Capturing Your Family History

Audio Blog, 7:44

Have you ever wondered about past generations of your family tree?  What were the pivotal moments and compelling stories that characterized the lives of your ancestors?  If you could take action during your lifetime to ensure that future generations have more clarity of the family tree, would you do so now?

Often, we can go back a few generations, maybe to our grandparents or great-grandparents, but the information is usually vague and difficult to gather.  The challenge is that many elderly relatives have passed on, and those alive are not located nearby and usually less likely to use the modern tools of communication; e-mail, texting, cell phones and Skype.

Here are a few reasons why it’s important to capture family history and make it an intergenerational activity:

  • Reveals knowledge of your heritage.
  • Introduces the discovery of historical information.
  • Provides mental strength and tenacity when reflecting on the challenges of earlier generations.
  • Recognizes the basic humanity and diversity of all people.
  • Keeps family legacy and memories alive.
  • Instills a sense of pride in family members.
  • Sets expectations of behavior for children.
  • Allows connection to extended relatives.
  • Excites the younger generation to build upon the knowledge and continue the practice.
  • Makes for great family dinner conversation.

The sobering truth is that many of us have missed significant opportunities to gather more information from our elderly relatives while they are still alive, simply due to a lack of focus in our early adult years.  For example, I wish I had quizzed my father, George Benjamin Van Buren, more on his childhood and wartime memories, before he passed at the age of 72 in 1988.

He and his younger brother, James Van Buren, were raised by their father, Benjamin James Van Buren, after their mother Alice Gertrude Hill died when he was only eight years old.  We don’t know much about her life (or the details of her death), beyond her birth date of October 15, 1883 in Hamilton Bermuda, British West Indies.  We took a discovery/vacation trip there about fifteen years ago, but didn’t gather any additional information due to the poor record keeping over a century ago.

My Grandfather Benjamin Van Buren was born in 1881 in Chatham, New York.  Since slaves were freed in New York state circa 1834, it is assumed that my Great Grandfather James Frederick Van Buren was born a freeman in 1837 Kinderhook, New York, the home of former President Martin Van Buren.  According to my father, but without supporting records to document it, the assumption is that my Great-Great Grandfather was a slave of the Kinderhook Van Burens, from whom our surname was taken.  Hearing this lineage always gives me perspective about how far we have come as a family.

There is a significant gap in our knowledge between my father’s early childhood and his attendance at Howard University in Washington DC, as the nation was ramping up our involvement in World War Two.  As a senior Latin major and leader on the football team, he and his brother (a junior) volunteered to leave school and enter into U.S. Army officer training.  The military was in need of black officers for the segregated units, and the Van Buren men wanted to contribute.

After training, he served in the European theater of operations, while his brother joined a unit advancing through North Africa.  Unfortunately, his brother was killed in some sort of jeep accident, and was buried in a U.S. Military cemetery in Tunisia.  As a reflection of the slow war-mail system of the day, it took several months for the news of his death to reach my father via a process that culminated with the following gut wrenching, but inspiring letter written in 1943 from my grandfather to my father’s APO (Army Post Office).

The letter ends with the following closing passage:  “And now my son you are all I have left and I pray God to send you back.  Keep your chin up because this is war and we must expect anything to happen.  May God comfort you.  Love Da.”

If you want to provide future generations a more comprehensive legacy, here are a few easy suggestions:

Maintain A Journal

A journal is easy to establish (buy a notebook and pen), and it facilitates personal growth, develops mental clarity, assists problem solving, improves connection with values and goals, and tracks your development over time.  Additionally, the process of keeping a personal journal of significant moments in your life guarantees that a least one comprehensive story will be passed on to your future generations.

Document Family History

Keep an organized (non-electronic) file with all information you can obtain on your past and current family tree.  Share the existence with family members so they will reciprocate by offering their knowledge and artifacts.  Do not rely on an electronic file, as a corrupt file, computer virus or power spike can eliminate all of your work in a moment’s notice.

Talk To Elderly Family Members

Elderly family members hold a treasure trove of compelling life stories, but unfortunately, they don’t always share them before they pass on.  Why?  Simply put, they are often not asked.

Additionally, the “Greatest Generation” is characterized by the values of modesty, humbleness, altruism and self-sacrifice, which may make them less likely to volunteer stories of their personal journey. However, when members of the younger generations demonstrate a sincere interest in their personal stories, it can lift their morale and validate their life struggles and celebrate their victories.

Take A Genetic Test

I utilized a firm called 23 and Me to conduct my genetic test.  It was the best $99 I ever invested.  The test was very simple. They sent a vile to collect a saliva sample, and I returned it immediately.  Within six weeks, I had the results to share with my children and extended family members, and I continue to find interesting discoveries. The genetic test provides a treasure trove of genetic information that is helpful in understanding your personal traits and managing your health and fitness over the long-term.


If we capture as much of the stories and information of the past and current generations, then future generations will benefit from a more comprehensive and deeper understanding of their ancestry. 


One thought on “Capturing Your Family History

  1. Ordered my genetic testing kit today via 23 and me. Betcha’ I’m from royalty (smile). I’ll let you know.

    Great advice.


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