My Dad died last August. In addition to the usual sense of loss for the man and father was an awareness of lost history. Luckily, in the years before his death, we talked a lot about his childhood and military service and I took copious notes.
My search on the paternal side of the family was fraught with dead ends, brick walls and frustrations, but also blessed with serendipity and long-lived friends and relatives of my ancestors who helped fill in the gaps.
But, the fear is, did I ask the right questions? What if I missed something important? When I realized the Gardners went back to 1640 Newport and that two Mayflower passengers were tucked into the mix, too, I was so shocked. My father always talked about the French (his mother) and German ties (his paternal grandmother) but had never mentioned the colonial side. I assumed most of my ancestors were more recent immigrants, like the early 1900s Irish on my mother’s side.
Years ago, when I told him of the early colonists I had discovered, he said, “Dad always said we were damn Yankees.” I silently screamed, but didn’t say anything.
When I hit a brick wall on his mother’s father, Mitchell King, I wrote to my grandmother’s old friend, who lives in Massachusetts and is in her 90s. Even though we correspond regularly, I sent her a questionnaire with blank spaces for the answers and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to make the process painless. She replied immediately with a long letter explaining that Mitchell wasn’t my grandmother’s father. Her father, Frederick Plouffe, had died at 49 and her mother had remarried. The children had taken Mr. King’s name.
When I came across my aunt’s marriage certificate, she had listed her father’s surname as her maiden name, so I suspect there was no adoption. (And, this is a perfect way to tackle a brick wall. Look into a sibling’s life and records.).
When I told Dad, he thought for a second and then said, “Oh, I guess I knew that.” This time, I came much closer to screaming, but it wouldn’t have helped. That’s the way Dad was. His memories were ferreted out best with stories. He had to find his own way to remembering things.
My mother is the one who can be grilled like an eyewitness in a murder inquiry. She remembers names, dates, who married who and the tiniest details if you but ask. Which I do … all the time.
I learned early on that how you ask a question can be as important as the query itself. But, then you have to take it one step further. Ask the next question, too. Instead of saying “I’m having trouble finding information on Mitchell King,” and letting Dad tell me stories about his farm in Massachusetts, I should have forged on and asked more questions (after the stories, of course. There is always value in the stories).
As a result, I’ve added a new question to my interviews. Was that a first marriage? For both of them?
This can be applied to any category in your research. Not just the question, but after you discover they moved from New England to the Midwest, ask “Why did they move?” and “How did they get there?” “How did the family feel about it?” or “What happened when they got there?” can start a whole conversation that leads to other avenues you didn’t think of.
Another way to come up with questions is to do a timeline for each person you’re researching, which immediately reveals the holes in your research.
Interview again and again. I talked to my mother-in-law and her sister a couple of times casually over the years. Each time, they remember more. I find getting two people together garners more information, too. One will tell a story that will spark memories in the other person.
When I come across a new question about a person, place or line, I make note of it. Then, I ask my mother that question about her side. Sometimes an issue doesn’t come up until late in your research — and there won’t be anyone to ask. I recently took a research trip to Albany, NY, sponsored by the New England Historic Genealogical Society. There were 50 genealogists like me from around the country, all searching for our New York roots. I heard several comments on how much help it would be to ask a parent or grandparent a question. Don’t wait. Do it now!
I cousin-in-law e-mailed me when he saw my paternal family tree on ancestry.com. He is researching my great-grandmother’s family and is married to one of her brother’s descendants. I don’t know a lot about her. They were from Canada and, I suspected, they went back and forth between the US and Canada (not appearing in all the censuses). We exchanged pictures and other materials and he confirmed my suspicion when he said they returned to Canada so the youngest child would be born there. Then, he asked some questions I don’t know the answers to. Oh, how I wish I could ask my Dad.
Lynda Rego has a Facebook page at www.facebook.com/lynda.rego where she shares tips on genealogy and other topics. Stop by, click on Like and share any interests you have for upcoming columns.