Oral Family History Fades in Just Three Generations

May 19, 2014  - by 

Ever frighten yourself when you couldn’t recall a family story or experiences you know had to have been recounted to you many times by your grandparents? Ever wonder why you know very little about the personal lives of your grandparents or great-grandparents?

Aaron Holt of the National Archives and Records Administration says that “it only takes three generations to lose a piece of oral family history.” If you want to avoid losing those precious family stories passed down through the generations, Holt continued, the story “must be purposely and accurately repeated over and over again through the generations to be preserved.”

Jim Ison, an area manager for FamilySearch.org and a recent luncheon speaker at the National Genealogical Society’s 2014 conference in Richmond, Virginia, said the notion that his family’s narratives could be lost in three generations gave him the resolve to ensure that didn’t happen on his watch.

Ison, an accredited genealogist, shared a similar epiphany he had last year at a RootsTech 2013 talk by FamilySearch CEO, Dennis Brimhall. He said Brimhall asked a stop-you-in-your-tracks question, “What will your great-grandchildren wish you had done?”

Ison has spent a lifetime researching his family’s genealogy, meticulously extending and documenting generation after generation of his family tree. Now he found himself faced with a very intriguing question indeed, “What WOULD his great-grandchildren, most of whom he’d probably never meet in this life, wish he had done?”

Ison thought, “No one knows (my ancestors) like me or their stories that I know. I’m the connecting link between my grandchildren and my grandparents.” He decided at that moment in 2013 to put aside his passion for genealogical research and a long-term goal to trace his genealogy to the great Charlemagne, and instead he began focusing on the rich personal accounts of his parents and grandparents—things he thought his great-grandchildren would want to know and wish he had taken the time to do.

He started with a box of old family photos in his closet that had been passed down to him from his father, who had them passed down to him from his mother. “Like my father,” Ison noted, “I put the box in my closet for (another generation of) safekeeping! The problem is a box doesn’t make them shareable, accessible, or enjoyable across generations.”

To start out on his new quest, Ison picked a particular set of grandparents to start with, Lorilla Spencer and Frank (Reight) Ison. He scanned their photos and uploaded them to his free FamilySearch.org account and added other source documents he had amassed over the years from his research. He then edited and added stories his father had written about his grandparents years before, and he preserved and shared them online through FamilySearch’s Family Tree.

“They moved from my shoebox to the ‘cloud’ online at FamilySearch” for future safekeeping,” said Ison triumphantly. “Now a great-grandchild 1,000 miles away can see the same pictures and read the same stories.”

Ison quoted research from a 2013 New York Times article by author Bruce Feiler, who observed, “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.” The research noted that children who knew the most about their forbearers—who they were, where they grew up, illnesses they struggled with, and tough trials they went through, had the greatest self-confidence and dealt with personal stress better.

For posterity’s sake, Ison focused on pointing out such highlights of the personal lives of the ancestors he knew and discovered through research.

For example, his Bavarian grandpa’s mother died when he was a young child. His great-grandfather remarried a “wicked stepmother,” who spanked them every morning and told them the spanking was for anything during the day she wouldn’t catch them doing! This grandfather and his older brother eventually ran away and changed their last name to avoid capture. They immigrated to the United States, worked hard, and were very successful.

His grandmother became a school teacher at a very young age. She was traumatized when her fiancé was killed in a tragic accident. To escape the constant reminder in the local community of her heartache, she applied to teach in Alaska and was rejected ironically because she wasn’t married. She applied in Georgia and was refused because she was a “Yankee” from South Dakota. She applied in Kentucky and was accepted, which explained why she was willing to relocate 1,300 miles on horseback on her own, without the comforts of home and family.

As a newly married couple, the home of these same grandparents’ burnt down.

Ison created questions from the stories and photos for these two grandparents, Frank and Lorilla, that would entice his grandchildren to know more about their fascinating great-grandparents.

  • At age 9, why did Frank leave home with his brother?
  • What did he do in the United States while in the German Navy?
  • Who was responsible for him changing his last name from “Rieght” to “Ison”?
  • How old was Lorilla when she started teaching?
  • What was she given as part of her standard teaching supplies? (Answer: a gun)
  • Why did she move 1,300 miles from South Dakota to Kentucky?

Ison said he marveled at how enthralled his grandkids have been in looking for the answers in the photos and stories he published online at FamilySearch.org and how easily they navigated the online tools to do so.

For the younger grandchildren, he published 75 pages of the stories and photos. And he creates other fun activities such as crossword puzzles, bingo boards, and memory games with ancestral information, which he enjoys doing with grandchildren when visiting. “It will amaze you how many questions your grandchildren will ask just from a single ancestral story.”

Ison is now moving on to repeat the process for other grandparents and ancestors in his tree, very content in his new role as the intergenerational connection for his posterity.

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  1. This was one of the most wonderful things I have read for ages. How I would love to sit down with this man and learn all about how he did all this.
    I grew up listening to my Mother tell me stories of her family and ancestors; stories passed down to her as well as her recollections. About 15 years ago I sat down with Mother and Dad and asked them questions about their families and memories and I recorded it all on tapes. Now I need to transcribe them and get them copied onto DVD so their stories and their voices will always be heard. I do not have any children myself but my brothers and nephews and nieces have expressed great interest in what I am doing.
    Early December I felt very prompted to start writing down the things I remember and things I remember hearing about my Mother’s Father. I researched his WWI record and learned about where he fought etc. he would not talk about it only to say that “I would not know thei horrors of loving in the trenches, standing on the bodies of dead horses with your deD comrades around you…” I have also gone through the family photos (well most of them as I just got more when my parents passed away on the last few years…).
    I also sent my draft copies to a couple uncles and an aunt for their review/comment/additions. After I have completed this I want to do my parents and more grandparents etc.
    I hope and pray that one day a future descendant will read them and “get to know” their ancestors too.

        1. A digital recorder that allows you to connect and download to your laptop or desktop OR check the apps available for use on smartphones and tablets to find one that will allow you to share the recording via email, such as Recordoid HD (android). Pictures will, of course need to be scanned.

          1. Thank you – that’s a great idea. I recorded something using my iphone recorder but I don’t know how to download that to my computer. Any ideas please?
            Thank you

      1. I often think of the children of this time, who through no fault of their own, never really know a parent or sometimes both parents, grandparents or sometimes even great grandparents. Those children sometimes just live far away from their extended family, or they have been abandoned by one or other parent or some are now being raised by their grandparents. How magical it would be for them to get to know their parents and extended family because someone like you or I took a few minutes each day to record our memories and the family “Stories” handed down to us.
        In so many ways we have been a very blessed generation living in a time when people took time to write letters to each other be they love letters or letters to family and friends. We or at least some of us, are fortunate to have grown up with the special times listening to family members relate tales of their life experiences and those of their extended family.

  2. Although I love the “search” and puzzle solving that goes with genealogy, I, too, am trying to preserve the stories of my grandparents, parents, and great grandparents – and some about me as well. I enjoyed this very much.

  3. We were just working with our attorney to update wills & other legal documents and commented on recorded messages to family and in order to do that, one would have to leave the “machine” to access the recording. (VHS/Beta; DVD/BluRay, etc.) Our Family has a joke – no family bible but we have a family briefcase & two notebooks. We also have ancestry.com and genealogy.com trees online. And here’s the problem: My mother’s youngest grandchild not only doesn’t really care about the genealogy but is technologically inept – Facebook, texting, phone photos but generally doesn’t use email or cloud or a computer. In fact, thought that iPhone had to be replaced when it ran out of memory.

  4. only a while ago I was complaining…::”” I said why do I hv to be the one to put infos, phots together???…..but then reading ur article, it inspired me….my problem now is I”m not that savvy when it comes to computers ….so I hv to ask my niece. Felina to help….thank you….you inspired me….to put down into worlds stories i heard fr. my father, n the photos i hv on hand

  5. I have just read all the comments and I feel very happy if I have inspired someone to write about their family. It has all been brought get home once again to me with the 100 year anniversary of WWI, I have learned more about the war my Grandfather fought in in Europe. As I read the accounts from diaries of other soldiers, no wonder Grandpa didn’t want to remember and talk about the things he experienced. How grateful I feel and blessed that those men wrote their diaries and that their descendants were so kind and shared those words with others.

    It’s so much easier today to use the Internet to find information about places and social conditions and things that were going on where our ancestors lived at the time they lived there – it helps me to understand why my ancestors may have made the decisions they did. Was there economic conditions like the Great Depression or the Industrial Revolution that made them decide to leave where they lived and move somewhere else? Did the loose their job? If they emigrated to another country, what ship did they travel on, how long did it take? For example I have found that some of my ancestors left Glasgow, Scotland at a time of great unemployment and typhoid fever was going around and they boarded a small wooden ship with their 4 month old daughter, and sailed for 4 months to New Zealand on one of the first of two immigration ships to this new land. What courage they had. I wish someone had asked them about their life and their travels and written it down!

    I feel very prompted to phone my Dads only living sister and ask her some questions. She is getting frailer and although she lives back in New Zealand and I now live in the USA I will call her. Her Father, my Dads Father, died when my Dad was only 7 years old, what was it like for them growing up? I wonder. As I thought of tis I also realized that my grandfather on my Mothers side also grew up without his Father. His father, my grat Grandfather was a Policeman and died saving others after a severe flood.

    I wish I had asked my Grandfather about his life growing up. We were very close but as a child and teenager I never thought to ask him when he was still with us.

    And I knew my great Grandmother, my Grandmothers Mother on my Mothers side, but again as a young teen I didn’t ask her about her life,… I wish I had.

    I read a good quote the other day… “When an old person dies it’s like loosing a library…”

    Thank you to everyone me who has and continues to inspire me to ask and wr ire down even the smallest things about my family. I apologies if I have rambled on too much.

      1. Thank you for your kind words. I have decided to make a photo book for my husband and his two sisters for Christmas about their heritage.

  6. Thank you for this inspirational article. I shared it with my friends and family as it offered ways that we can incorporate family history work on a regular basis. Today I participated and recorded a conference call with my aunts and uncles as they shared stories of my deceased grandparents whom I never knew. These stories will be treasured and passed on to my own children! I felt like a child on Christmas unwrapping the gift of these stories!