from September 24, 2011, I wrote about how I used one of these lists to ask a question. You can read even more about this tool and how to use it in Kimberly Powell’s e-article she wrote for about.com  called “How to Use Genealogy Mailing Lists toFurther Your Research.”

Help by Kosta Kostov, public domain.bing.com

Genealogy mailing lists are a great source of information. Not only can you ask a question to the readers of the list, but you can see other people’s queries. Sometimes list members simply post items of interest.


In one of my favorite genealogy mailing lists, the  COOK-CO-IL list, I recently saw a message (Vol. 9 Issue 58) by Laura Aanenson in which she muses about questions she wishes she could ask her ancestors. Laura provides a link to her blog where you can read these questions. 

Just looking down the list of her questions, you get a good idea of how to start a genealogical search: look for vital records! But there are other questions in Laura’s list that most family historians soon learn aren’t easy to find the answers to. Information on the details of daily living, family traditions, and stories passed down: these can’t be found in the census or birth, marriage, and death records. We have to dig deeper.
 
Where, When, Who, What, Why, How?
 Office for Emergency Management.
 War Production Board, 
ca. 1942 - ca. 1943, Wikimedia.
Laura ended her mailing list message with an invitation to list readers to think of questions they would love to ask their ancestors. I would dearly love to have asked my great grandmother, Mary Carney/Kearney Kries Lauer, who died in 1955 when I was ten, a few things:
Taken by Art Spears, ca. 1955 of
Mary Carney Kries Lauer

  1. How did your parents spell their last name – Carney or Kearney?
  2. Where in Ireland were your parents born?
  3. Did your mother come over from Ireland on her own or with her family? When/where did she arrive in America?
  4. Were you really orphaned as the family story says? Were you put in a Catholic orphanage?
  5. Was Patrick William Kearney, who was born in 1877 and died just two years later, your brother?

Of course I would have a whole lot more things to ask, but the answers to these five questions would really help clear up some of my brick walls.

Brick wall and window by George Hodan,
 Publicdomainpictures.net, bing.com.
My friend and mentor, Kate from Chicago, also answered Laura’s challenge and posted her own set of ancestral questions on the Cook list. Again, Kate’s questions reflect what we yearn to know about our ancestors:

"I always want to know the human side of things. I want to see their eyes ... touch their hands ....
1. What do you remember about growing up? School? Housing? Chores? Celebrations? Tragedies?
2. What did he/she look like? Were they quiet/entertaining? Kind? Gruff?
3. What kind of clothes did you wear? Where did you get them?
4. What did you eat? What were family meals like?
5. Were you close to other family members? Neighbors? Involved in the parish?
6. What kind of work did they do? Describe it.
Kate in Chicago"

To really learn about the details of the lives of those who lived before us, we must dig deeper than the usual birth, marriage, death, and census records. We want to search for stories and histories, letters, diaries, journals, and newspapers. Even if our people did not leave their own personal writings, others who lived near them may have done so. Finding relevant sources  gives you the closest experience possible to being able to ask your ancestors about their lives.

Finally, Laura and Kate’s lists of ancestor questions can serve another function. Even if you can’t ask your questions of deceased ancestors, you can use these lists (and more that you create) to help frame interviews with living relatives. Take these to family reunions. Happy asking!

Miners and their families gather … at the Tennessee Consolidated 
Coal Company first annual picnic…, Environmental
 Protection Agency, 08/1974, Wikimedia.

Categories: genealogy tools, document types

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