Oral History and Genealogy

Jim with Gladys Degerstrom Here’s some advice for novice genealogists about the importance of oral history and genealogy.

There will never be a better time than now to tap into the vast treasure of family information by listening to oral history from a family elder. The lady shown here with Jim Degerstrom in 1996 is Gladys “Delia” Degerstrom-McKinney at age 96 during a visit with her at the Hibbard Nursing Home in Dover-Foxcroft, Maine.

Gladys is the sister of Oscar Degerstrom, Jim’s grandfather who died in 1953, and her mind was still sharp 43 years later at age 96 and just 2 years before she passed away. As we add family history narratives to this website, the incredible details provided by Gladys would have been lost forever if not for that chance meeting and additional visits later.

Look for 100 year old facts coming soon like the names of their horses from a 1905 photo, and more.

In hindsight, the meetings were an opportunity to record specifics on Degerstrom family life in Maine at the turn of the 20th century, but as inexperienced reporters important questions were not asked. From notes taken at the time we know her oldest sister, Mary, moved from Maine to Alaska. Mary was 2 and the first born child of Fred and Matilda Degerstrom, when the family arrived from Sweden on October 5, 1881. Other than being on the ship’s passenger list, details of her life in Maine and family in Alaska are a mystery.

Gladys did visit her sister in Alaska some time after 1940, and commented in one of our visits that Mary was married with children. It would be so much easier today locating information about Mary, her married name, and perhaps names of her children and descendants related to us if we had asked the right questions.

The message is clear for amateur genealogists. Oral history is a tremendous resource that is best gathered today before it is lost forever. Interview your family elders. Take notes. Consider audio or video recordings of stories as they’re being told. Ask probing questions like a real reporter searching for the answers to the 5 W’s of who, what, when, where, and why. Your research years later will be enhanced if you get specific facts now and document what you learned before it’s too late for followup questions.

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