When I was 12, I quizzed my paternal grandmother on her experiences emigrating from Denmark. She explained how she, my grandfather and their four young sons took a boat to England in 1903, traveled across England by train, and then traversed the Atlantic Ocean. The voyage lasted three weeks, and several people died en route. But she spoke little about the hardships of the journey, and I lacked the interview skills then to probe deeper. Years later, my uncle, born in 1898, provided more details, including the sight of his grandmother waving goodbye to her only child, my grandmother, whom she would never see again. If only I could speak with Grandma Cecelia now, there are so many questions I’d ask.
Kudos to Mary Pohlman for raising a crucial question at a recent meeting of our genealogy writers group: “Which ancestor would you most like to talk with today?”
When first considering this question, many names may come to mind — perhaps a town official from 1500s Eastern Europe, a woman who outlived five husbands or the fellow who followed a U.S. gold rush west and disappeared in a mining camp. How to choose among the possible illustrious characters, forgotten heroes or black sheep?
On reflection, there are ways to prioritize your choice. Maybe one ancestor can best help us comprehend a different time, place or values, for instance, a Pinkerton union buster or a Confederate soldier. Or, one ancestor might have known crucial information about lifestyles in the Old Country, why a family emigrated or where they first settled in the New World. She (more often, this ancestor is a she) might corroborate theories (whether emigration coincided with a regional famine), explain puzzling documentation (he was illegitimate) or point to lost family lines (they died in an epidemic or a genocide). When a family made a notable change, who knew the most about the reasons and circumstances that projected a new way forward?
While we will never fully understand our ancestors’ lives, thinking about these kinds of questions can help direct our genealogy efforts. What themes run through our family stories? Maybe a family survived through cooperation within an ethnic community; maybe a family has a long history of military service, healthcare or agricultural work.
Prioritizing our genealogy questions helps make the most of our research time.
It also serves as motivation to ask older relatives what they remember while they are still here to tell us.
Doris Green authored “Elsie’s Story: Chasing a Family Mystery” and “Wisconsin Underground: A Guide to Caves, Mines, and Tunnels.” Also available: “Minnesota Underground,” co-authored with Greg Brick. Visit http://henschelhausbooks.com.