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OMG, Thanksgiving is a week from tomorrow and families across the nation will be getting together for all the turkey, stuffing, sweet potato casserole, pies, pies and more pies with lots and lots of Cool Whip. Football fans and parade watchers will clash unless there are more than one huge flat screen in the house and kids will develop and perpetuate those all important relationships with cousins. Mothers and grandmothers will pass along secret recipes, sisters will join each other in the kitchen to wash dishes, brothers will pound each other on the backs in greeting and an American tradition continues. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh, the family.

Family Historians, RED ALERT, RED ALERT, RED ALERT. It is the PERFECT day of the year to corner those elusive relatives who won’t answer your emails, snail mails or phone calls with those all important pieces of information that you’ve been drooling to get your hands on. Now don’t get me wrong. None of my relatives would act like that. Yeah, right! My relatives run like hell when they see me approaching, but that’s another story.

As the family historian, you have to arm yourself with all the necessary tools to get the data that will push your research forward. Someday, maybe not in your lifetime, but someday your descendents will applaud your perseverance.

First, I would print up copies of a small questionnaire, asking for the basics. Print enough copies for everyone even if you think you have all their pertinent information. No one likes to be left out. Here’s a few questions I would ask.

Name: Full name, all of them, spelled correctly and including maiden name

Place of Birth: If their place of birth such as county, state or country changed since they were born (hey, it happens), make sure to ask what that was. The county I live in now didn’t exist until about 50 years ago and the county where my Virginia folks were born was part of another county when some of them were born. This can cause enormous confusion when you are trying to get statistical data.

Date of Birth: Come on Aunt Mary, no one really cares if you were born in 1942 or 1949. God knows the real date and anyway, you’ll get social security sooner if you tell the truth. Big bonus.

Mother’s name, place of birth and date of birth: Please, please, please ask for maiden names. Names and data on siblings both living and dead. It wasn’t until I started getting cemetery information that I found out my mother had a sister named Helen who died when she was ten years old. A shocker to me.

Father’s name, place of birth and date of birth: And the names of any siblings, living or dead. All those huge families way back when usually had a baby or two that did not reach the age of majority. It’s always good to have those names to fill out all those leaves on the tree.

Grandparents information is they know it. When families get together and do this together, they start talking, telling family stores and what one doesn’t remember, another one might.

Include plenty of space for a family story or two if the relatives remember any. Put a line on your questionnaire for them to note if they have any family photographs that you could copy. Be the trustworthy person who they believe would return their pictures in the same condition that they gave them.

Buy a dozen or so cute pencils or pens to give out. Tacky I know, but hey, whatever works.

Make Up A Game: Questions about the family that not all of them would know the answers to.  Competition is good and a small prize for the person knowing the largest number of correct answers would be fun.

Make sure you take your tape recorder, camera and plenty of batteries. Candid photos make the best rather than formal, posed ones and when you get home, please identify the people in the pictures. You all know why.

That’s probably about all you’ll get out of them in one sitting. Anything that feels like a chore will not endear you to the folks. You will probably not get a ton of information but there may be one or two tidbits that you didn’t know that will add to your process.

And remember, Christmas is coming. You might get another shot at them if they invite you.

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Genealogists worldwide salivated for months  in anticipation of the release of the 1940 US Federal Census Myself included. I’m not quite old enough to see myself in the census but I knew I would see my mother, father and my brother. Also a few grandparents would be listed and I would finally find out who they were living with in their old age as well as where. I kind of think there’s a little gypsy in some of my ancestors. They just couldn’t stay put for too long. And they kept bouncing back and forth from Virginia to Pennsylvania and back again if they didn’t have any other place to explore at the moment. I like that about them.

Of course the states I was looking for were not among the first few to be indexed so I still had a little wait beyond April 1, 2012. And wait I did, still salivating, wish and hoping until finally I could get my hands on that long awaiting electronic hoard of knowledge.

The 1940 Census, being the first that has been released electronically makes me  think of all the census gone before that were amassed on hundreds of thousands of rolls of microfilm. What a difference a decade makes.

First begun in 1790, the US Federal Census has evolved into a gold mine, and I do mean G-O-L-D -M-I-N-Eof data and information without which genealogy research would still be in the dark ages.

Census

1790 was just a list of the Heads of Households with tick marks for the sex and age group of all free persons in the house and the same for slaves. Following the tick marks you could figure if he had a wife and about how old the children were. With a little wishful thinking you could figure out if your ancestor was one of those tick marks. In 1840 they asked about Revolutionary War pensioners so that was helpful to find your war hero and in 1850 they finally asked for the names of all the persons in the household, as well as occupations, real estate values, etc.

In 1860 the first Slave Census was taken as well as the regular one. Unfortunately, a lot of slaves were not listed by name, only sex, age and some general description. 1890, the one census that so many of us want so badly, burned in a fire and was almost completely lost. Kind of like the Southern court records after the Civil War. There are some fragmental records but of course, none that I want.

Ancestry.com, in addition to all the US Federal Census has a collection of UK and Canadian Census. The United States was the first country to make sure that all their citizens were accounted for so they would receive the state and federal representation they were entitled to. Individual States (not all) took citizen census as well and I have found a few at FamilySearch.com

I remember when they took the census in 2010. Fortunately or unfortunately, I was one who received the long form census. At the time I thought it was a pain to fill out pages and pages of stuff.   But then I thought how convenient it was. It came in the mail, I could sit in the comfort of my air conditioned home, put it down whenever I wanted and come back to when I had time.

Our ancestors were treated differently. Someone came to the door or up the drive to the farm house, usually on horseback or on foot. Interrupting their day, they took up their time, asked a bunch of personal questions and then went away never to be seen or heard from again. If you remembered something later you should have reported it was too late. But they did it because they thought it was important. Being counted was important to them and it’s important to me. And I am so grateful to them all.

So when the next census comes along and you get that all important form in the mail, take the time to fill it out as accurately as you can and send it back. Stand up and be counted.  Some people didn’t even send the census form back in 2010 and their descendants are going to be real disappointed in them.

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