Welcome to the third in a series of articles on the study of family ancestry (also called ‘genealogy’), where we talk about how to contact the relatives you never knew you had!
You’ve worked hard to start your family tree, carefully piecing together connections by contacting family members you already know and cross-referencing information. But then comes the next big, exciting step of contacting potential relatives you have never met, and who may not even know you exist. Perhaps you came across their (or their parent or grandparent’s) name scribbled on an old greeting card, a letter, or the back of a family photo, and have finally tracked them down to a phone number, email or postal address. How you approach the task of introducing yourself (especially in an age where many of us are rightly suspicious about ‘cold-callers’) can feel daunting. How you take your conversations further can make or break your search, but there are tried and trusted ways to approach these tasks.
Write first if possible
An introduction is likely to best be received if it comes in writing rather than a phone call. It gives the reader time to digest the information, and consider their reply. Keep your letter, email or message relatively formal but with a touch of warmth. If you find phone is the only option, opt for an initial brief text explaining your intention, and giving your email address. If you go through to a landline voice message, leave your email or postal address so the caller does not have to phone you back.
Less is best
Introduce yourself and your intentions clearly. Your initial aim is not to share too much information, but to establish that you have, in fact, contacted the right person. Don’t ask for anything, initially, other than the opportunity to share your family tree to date. This will help set your contact’s mind at rest regarding ‘scamming’.
Protect your privacy
Take care not to share too much information at the outset. Not only can too much information be overwhelming for the recipient, but you may be unintentionally giving away personal information to someone who is not actually the person you hoped they were.
Your relative may not be quite as interested in their family history as you are. To encourage them to reminisce and share leads, present them with an item they may be interested in, such as a family letter or photo. Don’t part with any originals, and don’t ask to call in person unless invited to. Alternatives include posting a photocopy or sending a photo of a document by email.
Don’t miss a moment!
It’s difficult to take notes while chatting, so whether you are phoning, visiting or video calling a new-found relative, ask permission to record your conversation. Using your mobile phone voice recorder is an unobtrusive way to capture the conversation.
Hunting for clues
Once you have established a trusting relationship with your relative, you are on the brink of taking your family tree another step further. To do this, ask if your relative might have any items of family history they would be prepared to share with you. These might include photos, letters or diaries. If you are able to visit your relative, you can take photos of these items (don’t ask to take them away). If your relative lives overseas, they may be able to do this for you, and email the photos.
Check out family interest
Be sure to ask your new-found relative if they know of anyone else in the family who is interested in ancestry. If you are lucky, much of the next stage in tracing your roots may already have been done for you!
Your first contact with a previously undiscovered relative won’t be the last, so keep track of your interactions. Names, contact details, dates, leads and documents received, should all be neatly filed away for future reference.
As you make contact with new-found relatives, tread lightly but warmly, and enjoy taking your ancestral search to new heights!