Thursday, July 23, 2009

Do Distant Relatives Want to Hear from Us?

A few weeks ago I found the obit of a descendant of my grand-aunt Anna, and wrote a letter to one of the surviving relatives. I also sent a Facebook message to her son (he was listed in the obit, as well).

Both of my notes were polite and enthusiastic, explaining that I'm researching my family tree, found what I think is a connection to their family, and would like to ask a couple of questions about where Anna came from in the Old World. Also I offered a photo of Anna if they'd like to see what she looked like. No answer.

Does no answer mean "no" or does it mean "too busy to respond" or "don't want to think about the old days" or "don't want to talk to strangers" or "moved, no forwarding address" or what? I've never received a letter like the ones I'm sending, so I can't say how I'd react. Most likely I'd at least contact the writer to confirm that we are, in fact, related, and then go from there.

My 2d cousin Harriet was delighted when my letter found her two years ago. She and I got together for a wonderful visit and we call each other now and then. But I never heard from my husband's distant cousins (presumably related) when we found them in NJ and wrote them last summer.

On the other hand, when the Wood family genealogist and I located a long-lost cousin of theirs after doing a lot of pretty interesting research, we started an ongoing e-mail dialogue with photos and family details flying back and forth. It's been fun getting to know all these folks.

So my question is: Do distant relatives want to hear from us? Update: Via Twitter, found this good discussion thread about online contacts. Check it out!


  1. Great post and I've had similar situations - it is more than just a lack of share enthusiasm for the family's history. Sometimes I have to keep in mind that my memories might not be the same or as happy as those of others in my family.

    Also, when I contact relatives who I've never met and don't know me from Adam's housecoat, they may think it is a scam when I ask them for family information. So I always preface my email or written letter with an explanation of who I am and what I am doing.

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting. You're completely correct about the different perceptions and experience of family members in past generations (and I've run into this myself).

    You're also correct about people being suspicious, which is why I offer my full name, address, phone number, web site, e-mail address, and include an outline of the family tree showing how I relate to the branch I'm asking about in my letter. Hoping to hear from others who've been on both sides of such inquiries.

  3. The only relatives I have heard from were the ones who had posted information on line or answered queries that I had left on Groups were their ancestors have lived.

    I have sent emails to others who had posted on Ancestry and Find a Grave without any answer.

  4. Claudia, glad you stopped by and posted a note. I've heard from pple who posted on Ancestry and on surname forums but I've never contacted anyone thru FindAGrave. Doesn't stop me from continuing to write relatives I discover during my research, but will blog again if I find a way to raise my response rate! ---Marian

  5. I agree with Claudia in that it's easier when someone else is seeking information. I've met plenty of distant cousins this way.

    I have also had success with Find A Grave. If I find a grave that is a relative (especially direct-line ancestor), I email the person, explain who I am and request a transfer if they're are not related, and say that if they are related, that we need to talk :)

    I've never sent an unsolicited letter/email for my own research as of yet. But I have sent letters to people regarding the orphan photos I try to reunite with family. I explain who I am and why I am writing. I even send a photocopy of the photo. All I ask is that they respond to me if they would like the original photo. Unfortunately, I've had no takers. I'm then left with the questions that you've posted. The answers that I come up with are the same as Thomas.

    I say, keep doing what you're doing. You've had success and I imagine you'll have more successes with those who are interested in meeting family and/or learning about their family.

  6. Julie, thanks for your ideas. I'm resolved to keep trying, but I'll experiment to see what seems to provoke the most positive response.

    When I found my 1st cousin once removed, I sent a photocopy of an old photo of her (as a young girl) that had been in my mother's possession. Then when we met in person, I brought her the original--which made us both feel good.

    So far no luck with Find a Grave but maybe your success makes me think I should try it more often. Would love to hear what other people have done to successfully connect with living descendants who are NOT reaching out.