Family History Primer: Questions to Ask Your Family

Introduction: In this article, Gena Philibert-Ortega provides a list of questions to ask individuals at your next family gathering – these interviews, especially with the oldest members of your group, are an important part of family history research. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.

You’re at your annual family reunion, a cousin’s 50th wedding anniversary, or just a family dinner. This is your opportunity to ask family members questions about their lives and your shared family history, but what do you ask?

Photo: cakes and pies at a family reunion in Mayodan, North Carolina
Photo: cakes and pies at a family reunion in Mayodan, North Carolina. Credit: Carol M. Highsmith; Library of Congress.

Here’s a list of questions to ask your family members at your next gathering. These questions are great for starting a discussion with a group of family members or interviewing one person.

A Few Questions about You: The Younger Years

  • Does your first and/or middle name have any significance? Are you named for a family member?
  • Do you know the story behind why your parents picked that specific name?
  • Who were the members of your family when you were born? Did you have any siblings born after you?
  • What’s your earliest memory? How old were you?
  • How did you spend weekends growing up? (Examples: doing chores, visiting family, playing outdoors.)
  • How did you spend Sundays? (Examples: attending church, visiting family, family dinners.)
  • Where was the first house you lived in (that you remember)? How many rooms did it have? Did it have anything you considered “modern”? How long did you live there? What do you miss about that house?
  • What technology do we have now that you wish you had growing up? What would you have done with that technology? (Examples: television, wireless phones, cell phones, digital cameras, computers.)
  • What was considered “high-tech” when you were growing up? (Examples: radio, electric typewriter, calculator.)
  • When did you get your first TV? What were your favorite TV shows?
  • What was your favorite meal growing up?
  • What type of music did you listen to? Who were your favorite singers or bands?
  • Did you have a pet growing up? What kind of animal was that pet and what was its name?
  • What hobbies did you have growing up? Was this a hobby you did as a family?
  • Who were your friends? Do you remember their names? What activities did you do? Are you in contact with any of those friends today?
  • What schools did you attend? What were your favorite subjects or teachers?
  • Did you play an instrument in the school band or take music lessons? What instrument/s? Did you perform anywhere outside of the school?
  • Were you a member of any group? (Examples: 4H, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Future Farmers of America, etc.) What activities did you participate in that group? Did you win any awards or honors as part of that group?
  • What clubs were you a member of in high school? What did you do in that club?
  • How old were you when you learned to drive? Who taught you to drive?
  • What’s the first car you drove? What’s the first car you owned?
  • What year did you graduate from high school? Do you have a yearbook from those years? Did you or do you attend any reunions?
  • Did you attend college? Where? What was your major? Do you have a yearbook from those years? When did you graduate?

A Few Questions about You: Adult Years

  • What was your first job? What were your job duties and how long did you work there?
  • How did you meet your spouse?
  • Where did you get married? Who was at your wedding? What family members were at your wedding?
  • What tip do you have for those family members who are getting married or are newly married?
  • What was the first major purchase you made? (Examples: house, car, appliance.)
  • Where was the first house you lived in as an adult? How many rooms did it have? Did it have anything you considered “modern”? How long did you live there? What do you miss about that house?
  • What family vacations did you take? Where did you go? What are your favorite memories of that time?
  • Did you spend time doing volunteer work? (Examples: church groups, children’s school, scoutmaster.)

Military Service

  • Why did you decide to enter the military and serve your country?
  • Was there a war or conflict happening when you entered the service?
  • What branch of the military did you serve in?
  • How many years were you in the military?
  • What ranks did you hold?
  • Where did you complete boot camp?
  • Where were you stationed?
  • Did you serve in combat?
  • What jobs did you hold in the military?
  • Did you have any other family members (either at the same time or prior) that served in the military? Who were they and what branch did they serve in?

The Extended Family

  • Who was the oldest family member you knew growing up? What is one thing you remember about that person?
  • Did you know your grandparents? What do you remember about them?
  • What family traditions did your family have?
  • Did your family get together often or just major holidays? When and where did they get together? What activities did everyone participate in?
  • What occupation did your father or parents have when you were growing up? Did you ever go to work with them? What do you remember?
  • Do you own any heirlooms? Describe the item and why it is special to you. What heirloom do you wish you had? Why was it special?
  • What holidays did you celebrate growing up? What did you do for these holidays? (Examples: new dress for Easter, picnic or cemetery visit for Memorial Day.)
  • How was Thanksgiving different when you were a kid? What did you eat? Who came to dinner?

The World

  • What is a historical event that impacted you? (Examples: war, assassination of a political figure, natural disaster, etc.) Do you remember the day it happened?
  • What was it like to live through______? (Examples: the Great Depression, World War II, Vietnam War, etc.)
  • Did your family travel? What places did you see? What did you do there?
  • Have you been to a foreign country? If so, where have you been? When did you take that trip?

Now Get Ready to Interview!

Obviously, these questions are just the start. Depending on the person you are interviewing, their life experiences will help you come up with even more questions. Encourage younger family members to ask questions that they are curious about. Finally, use these questions to “interview” yourself and write your own history for your family and descendants.

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