Oral Family Histories: The Good, The Bad, and … The Truth?

Ancestral Profiling
a monthly column by Colleen McHugh


Oral Family Histories are perhaps one of the most enlightening tools available for the genealogist interested in learning about the personalities of his/her ancestors. If you are fortunate enough to have relatives old enough to remember your great- and second-great grandparents, I would encourage you to get cracking on gathering any oral family history you can gather and to write it down!


My goals for addressing the Oral Family History and its role in genealogy are first, to help prepare researchers for some downfalls of oral histories and second, to teach people how to conduct a family history interview. This article will address the first goal.


The Biggest Downfall of Oral Histories


The first and foremost lesson to learn about oral family histories is to follow the genealogical golden rule of personal interviews: Beware of the Telephone Line. You know what I’m talking about: A story is told directly to person number one and is completely accurate from the teller’s point of view. That same story is then relayed from person number one to person number two, and just a little detail or two are “tweaked”. Person number two tells person number three, and more of the story changes. This goes on with every new telling. If the story ever gets back to the original story-teller, it is a very different story indeed! This happens with family stories with each new generation. Sometimes genealogists can find “legitimate” documentation that a story was true, while other times all they can do is document the story and its source and hope for the best!


A Case in Point


My father was quite the embellisher. He liked a story to have the “wow” factor; therefore any story he told was fair game for added emphasis, or even blatant fabrication of information. While the end result would often be a fictitious story suitable for a Hollywood producer, often there was some detail that really was true. Thus I had to take anything he told me and decipher the truth from information I could find on an actual document.


For example, dad had told me after I started working on my ancestral journey that his father worked with the Manhattan District during WWII and that he’d spent time in Los Alamos, NM as part of his duties. During my research, I never found any proof that grandpa was part of this project and didn’t find any proof of him being in New Mexico. Until dad’s second wife died and we were cleaning out the house: In the collection of photographs laid a slightly yellowed card-stock certificate issued by the United States War Department and the Army Services Forces-Corps of Engineers, Manhattan District. This certificate thanked Joseph McHugh for his work on the Atomic Bomb, therefore contributing to the successful outcome to World War II.


Documenting a Story


Genealogists who are committed to sound research adhere to a mantra that would lead one to think we are all realtors: “Documentation, Documentation, Documentation!” This is something that was drilled into me during the education stage of my social work career: If it wasn’t documented, it didn’t happen”. As mentioned above, it won’t always be possible to document every aspect of your ancestral research. At least not in a primary sense (meaning the documentation came from a source that was at hand when the event occurred). However, you can always document that information on a specific person came from an oral family history gathered from an interview with so-and-so and on such-and-such a date. Sometimes, that’s the best we can do to help future generations understand that the source is one that may be real, but not always “real accurate”.


The next installment of Ancestral Profiling will focus on “the how” of conducting Oral Family Histories.


Colleen McHugh is the author of Ancestral Profiling, a monthly column in The In-Depth Genealogist that helps you learn more about your ancestors as individuals. Colleen also blogs on Orations of OMcHodoy.



© Colleen McHugh  2012

This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue of The In-Depth Genealogist. Receive The In-Depth Genealogist free by subscribing HERE.