Monday, January 18, 2010

Starting Point - Conducting Interviews

Due to my own genealogical interests, I have been of late getting some questions regarding basic genealogical research. While I don’t have all of the answers, frequently I can pull from my own experiences to help those with their own families. Many of these questions are answered online, but not always where you can easily find the answers. I am also a user of and have developed some practices that make finding ancestors particularly easy. I felt that by some short articles regarding American genealogical research may make your experience easier.

I became interested in genealogical research in 1968 when my eighth grade English teacher at Park Terrace Junior High gave us the assignment of creating a family tree. Since my father died six years previous to this, I did not have direct access to what he knew about his family and had to rely upon others to provide this information. My mother gave me what she could, but suggested I speak to her mother who was 83 at the time to flesh out some of the details of my maternal branch.

As was suggested by our teacher, Mr. George Ihnat, we were to ask relatives about our particular family, and this I did. This is the starting point for anyone interested in tracing their genealogical heritage. So I began to ask questions. As stated before, I had relatively no problem with my mother’s side as my mother and grandmother were great sources of information.

Finding the Impossible

My dad’s side was another issue. The oldest surviving relative at that time was my dad’s oldest half sister, my Aunt Nath. While I knew of her, I really didn’t know her despite the fact that we attended the same church. My mother encouraged me to approach her about the subject. She was a wealth of information about her relatives – particularly her mother’s family. This encouragement allowed me to form a relationship with my aunt and this continued until she died six years later in 1974. We spoke to each other nearly every week, as I considered her a link to the father that I hardly knew.

My aunt’s knowledge, however, was limited concerning my grandfather who was her stepfather. In fact the lineage of my surname was quite a blur. I knew of my grandfather’s siblings that all moved from Pennsylvania to Ohio – but only knew their names. There was the tradition that the Owstons (my surname) came from England and there was a Canadian connection. That was all I knew about them. Outside of our household, I never met anyone born with my surname and would not until 1978 when I resurrected my interest in searching out family information.

Shooting in the Dark

Living in suburban Pittsburgh, I was aware that there were four other Owstons in the phone book. I was curious about it and I proceeded to call them. The first was Clarence W. Owston and he told me what he could; however, like me he was young when his father died and knew very little. None of his line seemed to match what I had amassed. He also admitted that two of the others in the phone book were his sons and they knew less than he did about the subject. I finally was able to connect our families twenty years later – we shared the same lineage and he was my third cousin, once removed.

The second phone conversation was with a Mrs. J.G. Owston; she had been a widow for five years. Her late husband’s name was James and his father’s name was also James. Outside of this, she could provide no additional data and I thanked her. This too drew a blank – as there was no apparent connection between our lines. Years later when I renewed my search, I was able to piece together information from other interviews, wills, cemetery records, and death certificates. I had enough evidence to confirm that her late husband’s father and my great-grandfather were half-brothers.

Fleshing out the Truth

From what I was able to piece together from other interviews, a rift had occurred between our families when a disagreement arose at a funeral in 1928 concerning who should be the rightful owner of a family heirloom. My grandfather’s sister was the guilty party for even suggesting that she should have a certain rail road artifact that had once belonged to her grandfather.

This was apparently a model of a locomotive that had been awarded to her grandfather for his service as a rail road engineer. This had passed to his youngest son (her uncle) and had been owned by him for nearly 30 years. It should have passed to his children, which it ultimately did. Whatever happened to it or even its exact nature remains a mystery.

Her two aged daughters related this story to me in 1978 and the chance of this occurring seemed likely as she had done something similar when my grandfather had died four years earlier. He played a concert harp and, upon his death in 1924, she harangued my grandmother for it as it had come from her parent's family.  Eventually, my grandmother subjected to the pressure and acquiesced.

Perhaps, my great aunt was afraid that the harp would be passed on to one of my grandmother's children from her first marriage.  I hadn't thought about this before, but my great-grandparents' family bible passed to one of my dad's half-sisters and it did not return its rightful bloodline until December 1977 - a period of 53 years.  This was the turning point in reinvigorating my interest in family history as it opened up doors that were once closed.

Regarding the harp, I found out in 1978 that it eventually became a child’s plaything and was ruined because it was kept outside in the rain. This was a sad but unfortunate occurrence. At least, the mystery of the harp was solved. While it may sound that I am being overly critical of my great-aunt, I am not. I can understand why she felt deserving of these artifacts from her father’s family - as she had a deep sense of abandonment from her father and never forgave him.

When my great grandmother died in Connecticut, my great-grandfather sent the four children back to Pennsylvania to be raised by their maternal grandmother.  Like his father, my great grandfather was a rail road engineer and would be out on runs for days at a time.  Perhaps he felt that he could not take care of four children aged 19, 15, 13, and 8.

My great-grandfather later remarried and the children were apparently out of sight and out of mind. Since they had very little from their father’s family, I assume that she felt she was entitled to something.  While it doesn’t excuse her behavior, it does help to understand it. Still, I wish the harp had survived and was being used by a musician somewhere - even if it passed to someone out of the family.

Help from Non-Relatives

Nearly all of the above information came from interviews with four different individuals in 1978 and this is the starting point of most genealogical research. Unfortunately, I missed the opportunity to interview certain people that died before getting to hear their stories. My grandfather had two half-brothers that he never knew. While one died at the age of five, the younger one, Ralph, lived until 1976.

In 1989, I discovered that Ralph died in Louisiana and I requested a copy of his death certificate. On the certificate, there was a name of a lady who provided the information to the coroner. I was able to find her and made an initial contact. She was a friend of Ralph and his wife, who predeceased him, and was able to provide some limited information. The greatest prize, however, was his photo that she subsequently sent me following our phone conversation.

The information I gathered from the initial interviews in 1968 and in later years have provided a wealth of information that led me to find other records. The moral of the story – ask now while you have the opportunity. Tape record and transcribe the interviews. I took notes of my eighth grade interviews and taped the later interviews. Unfortunately, I never transcribed the tape recordings – and have relied upon memory to reconstruct some of the information as the tapes were lost over the years.

Good luck and good ancestral hunting.

1 comment:

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