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Gearing up for a family reunion

I’m in St. Paul, Minn., at an annual family reunion and I’m partly prepared but not 100 percent. I knew about this year’s family reunion year ago, so I had plenty of time to prepare for it. Or so I thought! There are a lot of genealogy issues you need to work on before leaving town for a big reunion such as the one I am at.

You should plan to make time to visit the family, both during the larger reunion party, and if possible, before or after to get more one-on-one time with specific relatives that you need the most information from. You should also make time to visit local resources that have information that you cannot get from home. Do not waste your time on the internet on familysearch looking for data on this family while you are out of town. Go to the local libraries that have information you can’t get elsewhere.

I made a sacrifice that affected the trip by choosing not to rent a car. I was able to get around town using Ubers and cabs, and I did use them to get from my hotel to various places. However, they are not really the correct mode of transportation if you plan to visit cemeteries and look for various family graves. The Uber can get you to the cemetery, but as soon as they drive away, you will have to walk the entire cemetery to get to the section(s) you need to visit, and then you would have to schedule another Uber to get you home, or to the next cemetery. I have relatives in at least a half dozen cemeteries in St. Paul and most of them are pretty large, so it would be more walking than my old knees and ankles are prepared to do. If I had rented my own car, I could go from place to place with freedom, but the expense of the trip was already pretty high and I made the decision not to do so. By the way, just make sure there’s Uber in the city where your reunion is, if you plan to rely on it to get you around. My relatives were more than generous with their time in bringing me to various places but they had to work the weekdays so they were not available to take me around during the work day. It is best not to rely on family to be your mode of transportation unless they make a firm commitment. Things happen and they have to take care of other family or they are involved in the reunion planning and they overcommit their time and suddenly you’re without a ride. This did not happen to me, but it could happen to you, so be prepared.

So where are you going to go to do genealogy research? Spend some time at home looking for the places that have information you can’t get easily. Local newspapers are the key resource. While you’re in town, you should try to find newspaper stories about your family (hopefully all good ones!) You should also look for death notices and obits. Your Elmhurst library is not going to have the St. Paul Pioneer Press on microfilm on its shelf! If you need any stories or death notices for the area you are visiting, find out which local newspapers would be likely to have them, and which libraries have them on shelf. I was very lucky that the Minnesota Historical Society is only a few miles away from my hotel, and it contains local newspapers from all across the state of Minnesota, on microfilm, birth certificates from 1904-1934 on local computers, and death certificates from 1904-2001 on microfilm.

The newspapers were grouped by city, and are on microfilm reels by date. So bring a list of relatives with their death dates and then grab the reel that contains the week after the death date. You can even try to look for marriage announcements but it is harder to predict the newspaper date that announced the engagement, which could be months in advance. This library had special microfilm readers that digitally displayed the newspaper pages on large monitors that are tall, the same shape as the Tribune. You would then find the page with the death notice on it, select that part of the page with the mouse, zoom in, and then print. So my death notices each filled an entire 8×11 piece of paper!

Since each library has different resources, there is no point in elaborating any further on this one, but suffice to say that you need to know what you are looking for, and make sure your library is open when you plan to visit. Many such repositories are only open during the work week.

As for spending time with the family, this is a tricky bit of diplomacy. If you have never met these relatives before, it might be a bit awkward because you may not recognize people, and this makes it difficult to figure out who you should direct your questions to. In my case, I met these relatives on several previous trips, but it has been seven years since my last trip, so I knew just enough to be confused. Spend a little time on social media getting to know anybody who might be at your reunion, and at the very least try to match a photo to a name. Some people are better at this than I am. In fact, MOST people are better at this than I am. If you’re not good at remembering names, you might need to review them a little more before you go on your trip.

It is also not a great idea to just introduce yourself to someone you never met and just start asking for birthdates and birthplaces. It’s bad form. It shows all you care about is the data for the genealogy. I was fortunate that there were two large family gatherings in the same weekend, so I made the conscious choice to keep the first one strictly social. Talk to people. Get to know them. Let them tell you a story. As you’re concluding the few minutes with them, let them know you’ll be asking them for data later on, to make the family tree complete. You may not bother them until a week later when you are home, but at least you made the connection in person and they can trust you more now that they met you. I basically used the first party to get acquainted or reacquainted, and the second party to actually carry around a family tree chart with the names and dates.

Before I went to party #2, I printed the most recent chart and before I left the hotel, I read them line by line. Who has married since I last updated my tree? What is the spouse’s name? Birthdate? Birthplace? How about their children? Same questions. Who is already in the tree but has no birthdate or birthplace? Whose marriage dates or places are missing? Which birthplaces are incomplete? For example, they just say “Minnesota” without having the city and county. Bring a highlighter and mark the places where you need correct data, and make a list of the people you need to talk to in order to get that data.

Don’t ask the family matriarch for all the dates and places. They don’t always remember since there might be so many people in the extended family. Always ask the person whose family is missing information, if possible. Also, and this is delicate, if you know that a family member is not on speaking terms with their sibling(s) or child(ren), it is probably not a good idea to ask them for too much information about the people who are not a part of their lives. It will remind them of the problem in their family AND that you know about it. You’re better off having a chart that is a little incomplete.

If you only have one huge reunion party, you can try to do the social part at the beginning, and try to catch them at the end to ask them questions. At the very least, make sure you have e-mail or facebook contact info. If the person doesn’t “do” facebook, at least you know that, and you had better not lose your chance to square away that missing info before you leave town.

I hope these tips will help you prepare for your out-of-town reunion better than I did!

Write any questions to Dan at italianroots@comcast.net and please put “Fra Noi” in the subject. Thanks!

About Dan Niemiec

Dan Niemiec has been the genealogy columnist for Fra Noi since 2004. For the past 25 years, he has researched his genealogy back 17 generations, plus tracing descendants of his ancestors, yielding 74,000 relatives. His major focus is on civil and church records in Italy, Chicago vital records, Chicago Catholic records and most major genealogy web sites. He has given dozens of presentations to many local and some national genealogy societies on topics such as cemetery research, Catholic records, Italian records, Ellis Island and newspaper research, among others.

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