This week on Who Do You Think You Are? actor Steve Buscemi went searching for compelling characters in his family history. His journey began with an 1880 U.S. Census record (shown below) and led him to a distant cousin through an Ancestry family tree.
It then took many twists and turns as he revealed his great-grandfather’s shadowy past — and discovered that even the darkest discoveries in family history can shed some light on the present.
Tips on interviewing your relatives
Steve began his journey by visiting his mother to find out more about his ancestors. Here are some tips on interviewing your relatives to help in your family history search.
Talk to your older relatives
Parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, siblings and cousins may know some very useful information about their own parents and grandparents which can push back your family research two or three generations and provide you with a firm starting point for your work amongst the historical records (originally authored by Jeremy Palmer, Dip. Gen. ).
A direct question such as “What was the name of your grandfather?” may be met with an uncertain answer whereas one such as “Your grandfather was named George, wasn’t he?” may elicit a response along the lines of “No, that was his brother. Grandad was called Thomas after his father.” Similarly, when asking about dates if is often a good tactic to give some sort of reference point – “Was it before the war that he was born?” or “Did the family move here after the depression?”. Old photographs can be very useful as an aid for getting further details. “Is this your mother at the house in Newcastle?” may bring up the entirely unknown details that the family had lived for a time in Melbourne perhaps.
As well as trying to find out facts and dates it is also worth enquiring about family records and documents. You may discover that a particular cousin has inherited all of your grandparents’ documents and letters after their house was sold. These may help you with information about earlier generations of the family. Other family members may have a collection of photographs that have been passed down their side of the family rather than to you. Similarly, some of your questions should also be about the life of your relative. People love talking about themselves and family history is all about discovering how people lived, what they did, why they did it and so much more than just bare names, dates and places. Recording this sort of information now will ensure that it is not lost to future generations.
True or false?
Of course, not all of the information you are given may be correct – but at least you have a starting point to begin your research and you can check the accuracy of the information against documentary sources. Memories can get vague over time and so just because the documentary sources do not tie in with your grandmother’s recollections, it does not necessarily mean that the records are wrong. Family stories, such as being the disinherited owner of the big estate, or the illegitimate son of the local nobleman, are often embellished as each generation retells the story to the next.
As you gather more and more information, you can add your notes or complete stories to your Ancestry.com.au Family Tree. Simply click on the ‘Stories’ tab to get started. You can then share this information with the rest of your family and perhaps more memories may surface which can then be added to your initial story.
Missed any of this season’s episodes? You can now watch them online!