In last week’s blog we interviewed professional genealogist Patricia Divjak on how DNA is helping to reconstruct missing family history. Today Patricia will discuss ways that parents and grandparents can begin sharing their family stories with their children.
Don: When you consider the lengths to which your research has taken you, what would it have meant to you to have oral or written histories handed down through your family?
Patricia: My great grandfather, John Winn, had a wonderful habit of writing lengthy and descriptive letters to his children. It’s difficult to convey the magnitude of personal and emotional satisfaction a descendant receives from these “gifts” from the past. Written history provides insight into the life, personality, and times of our ancestor. Oral history is valuable as a guideline for research that culminates with actual documents. Genealogists are always looking for clues to solve “the family puzzle.” Certainly, I would have saved many dollars if these family histories were available to me. However, I would have missed all the excitement of the journey, going to the home locations of my ancestors, standing at their grave sites, and meeting very wonderful, kind, and helpful people along the way. DNA evidence is the icing on the cake: validation that the DNA of your ancestors lives on in you!
Don: Was there anything that interested you as a child about your family characters and stories?
Patricia: As a child, I was drawn to fictional stories of the South during and after the Civil War. Even though I knew that my father was born in Nashville, Tennessee, I had no idea how deep my southern roots were embedded in my pysche/DNA. I was born in the Midwest and the Civil War history I learned was from that point of reference. In 2007, I finally returned to my family’s hometown for over 100 years, Murfreesboro, TN. Deja vu doesn’t come close to describing the feeling of “coming home” that I experienced. My father, before he died, left me with two clues about his family in Murfreesboro: Ancestor: Civil War Captain in the Confederacy. Ancestor: Policeman killed in the line of duty. I discovered through my visits to this fine city that the “Captain” was my 2nd great grandfather, Captain Edwin Arnold and that his son, the policeman, was my great grandfather, Joseph E. Arnold, Chief of Police of Murfreesboro until 1911.
Don: Why should parents take an interest in family history?
Patricia: My belief is that each child has an innate curiosity about their family history. Having a record of your family history helps your child to learn their place in this long line of people who had their own struggles, challenges and victories. I can only speak as an adult regarding my own feelings of completeness and self-esteem gained by the knowledge of my ancestors lives and stories. In every family history there were choices made by our ancestors that were not the best. However, they are difficult to separate out from the threads of the rest of the story and add to the humanity of the story.
Don: What encouragement would you offer parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, regarding passing down oral and written histories to upcoming generations?
Patricia: I would encourage parents and grandparents and extended family to begin writing their own memoirs. We feel that we live “ordinary lives” but when one steps back and reviews the story, there are many smaller stories and choices within the story. Doing this will also give future generations insight into our place in history, the events that were going on in the country and the world which affected our lives. Hopefully, our families of the future will draw courage and inspiration from the character and courage we have shown. A thought to remember: One day, we will all be “ancestors.” Wouldn’t you want your grandchildren and great grandchildren to know who you were?
Don: Do you have any suggestions that can help in getting kids interested in family history?
Patricia: Visit places of historical significance in United States history. I would begin with Jamestowne Colony, VA (founded 1607) and Plymouth, MA. If there is a place in your own family history that has historical value for your family, begin there and tell them the story of their ancestors, their struggles to migrate and settle this great land, the occupations of their ancestors, etc. If immigration was later through Ellis Island, visit the Ellis Island website and teach them about the opportunity that began when these immigrants crossed that threshold and began a new life. Our ancestors’ lives had value, their lives were not easy, they were human and we stand on their shoulders.
Don: What’s the best way to get started with family research?
Patricia: Begin with the information that you know about your parents and if they are still living, interview them, asking questions about where they were born, when they were born, their parents’ names—including female maiden names. Gather as much information as you can from other family members. There are many subscription sites and it is my feeling that Ancestry.com is among the best. Familysearch.org is a subscription free alternative. Since this conversation has been directed at the connections between DNA and family history, educate yourself about DNA through the International Society of Genetic Genealogy. They have a DNA Newbie Group! The bottom line is that it will take some time and effort to work with your DNA matches/cousins but the reward is phenomenal!
I’d like to thank Patricia for her generosity in sharing her expertise for this blog. And if you have any questions for Patricia or me, please post them here and we’ll do our best to answer them for you.
About Patricia Divjak
Patricia Divjak has been active in genealogy research for 20 years and is the author of two family history books. She is an expert lineage researcher, assisting over 75 women in joining the National Society of Daughters of the American Revolution. She was a successful Past Regent and Registrar for the San Diego Chapter, NSDAR. She is also a member of the Jamestowne Society and the Colonial Dames of the Seventeenth Century as well as the National Society Daughters of the War of 1812. She is a member of the International Society of Genetic Genealogists. Her current project is a compilation of stories of her female ancestors and how they inspired generations of their descendants to follow their dreams.