“Hidden Interviews:” What Did Your Ancestors Know About their Origins?

Sources for “Hidden Interviews”

My mother knew of my interest in family history from the time I was a teenager. Indeed, she accompanied me when I went to interview her mother and her sisters. She shared some of her earlier attempts to trace her family. And she gave me photographs to make copies, and documents to read and glean important facts.

Today is both my mother’s birthday and the day she was buried 87 years later–she became “the old grandma in the ground” to my young grandchildren.

My mother, Margaret Haslam, was a brilliant woman, well-read, and interested in the whole world around her. And she was the driving force behind my desire to gain an education and the achievement of my brother, Glen, to graduate with a master’s degree in languages. In the last years of her long life, she lived in my home and I cared for her as Alzheimer’s took control.

As I watched her mind deteriorate, regret that I had not asked her all my family questions increased. But a wonderful thing happened–as we discussed origins around the dinner table and lives of family now dead, triggers in our conversations stirred her own memories of the past. And facts came from her that I had long despaired of ever discovering! “How did you remember that?” we cried. And she laughed out loud.
Did you know that you can interview ancestors long dead? And did you know that still today, you can find, almost “in their own words,” evidence leading to your ancestors
specific origins?

At the bottom of this review of some common sources you might overlook, I have prepared a checklist of records that will provide you with “hidden interviews” where your ancestors have left you details of their lives. Perhaps, “even the color of his eyes.” In your rush to glean genealogy quickly and easily by seeking pedigree extensions online without the need for due dilligence in the records themselves, you may bypass the very first-hand statement your ancestor left for you. And I don’t want you to miss out.

County and Local Histories

The heyday of publishing Portrait and Biographical histories was 1876-1920 when some 30 commercial firms turned out “mugbooks” (as we call them). Paid convassers were sent door-to-door through the countryside to interview local farmers and businessmen–making arrangements for photographs or sketches of their homes, farms, businesses, and even their family members including wives, children, and grandparents (These are more common in the Mid-west and the West):

“Where were you born? When did you move to this section? How many children have you? What are their names and ages? Have you ever held public office? What political party do you support? When were you married? What is your wife’s name? What family does she belong to? Where is your family from? How did they get here?” …and many other questions.

Historians were employed to prepare the historical portions of the book. But the biographies were compiled from personal interviews. Canvassers were instructed to speak directly with the “leading citizens” of the community–the ones who could buy space for their biographies and could be counted on to order copies of the finished book. While egotism pushed the project along because each citizen was separately featured (and sometimes their prize livestock!), you and I benefit from the answers to the questions–provided by your ancestors themselves.

Modern writers of heritage books (common in the Southern states) and local histories follow similar research techniques to gather information for their projects. And the genealogy “articles” ARE USUALLY SIGNED by the writer. Significantly, these heritage books often include more than one article on specific families–with different details on the family in each article. Or, if your ancestors lived in more than one county, different details appear in articles in each county. Either way, you and I benefit.

A little-used strategy: watch for accounts of relatives, not just your direct line of ancestors. An account of a nephew or cousin may provide from 50-300 years of ancestry and migrations for your ancestors too!

Military Pension Claims

The pension of a widow, a brother or father, a cousin could be your door to Irish origins. I, personally, have more than one research client with traditions of “eight brothers who all served in the Revolutionary War at the same time.” Or “the father and three sons enlisted in the Confederate Army the same day.”

Along with the usual statement of where the soldier was born, where he lived before, during, and after the war, who he served with and under, let me draw your attention to the acompanying affidavits submitted in support of the claim: by neighbors, by local business owners, by relatives (although they are not usually identified as such), who tell you how long they have known the soldier and where they resided at the time. You now have a mini-census to enable you to distinquish between soldiers of the same name and to construct your ancestor’s kinship network.

Tombstone Inscriptions and Artwork

Frequently, knowledge of the original spelling of the immigrant surname (and given names too) is present in the first generation born in this country. When the original immigrant dies, that original spelling will be carved into the tombstone. Or it may be recorded in the records of the cemetery or of the sexton responsible for maintenance of the graveyard. That spelling may exist there and in no other place. I recommend that you make every effort to see the tombstone of each immigrant ancestor–wheher you visit personally or ask someone else to take pictures or rubbings for you.

That personal knowledge of your ancestral name is easily lost, misplaced, forgotten–deliberately or accidentally over time. A lot of immigrants changed their names themselves soon after they arrived. We all have traditions of name changes!

Checklist of “Hidden Interviews”
__County histories
__Town histories
__Portrait and Biographical histories (“mugbooks”)
__Heritage books
__Court testimony
__Bounty land claims
__City council petitions
__Tombstone inscriptions
__Cemetery documents
__Funeral sermons
__Consent affidavits
__Family Bibles
__Government investigations
__Ku Klux Klans
__”Family files”
__Early settlers
__Military pension claims

The Holiday Season is almost upon us–make plans now to bribe your family members who are coming to dinner, to parties, to special celebrations. Use money, gifts, offer a completed genealogy–whatever you think will please them most–to get copies of artifacts or facts your family members still have that could help you in your quest for ancestry. This is the best time of year to learn what you don’t yet know. Have the cousins over for dessert and reminisce about your family. Be alert for slips-of-the- tongue as well as openly shared information.

Remember my Mom at the dinner table, sharing what she knew from the past and laughing out loud. What a splendid gift that is. And thanks for sharing my Mom’s birthday with me.
For more sources and other search strategies, see Arlene H. Eakle and Linda E. Brinkerhoff, Family History for Fun and Profit: The Genealogy Research Process. 30th Anniversary edition. Return to my Home Page and click “Books” for details.

A special Irish episode is coming on Monday 6 Nov–don’t miss this special post.   Your favorite genealogist, Arlene Eakle

P.S. WOW! More than 400 of you have ordered my free report–I will reprint next week to replenish my stock and mail your copies at the end of the week. Many thanks for your response–and if you haven’t yet ordered your personal FREE copy of “Cutting Edge Documentation,” it is not too late. Send me an email quick so I can print enough copies and you won’t have to wait to get yours. See my post of 30 October 2006 for more details.

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