Family History Episode 2 – How to Interview Your Family

Family History: Genealogy Made Easy Podcast

Republished October 8, 2013

by Lisa Louise Cooke

 

Download the Show Notes for this Episode

Welcome to this step-by-step series for beginning genealogists—and more experienced ones who want to brush up or learn something new. I first ran this series in 2008. So many people have asked about it, I’m bringing it back in weekly segments.

Episode 2: Interviewing Your Relatives

In the first segment, my guest is Cath Madden Trindle, a well-known family history instructor and certified genealogist. Cath talks about discovering dysfunction in her family (don’t we all have that?) and the new appreciation she gained for her family as a result. She also gives us some great tips on how to share what we find.

In the second half, we’ll talk about how to interview your family. That’s an important skill for any genealogist—beginner or more advanced—because you’ll need to interview people over and over again. Hear about you who you should interview, what to ask and how to ask it! You’ll also learn two important traps to avoid that will save you a lot of time and keep you from losing everything you learn.

Recap from Episode 1: In our last episode we talked about the various genealogy databases that are available to you – everything from FREE to around $30 and up.  I hope you downloaded your database and entered the information that you know about your family. Don’t worry if you don’t know a lot, because that’s why we’re here, to fill in the blanks and bring your family history to life. If you’re still on the fence about purchasing a database, then the best thing to do is download the free Family Tree Builder software. This will give you what you need to stay organized, and you can always switch to a paid program later.

Interviewing Relatives

The next thing we’re going to do is contact some of our relatives and see how much more information we can collect before we start digging into records. Start with your oldest living relative, perhaps a grandparent, a great aunt, or your parents. Let them know that you’re going to try to create a family tree and that you need their help.

They might jump in with the standard answer “oh, I don’t know anything!” but just ignore that. Your job is to help gently jog their memory and record everything you learn.

A really good way to do this is to ask a specific question like “When was grandmother born?” Even then you might get an “I don’t know,” but don’t give up. If you have an estimate of the date, or someone else has mentioned that they thought it was in June let’s say, offer that up and see if that doesn’t help the person you’re asking to remember. If you say June, they might say, “Oh no! It was always snowing on her birthday!” Everything is a clue, so the more clues you can gather the better, even if they aren’t hard-and-fast facts. These clues will at least give us a good starting place to look for the exact information.

Whether you’re meeting in person or interviewing over the phone, you’ll want to write down everything they tell you. Your database can provide just what you need for this. Let’s say you’re going to interview your mom. Go to your mom’s record in the database and go up to the menu and select Reports and Family Group Sheet and print out the Family Group Sheet for your parents’ family. This will show the information that you entered and provide blank spots for information that you need. Print a Family Group Sheet for each nuclear family group that you think you might be discussing. Again, go to the record of the mom or dad in the family and then print the group sheet. These are great for filling in, and then when you’re done with your interviews, head back to your database and enter in all the new information you’ve uncovered.

Remember when I said start with your oldest living relatives? This seems logical, and yet so many people put off these interviews and sadly they have regrets later when the person has passed away and they realized that they never got around to asking questions about the family. Each person has unique information to share, and you don’t want to miss out. So make this a goal this week – to call you oldest living relative and make arrangements to see them right away or have a chat on the phone and ask them for their help. While they might feel a little reluctant at first, they will probably end up really enjoying talking about the old days and seeing your sincere interest in their life. Already, the process of discovering your family history begins to reap rewards!

Traps to avoid

The database gives you one central location where all your data will reside. But of course this database can’t enter the data itself. You have to be diligent to enter information as you receive it. Trap #1 to Avoid: Don’t put off data entry! It’s a sinking ship! And you don’t want to die at sea, in a sea of paperwork that is! Enter information as you go and it will pay off.

Let’s think back to what Cath Madden Trindle said in the interview segment. Her first recommendation was “no matter what, write down where you got your information from.” It’s so easy after a few years to forget where you got the information, and this can cause problems if down the road you get information that conflicts with it. So Trap #2 to Avoid: Not entering sources.

Vocab Term: Source. A Genealogy source is the documenting or citing of where you got information. We need to document our sources in a consistent manner. Luckily, again our trusty database can make this pretty simple for us.

In Family Tree Builder, the button to click to enter a source looks like a stack of books. So for example, let’s say you are looking at the record for your grandmother in the database, and you just entered her birth date and birthplace. Click the SOURCE button to the right of her name and select BIRTH SOURCES. This will bring up a window where you can create the source – in this case it was an interview with Grandmother, but of course you’ll type in her full name.

As you continue in your search, you’ll be entering sources such as census records, books, wills and all kinds of other resources that you uncover. In future episodes we’re going to talk more about documenting these sources, but for right now your living relatives are the sources you are focused on.

Here’s one more thing to keep in mind while you’re asking relatives for information. Ask them if it’s OK with them if you share the information they’ve provided with other people, like through printed family trees and such. While names and dates on a family tree will not likely be objectionable, some relatives may prefer that certain stories they share remain confidential until their passing. Assure people of their privacy and see if you can perhaps negotiate an arrangement that will work for everyone involved.

Have fun this week re-connecting with your older relatives and filling in the blanks in your database the best you can. Next week we’re going to answer the question “Why do we work backwards in genealogy” and then fire up the Internet because we’re going online.

Best Strategies: How to Find Church Marriage Records

Finding church marriage records may not be as easy as finding civil marriage records. I’ve invited genealogist Sunny Morton to share her best strategies for finding U.S. church marriage records from her new book How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records: A Genealogist’s Guide.

Strategies for Finding U.S. Church Marriage Records

Marriage records are part of that genealogy trinity of U.S. vital records. In addition to documenting the wedding, marriage records may also serve up the equivalent of genealogical party favors, such as the birth dates, birthplaces and sometimes even parents’ names of the bride and groom.


Civil or government records are generally the first ones we turn to in the United States. These types of records are commonly referred to as “vital records,” since they document important events in a person’s life like birth, marriage, and death.

Civil marriage records can be fairly easy to find and access. However, that’s not always the case. There may be times you can’t obtain a civil marriage record. If you do find it, it may not include all the information you were hoping for. And sometimes you’d just like to find more corroborating evidence or additional clues about their lives. That’s when it’s a good idea to turn to church marriage records.

Best Strategies for finding church marriage records

Though not all of our U.S. ancestors were married in a church or by a member of the clergy, many of them were, so church marriage records may exist.

In general, finding U.S. church records is a two-step process:
1. identify the right church
2. then find its records.

However, this may actually involve a few additional steps.

I’m going to share with you the steps and strategies of this process from my new book How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records: A Genealogist’s Guide. Along the way we’ll see how they apply to a real genealogy case that resulted in success.

Step 1: Identify the Church of Your Ancestor

Identifying the church in which an ancestor married is key to locating any surviving record of it.

Let me give you the first and most important tip: the answer may be sitting under your nose.

What do I mean by that? Start by looking carefully back through other records you already have about the bride or groom. These types of records include obituaries, oral histories, county histories, tombstones, etc. Do they mention a church affiliation?

Church Clues in other genealogical records

Example for Lisa’s family history

Even if they don’t mention a church, perhaps one of these records can give you a clue.

For example, let’s say the husband’s obituary mentions his lifelong religious affiliation, like Methodist or Catholic or Baptist, but not the name of the local congregation. My book offers several detailed strategies for tracking down the church name, but here’s one of the most helpful: Look at city directories, histories or maps from that time period to identify nearby churches of that denomination. Keep in mind that before the age of the automobile, people couldn’t travel far to attend church.

Let’s say you find both Irish and German Catholic parishes in the area. Based on what you already know about your family, with which did they likely affiliate?

If you’ve got the civil marriage record, look at the name of the officiator. Do you see a title hinting that this was a minister, such as “Rev” (short for Reverend)? (As an FYI, the initials “J.P.” stand for Justice of the Peace, a civil office.)

Occasionally you may even see the denomination written right in the record, as it is in the Colorado civil marriage record of Mike Fox and Mary Eiarrman:

How to find church records: Colorado civil marriage record

Colorado civil marriage record of Mike Fox and Mary Eiarrman

Most marriage certificates don’t state a minister’s affiliation but searching with Google may be able to help you with that.

For example, the Indiana marriage certificate for another ancestral couple of mine identifies the officiator as “S.B. Falkenberg, Minister.” Googling that name, along with the keywords church and Indiana, led me to online books that identified him as a Methodist.

Additional digging revealed that “Somers B. Falkenburg”—probably the same guy—was specifically assigned to the Rushville Circuit of the Southeast Indiana Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1860. This was around the time and place I’m looking for that 1861 marriage record. (Learn to do this kind of digging yourself from my book. See Chapter 14 Methodist.)

Step 2: Find Where the Church Records are Located

Once you’ve identified the church, it’s time to search for congregational records that may document the marriage.

Your strategy may vary, depending on the denomination, the time and the place. Again, my book can help you: there’s a chapter with general strategies for finding church records and there are specific chapters on various denominations. Here are some get-started strategies.

Googling the Church

Find out whether the church still exists by googling the church name and location or using the online congregational locator tools I mention in the various denominational chapters.

If the church still exists, you’ll likely find a website, Facebook page, or other contact information. Reach out to their office and ask about their old records.

If you can’t find the church online, it may have closed, merged with another church, or been renamed.

Contact the Church Organization

You might turn to regional church offices or archives, such as those of a Catholic diocese or Methodist conference, to see whether they can tell you anything about that church or its records.

Methodist Conference c. 1904

Each denomination has a different organizational structure. (See the 12 different denominational chapters in Part 2 of my book.)

An Example Search

How to find church records: civil marriage records search

Searching for church directories

Remember that 1889 civil marriage record for Mike Fox and Mary Eiarrman I showed you previously? Let’s take a look at the process I used to find their church marriage record.

Since the civil marriage record told me that the officiator Godfrey Raeber was a Catholic priest, I turned to the annual Catholic Directory for that year to see what parish (local congregation) he was assigned to.

I googled catholic directory 1889 and found that year’s edition online at HathiTrust Digital Archive.

Keyword-searching within the directory for Raeber didn’t bring up any results, but I didn’t stop there. I paged through it until I found the listing for the diocese of Denver (it is now an Archdiocese).

I found the priest listed at St. Ann’s, but his surname was spelled a little differently, which is why I couldn’t find him with that keyword search:

How to find church records for genealogy

Immediately, I googled St. Ann’s Catholic Church in Denver, Colorado. Nothing came up. So, I googled Denver Catholic diocese archive and found the archdiocesan archivist’s contact information. I called him and asked what he could tell me about St. Ann’s parish and its records. The parish had closed, he said, and he had the records right there. What did I need?

Hooray! I mailed him a check and emailed him the specifics of my request. He sent me back a copy of Mike and Mary’s entry line in the marriage register:

In case you can’t read it easily, the entry references their marriage on the 28th (the month and year, in preceding columns, are “ditto-marked” the same as the entry above it, which I can’t see, but I have the date already from the civil marriage record). Then Mike Fox’s name appears, age 23, “1” for his first marriage, Denver residence, son of Martin & Francis, born in Germany.

How to find church records for genealogy

How to find church records for genealogy - marriage entry

Similar information appears for Mary, the bride, though her surname is mostly illegible. These details (age, parents’ names, birthplace) were what I hoped to learn when I originally ordered the civil marriage record—but it’s not there. Only by taking the extra steps to find the church marriage record did I uncover these additional details.

I’m still looking for a Methodist record of that marriage recorded by S.B. Falkenberg. I’m guessing his was a traveling assignment covering many small towns, which means his own personal log book may have been the only place he would have created a record, if indeed he did. The records of itinerant ministers are not easy to find.

The Search for Church Marriage Records Can Lead to More Gems

It’s true that you won’t always find church records of ancestors’ marriages or other life events such as births, baptisms, deaths or burials.

Sometimes the records weren’t created; for example, Baptists didn’t generally record marriages, as they weren’t considered a religious rite.

Or perhaps membership records have been destroyed or lost.

Occasionally, you’ll track down the records only to find they aren’t accessible to researchers. That’s sometimes true for Catholic sacramental records, which are confidential—though many church or archive offices will release copies or transcriptions of older records.

How to find U.S. church records

But while following the process for church records, you may discover other gems that can add color to your family history stories.

For example, when I was looking for Catholic parish records in Olyphant, Pennsylvania, I found a short history of the church. It described the devotion of its earliest members, who raised the funds to erect their building and even helped dig its foundations. Though I can’t prove it, I have reason to believe this family was part of that devoted group.

Other times, you may find photos, directories, reminiscences or other records that give you a glimpse of your ancestors’ church community life.

A Genealogist’s Guide to Finding Church Records

While the 2-step process for finding church marriage records is straight-forward, each case requires unique resources. In How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records: A Genealogist’s Guide which I wrote with Harold Henderson, CG lays out a plethora of specific resources for the major Christian denominations in the U.S. before 1900:

church records book cover• Amish,
• Anglican,
• Baptist,
• Congregational,
• Dutch Reformed,
• Latter-day Saint,
• Lutheran,
• Mennonite,
• Methodist,
• Quaker,
• Presbyterian,
• Roman Catholic,
• and various German churches.

More than 30 archivists, historians, and genealogical experts in specific faith traditions have contributed their knowledge to the book.
Church records won’t always be your genealogical salvation, but every so often—hallelujah!—they will prove to be your saving grace.

About the Author

Sunny Morton (along with Harold A. Henderson, CG) is the author of the books How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records: A Genealogist’s Guide, and My Life & Times: A Guided Journal for Collecting Your Stories. She is also a contributing editor to Family Tree Magazine.

(Disclosure: Genealogy Gems is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. Thank you for supporting articles like these by using our link.)

 

We Dig These Gems! New Genealogy Records Online

New genealogy records online this week include a new index of WWII POWs from the US; British and Welsh newspapers, New York passenger and crew lists and more. Take a look! 

BRITISH 1939 REGISTER BROWSER. A new browsing tool is available to help Findmypast subscribers access the 1939 Register (which is online in indexed format but requires separate premium access). “A handy partner to the name-searchable 1939 Register, Browse offers you the ability to explore England and Wales by county, borough/district, piece number and ED letter code.”

BRITISH AND WELSH NEWSPAPERS. Over 6.4 million articles have recently been added to Findmypast’s collection of historic British Newspapers. They comprise 26 new titles, including 19 from Wales dating back to 1829. According to the collection description, “19 of our newest titles come from Wales, allowing you an insight into local life during the 19th and early 20th centuries.”

ENGLAND (LANCASHIRE) CEMETERY. Nearly a half million indexed records have been added to a free collection at FamilySearch of England Lancashire Oldham Cemetery Registers 1797-2004. According to the collection description, “This collection contains cemetery registers from Hollinwood, Failsworth, Royton, Crompton, Chadderton, Lees, and Greenacres cemeteries in Oldham. Most registers contain, name, address, date of death, date of burial and burial location.”

NEW JERSEY CHURCH. Ancestry.com has posted a new collection of New Jersey, United Methodist Church Records, 1800-1970, 1800-1970 spanning nearly two centuries (1800-1970). According to the description, “This collection includes baptism, marriage, burial, and membership records from churches in the Greater New Jersey United Methodist Church Commission on Archives and History. Most records are from churches that have been closed.”

NEW YORK IMMIGRATION/CREW. FamilySearch has a new browse-only collection of more than 3.2 million records of New York passenger arrivals at Ellis Island (1891-1924). It links to images of arrival lists at the Ellis Island website. In addition, nearly 1.3 million indexed records have been added to FamilySearch’s collection of New York New York Index to Alien Crewmen Who Were Discharged or Who Deserted (1917-1957).

US WWII PRISONERS OF WAR. A new database of over 143,000 United States prisoners of war records (1941-1945, prisoners of the Japanese) is now searchable on FamilySearch.org.

genealogy gems newsletterKeep up-to-date with this weekly digest of new genealogy records online, which notes some of the biggest, most interesting and exciting collections we’ve noticed. Sign up for our weekly e-newsletter so you won’t miss any, and you’ll receive a free e-book of Lisa Louise Cooke’s Google search tips from her popular book, The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox.

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

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