Finding the family historian in my own family history

Interviewing my grandfather about his life

Even before I earned my master’s degree in public history, I liked to fancy myself a bit of a family historian. I am lucky enough to still have three living grandparents: ages 86, 89, and 94. I have taken up the task of recording conversations with them about their early lives and families, so that their stories can be preserved for future generations.

I’ve gone through photo albums with my grandparents and seen some of the family heirlooms that have been passed down for generations. As a former journalist, I was interested in documenting stories, and that was my focus for years. I recently went back to school and received a master’s in public history. So last Christmas, when I was visiting my paternal grandparents down in Florida, I decided to use my new training as a historian to ask my grandmother more questions and document what I might have missed over the years.

During one of our conversations, my grandmother pulled out a collection of family group sheets that she received from her own father after his death. These sheets were copyrighted in 1936 from the Genealogical Society of Utah. I was unfamiliar with most of the names of the chart, and was surprised to find that one of the lines traced back to a 1746 birth in Pennsylvania. I knew my grandmother had always said we were descended from the Pennsylvania Dutch, but I had never seen the proof until then.

I had also never seen a group sheet before, and while they were interesting, I initially put them to the side and did not think much about them. Cut to five months later, when I joined American Ancestors/NEHGS as a researcher and I learned all about their usefulness.

Curious about why we had so many generational charts, I learned that my great-grandfather had turned to Mormonism after a cancer operation, and became interested in family research. Without his work digging for our family roots in Utah, I would not have such a rich starting point for my own research.

Since starting my new job as a researcher, I have given my own family group sheets another look. I was stunned by how much information had been recorded, but also by how much was still missing. I know that my grandmother also has Irish ancestry, but the Irish side stops in Pennsylvania in the early 1800s.

I have more research to do to see if I can add any more to those sheets, but I will be starting fresh on my grandfather’s side. All I know is that at least part of his family is German and settled in New York. As for my maternal side of the family, my mother is a second-generation immigrant. Both of her parents were born in Mexico and moved to the United States in the 1950s. A quick search helped me find my grandfather’s 1921 birth record in Sahuayo, Mexico, but there are many paths I have yet to pursue. I am excited to jump into my family research as soon as I find some free time, and cannot wait to get started.

About Anjelica Oswald

Anjelica holds a MA in Public History and certificate in digital humanities from Northeastern and a BA in journalism from Ohio University. She worked as a reporter in New York for four years before starting her graduate degree. She recently finished a year as a digital public history intern with the National Parks of Boston. Areas of expertise: Revolutionary War and Massachusetts records, Spanish fluency.

9 thoughts on “Finding the family historian in my own family history

  1. I am so happy for u. U r very lucky to have so much family research done on your family. Do ask u grandparents question while u can. We lost my mom in May at 101 & 1/2 years & I am so glad I had asked her so many question but wished I would of asked more.
    Lynnda Wohleb Shaffer

    1. So sorry for your loss, but are definitely lucky have had the chance to talk with our family members for as long as we have.

  2. Good luck interviewing your relatives, my mother and father have been helpful, as for my grandparents, they were extremely not only not helpful they were openly hostile to me finding out anything about the family tree. They thought I had some type of mental illness. They condescended me about finding this out. I actually had more success going behind your back, finding the information out on my own. Sometimes I found out why they were so hostile, I found out my great grandmother’s mother was institutionalized as well as my maternal great grandfather in the 1940s. I have given up on interviewing. Genealogy is my passion, however, I approach it really not sharing a lot of it because of all my relatives giving me such a hard time. Has really been a mixed blessing.

  3. Anjelica – when you say German and in New York, are you talking about the Palatines. My mother-in-law’s ancestor came to Dutchess County in 1710. I have her files and book on the family if that might be a help. My ancestor was there too (Livingston).

    1. I’m actually not sure! But thank you for that information. As I research my family more, I may be led in that direction.

  4. If your German ancestors lived in NY you should look into those who came in the early 1700s from the Palatinate in Germany.

  5. Anjelica, I am almost shocked to discover that you, as a researcher, have not gone through your own family prior to now and can put it aside. My beliefs WERE that all of you and your peers would have full knowledge and huge family trees back to 200 or so. I’m impressed by your education and can only wish you so much more fun when you start your family journey to the past. I start with one ancestor from the Revolutionary War and eight hours later, I’m still reading about lives and events. It’s too fascinating. You must have incredible patience.

    1. It’s quite hard sometimes!! I’m hoping once the holidays arrive, I’ll have some more time to explore and actually build out my family tree. In the meantime, the few records I’ve found on quick searches have excited me. But it’s also fun doing the same for clients and helping them answer questions they’ve had for years.

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