Her voice is raspy, at times, nearly impossible to understand. At 105 years-old, Alice Mikel Duffield had seen her share of living. Though her hearing and eyesight was failing, her memories remained strong. She could tell me with pride about the new outfit she got when she left the service in 1918, when she had been an Army nurse at Camp Pike, Arkansas.
She grew up in the countryside near New Jenny Lind, Arkansas, not far from the town of Fort Smith. She could still remember her family’s arrival at a log cabin which was to be their new home. Her father was a coal-miner.
As a young woman, Alice vowed never to get married after a breakup with a beau. She decided to go to nursing school in Fort Smith. She was there when the United States entered World War I, and after a time working for the Red Cross, she joined the Army as a nurse.
While at Camp Pike, she tended to wounded soldiers and was there when the great influenza epidemic struck, killing so many men that the morgue ran out of space for the bodies.
In the course of a two-hour interview, recorded in 2002, Alice recalled her childhood and youth, two marriages, raising a family, voting for the first time, and a lifelong career as a nurse, much of it working for the VA Hospital system. Her lifetime spanned over a century, from 1896 to 2002, and she died just a month after her interview.
Of course, this oral history, conducted as part of the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project, would be a treasure to any of Alice’s descendants. But it could prove useful to any number of genealogists who are not related to her.
Did you have an ancestor who was involved in coal mining in the early 1900s? Someone who lived in a rural area near Fort Smith? Someone who was a nurse? What about a soldier who was hospitalized at Camp Pike during World War I? Alice’s own personal experiences, recounted in her oral history interview, could provide valuable context to your own ancestors’ stories.
We have often heard the genealogical adages to “start at home” and “speak to your older relatives.” But have you considered how other people’s relatives might be able to tell your own family’s story?
Oral history is a rich and rewarding resource for contextual information about places, living conditions, and similar experiences. More and more oral history resources – as audio or as written transcripts – or both – are becoming available online.
The Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress is just one (very large) example. But countless universities, state and local historical societies, public libraries, and other institutions hold innumerable interviews on a wide range of topics.
In most cases, oral history interviews conducted by these types of organizations will have some sort of theme or focus. It may be specific to a certain geographic area – as broad as an entire state or as localized as a single neighborhood. Particular occupations or certain demographics (gender, race, ethnicity, age, religion, etc.) might be a focus. Participation in certain historic events, such as the Holocaust or the Civil Rights Movement might be emphasized. The themes are virtually limitless.
So how does one go about identifying an oral history project that might prove relevant to your own family history? First, think about what it is you want to search for. Use an internet search engine to try some locality searches, accompanied by the term “oral histories.” Then change the focus of your search from location to topics, as you would when you would seek out any other type of contextual information. Try occupations, military service, sports, fraternal organizations, labor unions, or any other type of situation where you could learn something about your own family’s experiences by listening to others who had similar experiences.
Here are a few examples, emphasizing localities, occupations, or historic events:
The Giles County Oral History Project was conducted in 1995 and 1996 to mark Tennessee’s Bicentennial, and today these interviews are located at the Tennessee State Library and Archives.
Ten years later, a different project from Humanities Tennessee and the Elkton Historical Society concentrated on just the southeastern part of Giles County. A brochure provides an overview, and locations discussed in the course of the interviews were mapped using StoryMapper.
The Baltimore Neighborhood Heritage Project from the Maryland Historical Society not only documents some specific neighborhoods in detail, but also serves as an excellent resource for immigrant history because so many nationalities settled in ethnic, religious, and cultural enclaves.
Did your ancestor work in the lumber industry? Try a Google search using the terms: lumbermen “oral history” and explore the results.
Perhaps your family endured the Dust Bowl of the 1930s on the Great Plains. This oral history project from Oklahoma State University will help you learn what it was like to experience a “black blizzard” (dust storm), and much more.
Finally, check out the Oral History Association website, which has links to numerous institutions throughout the country that have large oral history collections or discover a robust collection of oral histories from New York City, Ellis Island Oral Histories, 1892-1976 on Ancestry.
Capturing your own personal history? Visit Ancestry’s list of suggested interview questions to help your research.
Linda Barnickel is a professional archivist and freelance writer. She is the author of the award-winning book, Milliken’s Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory and has written on numerous historical, genealogical, and archives-related subjects. Learn more about her work at www.lindabarnickel.com.