Verbal Family Histories

All the advice for people starting to research their family history says to go and ask family members what they know. I was lucky that my grandparents provided me with a lot of information and I will use my grandparents as four good examples of how reliable those verbal family histories can be.

My paternal grandfather immigrated as a young man during the Second World War. There were stories about his own life and extended family where he only shared snippets of information. After visiting his birthplace in his later years he did share more information. All of these little pieces of information have come together as a bigger story because my father, uncles and cousins have all shared the snippets that they heard and together the pieces of the jigsaw fall together.

My paternal grandmother wanted to share everything that she knew about the family and was a great source of information for both her extended family and for sharing what she knew about her husband’s extended family. As I have worked on my family tree over the years I have learnt that while the names and stories are verifiable. When it came to dates or the order of births within families, then the documentation shows that she didn’t really know all of the information that she was telling me with.

My maternal grandfather’s death occurred just before I started asking family history questions but of all my grandparents he provided the most information that was easily verified. Years after his death I was the recipient of some things he had kept including old family photos, birth, death and marriage certificates for his parents, grandparents and some other family members. He had newspaper clippings and other memorabilia that related to significant events in the family and he also had letters written to his parents at the time that their parents and siblings had died.

My maternal grandmother would dismiss most family history questions because apparently she remembered very little and didn’t really know anything of use. I quickly learnt not to believe that because whenever I shared my latest discoveries with her she would then tell me more about the great aunt, cousin or whoever it was I had just found out about. When she would question the names or relationships I told her I had uncovered she was always right and I could then easily find the correct information in documents somewhere. For a woman who knew nothing she was highly accurate with the extra information she did know after I told her what I had found out.

You can learn a lot of valuable information by asking your grandparents or other older family members however they are one person’s memories. What I have learnt is that it is also worthwhile asking other people in the family, verify the facts and as you find out more go back and share what you have learnt.

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