Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Tuesday's Tip - The Interview

Charles F. Wakefield (great-grandfather) b. 1868 - d. 1955

The Wakefield family line has presented the ultimate brick wall. At every turn we find missing or misleading information. Then add the fact formal record keeping in the States had not begun for the needed time frames. Almost feel like banging my head against that proverbial wall!

Most of what is known about our early ancestor Henry Wakefield (2nd great grandfather) has been hearsay handed down through generations. One great-aunt shared the story that he joined the U.S. Navy during the Civil War, another shares a wild tale of him fleeing England for reasons unknown. There is even discussion about where indeed the family immigrated when arriving in the United States, was it Baltimore, or farther north to New England. In fact we do not even know if Henry arrived alone or with family members.

Even Henry's birthplace is a little murky. His son Charles (my great-grandfather) lists his father being born in England and Wales, depending on the census record.

Several years ago I discovered a book entitled "Wakefield memorial, comprising an historical, genealogical and biographical register of the name and family of Wakefield" by Homer Wakefield, published 1897. Inside was this entry:

Here we see Henry Wakefield born in England and died at sea in 1871. This just leads to more questions than answers. Where in England? How do you locate records for someone who died at sea? 

Recently I discovered Charles F. Wakefield's (son of Henry) death certificate where both parents were listed as "unknown". Another brick wall!

Last month I attended a webinar by Lisa Alzo (The Accidental Genealogist) with one of  topics being interviewing family members. I must admit not making time for this simple but important step in documenting family history. With this advice in mind I have begun interviewing my mother about early childhood memories in hopes of finding the key to this mystery. The bonus was getting to hear stories about interesting and eccentric ancestors.

During the course of these sessions Mom related a story about Charles F. Wakefield, son of Henry and her grandfather. She recalled him wearing a kilt on occasion for holidays and parades. This was the first time hearing this piece of the family puzzle, which of course lead to more questions! Did Englishmen wear kilts? Did Charles belong to a society here in Maryland representing his country of birth? This conversation has lead to new possibilities in researching this elusive ancestor!

So my Tuesday's Tip would be to follow Lisa's advice and interview your family members. Here are a few online tools to help with your oral history project:

Fifty Questions for Family History Interviews by Kimberly Powell, About.com Guide

Free Genealogy Family Interview Questions by Ancestor Search

Interviewing Older Relatives about Your Family History by Genealogy ABC

Oral History & Interviews by Cyndi's List

Oral History Video (YouTube) by Angela Y. Walton-Raji of the The Beginning Genealogist

Also, National Public Radio (NPR) has an oral history series by StoryCorps.

Make time before the stories are gone forever!


  1. Great advice - I might add that family historians should keep asking those questions. Oftentimes on the second and third interview something will come to the surface that had not been mentioned in the first interview. Wouldn't it be great to discover a photo with the kilt that might give a clue as to the clan?? Good luck with your research. Great post - thanks for sharing

  2. Thanks for the comment Cindy! Wish I had started this earlier in my research. So many stories gone forever! Also, great advice about follow up interviews!