Seven ways to get kinfolk to open up with the family history they hold hostage

Kinfolk can be so frustrating. Especially when they have family information they simply hold hostage.

“Come on, now,” you might say. “Will it really hurt you to share that information?”

“I don’t remember.”

“I don’t have time.”

“It’s not really all that important.

“I don’t like revealing personal information.”

They’ll give you a hundred reasons why they simply can’t tell you what you want to know. And some of it may simply be perversity.

So, how do you get that information those family members are holding hostage?

I asked several researchers how they handled the problem. Most said they didn’t have that problem. [Their families sure weren’t anything like mine!] From those who did run into this problem I’ve extracted seven effective ways to approach the problem of getting family history data.


1. Talk, don’t ask. The first approach is so simple it doesn’t seem like a solution at all. I’ve tried talking. The elderly gentleman who suggested this method to me said, “Did you talk to your kinfolk, or pump them?”

He went on to point out that most kinfolk like to just sit and talk. The more you tell them, the more they tell you. You don’t go for the jugular: “All right now, tell me the birth dates of all your children and grandchildren and when they were married.”

Tell them about your last party you gave your niece and how hard it is for you to remember things like birthdays. Sometimes you even forget your anniversary. That’s not a lot of fun.

They don’t want to listen. They want to talk. Especially to an interested listener. Repeat key phrases from time to time to show you understand what is being said and that you are listening.

George tried this technique on a childless, widowed aunt who was as tight-lipped as a priest just out of the confessional. George mentioned his discharge from the service and the joy he had seeing his daughter for the first time. She was born while he was overseas.

“Julian never came back,” she said. George recognized her husband’s name. He was about to say something comforting when she continued. “We never had a child. I had two miscarriages. Another was stillborn while he was overseas in the war. I wrote him. He never got the letter. It came back. He was killed in action before it got to him.”

She spoke slowly, dispassionately, calmly. George’s heart was breaking. Tears burned his eyes. He could not have asked her a question if he were a reporter whose job depended on it.

But he didn’t have to say a thing. His aunt could feel his sympathy, even though she was looking at the crumpled lace handkerchief in her blue-veined hands.

“Would you like some tea?” she suddenly asked.

George hated tea. Especially hot tea.

“Sure,” he said.

George received more information that day than from any “fishing expedition” he’d ever been on.

His aunt pulled out her address book with all the birth and wedding days of her family listed, and George helped her address a stack of greeting cards, copying down information at the same time–with her permission, of course.

Then she provided the biggest surprise of all. She retrieved a letter her grandfather had written and slipped to her grandmother in church before they started going together. It was a sweet letter that had seemed to start the courtship.

“Xerox it,” she told him, “but make damn sure I get it back”

The mild expletive surprised him, but he photocopied it and returned it the same day.

“I don’t think I asked her a single question,” George said, “but she sure gave me a bunch of answers.”

So, try talking to the tight-lipped kinfolk who don’t like answering questions. It worked for George.


2. Family round-robin letters. What a family member won’t tell you, he or she might share with other kinfolk in a round-robin letter.

A round-robin letter, in case you’re not familiar with it, is a letter sent on an agreed circle of kinfolk or friends. Each person receives the letter, adds their own page, and sends the whole sheaf of pages on to the next person on the list. The next time around the individual removes the last page he or she wrote and adds another.

Family news, birthdays, marriages, divorces, births, deaths, acquisitions, and a whole range of topics are covered by each kinfolk in turn. An abundant amount of information can be amassed over time through this method.

There are two drawbacks to this method. First, a group must agree to participate in the round-robin. Sometimes someone drops out and a newcomer insinuates his or her way into the scheme. Some round-robins continue for years, especially if the kinfolk involved are compatible and interested in each other. A modern adaptation of this has developed among those who have email capability.

Where email is used, the second drawback is reduced. But another introduced. That second drawback is the speed, or more correctly, the slowness with which the letter makes its rounds. Some have taken more than a year to make a complete circuit of the kinfolks involved. Email, on the other hand can speed things up–if everyone involved has a computer. The other dynamic that happens is direct contact between kinfolk which tends to discourage the round-robin.

Still, it’s worth a try with those hostage holding kinfolk.


3. Family quiz. The third way can be lots of fun. It can be done at family gatherings, by mail, over the Internet, or any way you can think up. Making a kinfolk contest works well.

It takes a little work and imagination, but it is well worth while. Prepare a quiz. The more questions, the less likely you normally will get a good number of responses. One hundred questions will generally result in half as many kinfolk responding as a fifty question test. Twenty-five questions will bring in twice as many as fifty, but twenty-five is about as few as you should ask. Fewer than twenty-five questions don’t bring in as large an increase as with the higher numbers.

Ask general questions like:

1. Name as many people in the family that was born in June as you can. [One extra point credit for each actual birth date.]
2. Which of your kinfolks has the most children? [An extra point for each child you can name.]

Continue questions such as these. Have a scoring system that will add up to 100 or more points and provide a grading system, e.g.,

      Over 90     Wise Elder
      80-89     Family Mentor
      70-79     Family Member
      60-69     Adopted Child
      50-59     Welcome Visitor
      40-49     A Stranger Within our Gates
      Under 40     Alien!

Consider a simple recognition gift for the highest score, say a framed certificate proclaiming the holder as The Kinsman Who Knows


4. Write a short book or pamphlet. This step is easier than it first appears. Simply put together a number of family group sheets connected by staples. Distribute them as a Free Family Genealogy to all the kinfolk you an locate. Then sit back and wait for the corrections and additions to pour in. Promise on the last sheet of the Free Family Genealogy to “give credit” in the next edition to contributors of new material or corrections of currently published material.

For more information on publishing your genealogical information, click the button labeled Family History.


5. Family reunions. Family reunions are fun, but they don’t “just happen.”

For a more extensive discussion of Family Reunions use the navigation button on the left of the screen, but briefly, here are concerns for organizing a family reunion.

Location–find a central location acceptable to family members. Churches, public parks, hotels, campgrounds and retreat centers are some of the places that have been used.

Time–Make sure the time is acceptable to the majority of the potential participants. Holidays generally are not the best time because families often have other plans for the holidays, traffic is often more of a problem, and lodging places frequently are not as available.

Planning--Chairs of committees and subcommittees for food, entertainment and other activities, decorations, clean up, greeting, invitations, mail, attendance, and various other functions should be determined.

Program–A general overall plan for what is to be done at the reunion should be planned. Include activities for getting acquainted, for all age groups, for various activities including schedule of events, persons in charge of events like greeting, recording attendance, eating, business meeting, and the like.

Evaluation–Use an open ended evaluation that permits praise, criticism, and suggestions. Each evaluation should be considered seriously. Dismissing a single evaluation with a comment like, “Oh, that’s just old Aunt Betty riding her high horse,” could cause you to miss a valid point and an opportunity to gain an ally.

Data sharing–Since a major purpose for having the family reunion is to gather family information, don’t miss this opportunity by relying simply on personal contact. Provide family group sheets to be collected with the promise of compiling the data and sharing it. If time permits, fill out as much information on the family group sheets before distribution as possible and ask for corrections and additions. Have plenty of blank family group sheets available.


6. Ask for corrections to data you have.

Many times folks will not volunteer data when asked. These same people will usually correct any incorrect data you have.

It is not wise to salt information sheets with false data just to get the information you want. A smart approach, however, is to place all the “guesstimates” in place just in case it is true. If it is mistaken, you’ll likely hear soon.

7. Call Them Long Distance.

Several years ago when a pastor’s secretary told him there was a long distance call for him he told her, “If they’re calling long distance they either want something from me or want to sell me something. Don’t accept the call.”

Of course, long distance calling has changed greatly since those days. Unless you have Caller ID you generally don’t know whether the call is local or long distance.

But the power of the long distance call is still considerable. When it comes from a relative it is considered a sign of caring that a person would make a long distance call to speak to an individual.

This aura of care can be cultivated to build a relationship at the same time you gather family data.

You don’t say, “Hey, Aunt Sally. I called to find out when you and Uncle George were married.” After discussing family a bit, however, you can inquire, “What was the date you and Uncle George got married?” If is it simply asked in the course of conversation, you almost always get an answer.

And the call builds a relationship. That’s not a bad combo.


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