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I'm Jennifer, and I'm an Occasional Genealogist... sort of. For over ten years I've been a professional genealogist. I started researching my own family nearly 30 years ago. Like many of you, I started as an Occasional Genealogist. I had to squeeze research in while in school and while working full-time. Then I got my first genealogy job and for awhile, it was genealogy all the time. Now I have two kids. I do other people's genealogy constantly but my own? Coming up with ways to do great genealogy, despite all the interruptions, is now mandatory.

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How to Pry Family History Out of the Willing but Vague

Finally cornered Aunt Nadine only to be unable to make chronological sense of her tale? It's a chronic problem for genealogists. Inaccurate answers in oral history interviews have nothing to do with the mental acuity of the interviewee, it's human nature. Luckily, there's a pretty easy fix, one often employed by professional genealogists on their clients.

Instead of trying to get dates out of your relatives, rely on markers they won't get wrong. This means you'll need to ask some additional questions and it's best if you have some historical knowledge you can use to supplement the timeline. Also, you'll want to "verify" your markers because we all get things mixed up sometimes.

How do you do all this? Simple, relate an event that is chronologically unclear to something the person finds fixed.

The problem is, you don't know what they find fixed.

On top of this, some people have no problem lying and others essentially lie because they answer and won't tell you they are unsure. There are of course people that won't give you a direct answer if they are unsure.

By asking several questions related to life markers, you have the best chance of sorting out the order of events and placing them into the correct timeframe (if not exact year).

By asking several questions related to life markers, you have the best chance of sorting out the order of events and placing them into the correct timeframe.

Examples of markers are:
  • How old someone was when an event occurred. 
  • If they had started/finished school or school events (winning a sporting event, changing schools, etc.) 
  • Life events related to siblings or anyone living in their household. 
  • If they had met their spouse/married.
  •  If they had children/a specific child or the life events for a child. 
  • Career, military, "positions" (ex. when they became an officer in a civic group) 
  • Major historic events (Pearl Harbor, Kennedy Assination, 9-11) 
  • Local events (local disasters, building of roads or buildings, anything locally newsworthy) 
  • Personal events you can look up the years for (example: national sporting events---they will only remember if it's significant to them, though). 
If you know the person well enough to know what they talk about all the time or what they consider important, use those as your starting point. For anyone, people remember when things change. It might be a life changing event for the nation or world. It might just be something only they notice.

You want events they correctly tie to a year or where you can verify the year/date.

If you can prepare ahead of time to determine the person's birth year (at least approximately) and what events would have occurred in their life, that will help. Talking to them instead of just interviewing will loosen them up and also help you get some of this information.

Potential Pitfall!

If you think the easiest solution is just to get the vital dates up front, it might be, and it might not. I know plenty of people (especially "ladies") that will not tell you their age or year of birth. Some lie.

Age and birth year (of the interviewee) are my least favorite markers. Think about your own life. There are some events you know exactly how old you were. Others you could calculate or estimate. You might be off. Some you'd make a guess or stab in the dark. Now combine that with all the other variables. Yikes!

Don't Just Rely on Age

Age is an easy marker to ask about and often a natural question to ask. Sometimes you get lucky and the person estimates out loud going over the events that happened to them around that time. Your work is done for you!

Sometimes you get lucky and the person estimates [how old they were] out loud going over the events that happened to them around that time.

As long as the person is relating something they remember, not something they were told about, they won't be drastically off with their age. For childhood events, they are probably accurate within three years on either side (at most). Would you confuse something from when you were five with ten, ten with 15? People may also be fairly accurate if they determine "how old" by their grade in school.

It varies more in adulthood but you have more markers to narrow it down. You've lost the advantage of each year of school being distinct (if it was). However, adults have a lot going on and that means a lot they might remember as a collateral event. You can then use those as markers.

If you've had time to prepare, test an age given against a fact you know. Don't ask "are you sure that's correct?" Instead say, "oh, Susie had just been born?" This requires a pretty firm knowledge of their life, but is very possible with your closer relatives (grandparents, aunts, uncles, even cousins in some families). This is pretty hard if you're using this interview as your starting point for research into that branch of the family.

Creating a timeline of the person's life with historic events, their age, and years makes this easiest (the timeline is your quick reference so you don't have to look anything up and can keep the conversation going). Even if you've made a mistake and Susie was born just after this event, that still helps test it (when they hopefully correct you).

Practice, Practice, Practice

If you really want to get better at this and/or understand what kind of inaccuracies you're dealing with, practice. Interview friends and close relatives.

To learn the "problems" you might encounter, interview your siblings or family/friends who are about your age and grew up with you. You want people that have shared memories you can judge against. Go ahead and ask questions you know the answer to. See if that's the answer you get (and then make sure what you thought was the answer, really is).

Now You Know Why the Census Lied

Finally, if you still can't get the story straight even using life markers, ask someone else. An oral history interview is one source. You've just seen in action why a census record says one thing, and a birth certificate something different, and a social security application a third thing.

Great genealogy is done by putting together many small clues from many varied sources. Talking to relatives may seem like a straight-forward way to get answers. It's really a better exercise in learning why so many sources are wrong or disagree. It will still provide genealogical gold if you gather clues instead of just "facts."

Do you have a technique you've found helpful when trying to interview relatives? Leave a comment.