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What's Your Family Story?

Oral history is the first step in tracing your ancestry

En español | When I was a girl, my grandmother often talked of her maternal grandmother, Grandma Luff. But she never mentioned Grandpa Luff, my great-great grandfather. When I asked about him, she said that he died "in the war." I assumed she meant the Civil War, which would explain why he wasn't buried with his wife. So I let it go at that.

See also: Bring Your Family Stories to Life

Once I began to research my family history, however, I quickly realized that given his children's ages, Grandpa Luff couldn't have died in the Civil War. So I asked my great-uncle, and he told me Grandpa Luff, a blacksmith, had gone to Nebraska to sell horses and was killed on the open prairie. The family believed he'd been robbed and killed. My youngest great-aunt said he went to Alaska in the gold rush and never returned.

Why You Should Trace Your Roots Now

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So we have three versions of a story. None is completely true, but none is completely false, either. Grandpa Luff fought in the Civil War, he was a blacksmith, and he left home and never returned. It took several years of research to put together a timeline of Grandpa Luff's rather colorful life. But I would never have known where to start if it weren't for the stories I'd been told — true or not.

Once you begin researching your own family, the most important work you'll do will be tracking down relatives and asking them to share their knowledge. Every family has a historian buried among the shirt-tail cousins and great-uncles. And those people are the reason not to put off working on your family tree for one more minute. By the time I found the truth about Grandpa Luff, all his grandchildren had passed away.

Every day, more and more records are available online, making research easier — although not always more accurate. But every day we lose the one resource we can't replace — people. If I had a nickel for every lament of "Why didn't I ask Grandma?" or "Why didn't I record Great-Aunt Ethel's stories?" I'd be retired already.

But if Grandma is gone, don't despair. There are always aunts, uncles and cousins — including distant cousins you might not even know. Some of my biggest genealogical "finds" have come from people I'd never met; living, breathing relatives with whom I share DNA and a common history.

These discoveries will be the most meaningful you'll make. After one distant cousin laid eyes on me for the first time, she exclaimed, "You look just like Mamie!" That meant a lot of me — I hadn't known my great-aunt Mamie as a girl, but she had. A distant cousin in Maryland had photos of my great-grandfather and his brothers, whom I knew came over from Ireland together — and of five sisters I knew nothing about! She let me take them home and have them copied. What a priceless gift!

Yes, I have dates of births, marriages and deaths for these people now — but I also know that my Irish immigrant family sent the children over in pairs, two at a time, oldest and youngest, until the entire family was in America. That little nugget of information tells me a lot about the King family — and it makes me want to learn more.

And that, to me, is what makes genealogy fun — the stories, the small details, the people. That's why I encourage everyone I know to unearth the human element of their family history.

5 Tips for Researching Your Family Story

1. Read letters. And address books and birthday books and old obituaries, anything that will lead you to living people. My grandmother's address book led me to a cousin who had begun researching our family for Mayflower Society membership. Her health prevented her from finishing it, so she gave me an entire box of work. I would never have known about her without that address book.

2. Write letters. I needed to find descendants of a cousin named Benight who lived in Arkansas, so I wrote to every Benight I could find in the Arkansas phone books. (Sorry, Smiths, this won't work for you.) I sent a short, general letter outlining who I was, why I was writing and the bare minimum of family information. ("I think we share a great-grandfather. Are you descended from Peter King?") I included a self-addressed, stamped postcard and asked the recipient to return it. Of course, I also included my phone number and email address. Lo and behold, I got a call from a woman who was visiting her brother in Arkansas when the card arrived. Bingo!

3. Avoid cold calls. Don't dial up a complete stranger, telling her you're her fifth cousin once removed and pumping her for detailed personal information. People are rightly cautious with personal information, and the subject is not likely to have the information you want sitting by the telephone. If you must make first contact by phone, explain who you are, what you're working on and ask if you can arrange a mutually convenient time to talk.

4. Be prepared. No matter how you find that elusive cousin, prepare a list of questions for the interview. The conversation will veer off track on occasion, and you should let it; the best stories will pop up that way. But a list of questions will ensure you can get back on track and that when the interview is over, you'll have the information you need.

5. Keep digging. Don't give up after hearing one person's version of a family story. Double check with as many others you can find. Not sure how to track them down? Always, always ask this simple question: Is there anyone else in the family I should talk to? Every family seems to have a "keeper" of photos and information; you might not find that person the first time out.