By Nancy Calhoun
When new researchers visit the Genealogy and Local History Department at Muskogee Public Library, we often tell them to start with themselves and work back. They probably already possess more than they thought in the form of paper records such as birth, death and marriage, in photographs, in information received from other family members, and in the knowledge of living relatives.
One of their most valuable tools is a pedigree chart, also called a family tree, which is their road map to successful research. Almost everyone can fill in at least three or more generations, particularly with the assistance of older generations.
Many will be gathering with family and exchanging cards and letters during the upcoming holiday seasons. It’s a perfect time to make contact with relatives about genealogy research, including a few questions with the card and letter.
Asking about holiday memories over Thanksgiving turkey or Christmas ham is a perfect setting to learn about family traditions. It’s a shock to many reared in today’s consumer gluttony atmosphere to learn that grandmother’s Christmas gifts were often a piece of fruit and one small toy, followed by a meal of what was available from the family larder, whether it be fowl or beast, beans and cornbread. Or perhaps the only gift was received at a community, church or school Christmas tree. A brown sack of penny candy, nuts, and an orange and/or apple was a cherished treat. I never really liked ribbon candy, but it always brings warm memories when I see it because it is associated with church and small school Christmas gatherings and fine folks.
A few questions in a Christmas card may yield a treasure trove of family information if the recipient is an ardent researcher or if she or he has inherited family documents or research or has a good memory. I always sent cards to a distant cousin whom I had never met. Imagine my surprise a couple of years ago when I started receiving boxes and packets containing not only his Rushing family photograph collection, but also his uncle’s, passed on to a genealogy minded cousin when he realized his children had no interest and would probably cast them aside when he was gone.
These questions may yield long sought after information. This is especially true if they are accompanied by a self addressed, stamped envelope, a tradition by long held genealogy etiquette when requesting information. Too many questions may be overwhelming, but may lead to further correspondence. A telephone call with holiday wishes may help with those who are reluctant to write or whose arthritic fingers make it difficult.
Even if no information is sought, it’s often uplifting during the winter to receive a telephone call from a relative with holiday greetings and to exchange a little family news. Some of my most pleasurable New Year’s days have been spent making five minute phone calls to my relatives in the over 80 age bracket out of state and other cousins to just say Happy New Year and let them know their Oklahoma relatives are thinking of them. It’s a heart warming experience to hear accent tinged voices that remind one of relatives who are gone.
When visiting, I often find taking a list of questions is helpful, recording or writing down the answers. Looking at family photographs can start the memories flowing. The photographs themselves may provide information. Names are often written on the back. A photographer’s name and city may be printed on the front. Looking at images of family members may prompt memories of that person and events in their lives.
Follow-up visits can yield even more information. Additional questions may have formed after the initial visit. People often think of more information later and will share it. My grandmother would often tell me, “I thought of something after you were here last time.”
Ask permission to copy photographs. The only reason I have copies of long vanished photographs is because I invested in my first 35 mm camera about the same time I started genealogy. I copied many photographs while lying on the floor of my grandmother’s home with a light shining on the photographs and using magnifying filters. Not the best set up in the world, but at least I have reasonably good images. Small portable scanners are now available, as well as little wand scanners that fit in the hand for copying photographs, documents, and printed pages. Even people who don’t want documents and photographs to leave their possession, will usually give permission to copy in their home while they are present, especially if you make extra copies for their children and grandchildren.
Publications and articles on how to conduct interviews, including questions to ask, are available at Muskogee Public Library. The Genealogy and Local History Department usually provides Beginning Classes on the first Tuesday of the month and schedules Beginning Internet Genealogy on the first Thursday of the month. Call (918) 682-6657, Ext. 3, to reserve your place in the classes.
Muskogee County Genealogy Society also offers educational programs. Their regular meetings are held on the fourth Thursday of each month. Due to the holiday schedule, the November meeting will be held Nov. 15 and the annual Christmas party will be Dec. 20. Both are scheduled at 6 p.m. in the Grant Foreman Room, Muskogee Public Library.
Nancy Calhoun works in the Genealogy and Local History Department of the Muskogee Public Library. Reach her at (918) 682-6657, Ext. 3.