Have you considered genealogy as a way to interest students in history?
My Great-Grandmother, Bertha Olive Hirleman Park, her only daughter, Helen Rachel Park, Helen's only child, Yvonne who was called Bonnie, and Bonnie's first born. (ca. 1945)
My Grandmother, Mabel Myrtle Horn standing of the fire escape of her college dorm (1922).
Mabel's family before she was born. Seated: Her mother, Amanda Clarissa Laird Horn, brother Harry, and Father, Kimber Cleaver Horn. Standing: (behind Amanda) Alma Horn, Ellery, and (next to Kimber) Estella Jane who died from bone cancer soon after this photo was taken.
My Great-Grandparents, Amanda Clarissa Laird Horn and Kimber Cleaver Horn
My Great-Great-Grandfather, Thomas S. Laird, was a blacksmith. In his time, a blacksmith was a very important person in the community. His ancestor, Captain William Laird, was one of Washington's bodyguards during the winter at Valley Forge. My ancestor, Major Theophilus Little, was from the 1st Regiment of Monmouth County, New Jersey. Some years after the Revolutionary War was won, he moved his family to the mountains of Pennsylvania. He donated a portion of his land to be the community cemetery. My ancestor, George Edkin, was grounds keeper for General Horatio Gates and some years after the Revolutionary War, he moved to those same Pennsylvania mountains. My mother's family has now been on that same mountain more than 200 years. My ancestor, Robert Parke and his son, Thomas came to this land in 1630 aboard the ship Arabella. While aboard, Robert, a widower, and his son met a widow and her daughter. Robert later married the widow. Thomas married the daughter. By the way, Robert Parke was secretary to Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Winthrop also came to this land aboard the Arabella and it was he who gave the "City on the Hill" speech later quoted by President Ronald Reagan.
What interesting stories will you learn from your family history?
Start by interviewing every relative you can, but realize that memories can be faulty. Ask about old photos, birth certificates, baptismal certificates, marriage licenses, death certificates, and family Bibles with hand written records of family events. Don't forget to look inside the Bible for newspaper clippings which often are stored there. Ask whether anyone else in the family is doing similar research.
I must mention here the difference between primary and secondary sources. A primary source is more reliable because it was created by someone with first-hand knowledge of the event, not by someone who only heard about it. Furthermore, it was probably created at or very near the time of the event. A death certificate, for instance, is made out immediately, but tombstones are often put on graves years later and dates are often incorrect. Be very wary of research done by other people since you don't know how careful they were about documentation. An Aunt sent me a copy of research done by someone else. I called and asked if she had read it before she forwarded it. "NO!" I responded, "You may want to call Dan and tell him about this because according to these papers, he has been dead for several years."
County history books are very helpful, but again verify facts. In our county history, my Grandmother is listed by her middle name only; a name she hated.
Cemeteries, church records, local newspapers, county courthouses, local libraries, and local historical or genealogical societies can all be helpful.
Should you happen to live close to Washington, D. C., the Library of Congress has county history books from all over. Ask someone to direct you to the Thomas Jefferson room on the third floor of the second (not main) building. If you don't live near Washington, check at your local library for inter-library loans. The National Archives, also in Washington, D. C., has census records, military records, ships' passenger lists, records from military posts, and some limited records for Native Americans and slaves.
If you live near Salt Lake City, Utah, you should definitely plan at some point to visit the Library of the Church of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons). The not only have copies of such things as census records, but moreover, they have gone to Europe and copied records from churches, cemeteries, and courthouses. If you do not live near Utah, your local Mormon church can borrow things from Salt Lake City and you will be able to view them at the local church. Don't worry, it does not matter if you are not Mormon.
For each person you should list full name, nicknames, titles, date and place of birth, date and place of baptism, date and place of marriage, date and place of death, date and place of burial. Note that in many, but not all religions, baptism occurs soon after birth. List full names for all children in order by birth. Also seek out information about military service, education, occupation, religion, and political affiliation. Don't ignore any possible lead. Document your source for each bit of information you find, but don't be surprised by conflicting dates or even places.
You will want a way to keep track of all of the information you gather. I like Family Tree Maker for several reasons. First, it is extremely user-friendly. It permits you to put in not only all of the information I've already listed, but also has a place to write a one page biography of each individual and it can store photos! It even allowed me to enter complete information for a cousin who was married six times (children with three of his wives). The program does become a bit cranky when you enter people who were already related before they got married. Have you heard the song "I'm mine own grandpa"? Jeff Foxworthy has said, "You may be a redneck if your family tree does not branch." Well, mine looks a bit more like a spider web. I actually know two sisters who are related to me in five different ways. Yes, that is possible. Of course, part of the explanation is that their parents were first cousins; their grandmothers were sisters!
I have in the past done some research for others. I now don't have the time, but I would like to discuss three real examples.
First, I turned Stephanie down flat; refused to even consider working on her family tree. Why? She was a Russian Jew and if any records exist I would have no clue where to even start looking. Furthermore, it would have required very expensive travel and dealing, at that time, with the government of the U.S.S.R.. I told Stephanie her only hope was a very long conversation with her parents and the one set of grandparents in New York City.
Then, there was Jack who told me his father's family had been in San Francisco for 5 generations. I did find lots of relatives in other parts of the country he did not know about, but I did not find any family in California. Why not? There are several possibilities. 1 - Their presence there was family legend. Every family has legends. 2 - Records could have been destroyed during the great fires that following the earthquake of 1906. 3 - They may have been part of the crowd and just not mentioned. Doctors, judges, politicians, and ministers tend to have been noted in local histories as well as particularly large families who were among the first settlers to a particular area, but not everyone makes the local history. 4 - If Jack had been willing to pay for me to travel there I would have had access to other materials, but I was just doing a favor and not paid at all.
Barb's case is my favorite. Her mother was from a huge Irish Catholic family and Barb had contact with lots of relatives here and in Ireland so there were no questions she wanted answered on that side. Her father had been one of three boys. One boy had apparently always had some sort of problem and died as a child. The second boy died as a young man, as far as we knew there was no wife and no children. Barb's dad was alive, but apparently knew nothing about either his mother's or father's family either because he was not curious or knew not to ask! Barb's paternal grandmother was still alive and as sharp as a tack, but every time anyone dared ask about either her family or her late husband's family she would immediately plead heart palpitations and refuse to provide any information. I'm convinced that she assumed as long as she did not cooperate, no one would be able to find out anything. Barb's paternal grandfather had been a Medical Doctor. He was killed by a hit and run driver one night while making a house call. The family knew when and where he had died (Florida) and they had his diploma from Medical School (Kentucky). That was the only information we had on him!
However, by a quirk of fate we did have one bit of luck on our side. Remember that families used to be much larger than they are now and that from the oldest child to youngest could be a significant span of time. A sister of Barb's mom had married a brother of Barb's paternal grandmother. That Aunt was able to tell us in what town Grandma grew up and, of course, we knew Grandma's maiden name.
I started at the Library of Congress by asking for every year of the American Medical Association Directory from the time Grandpa graduated from Medical School until he was killed. He apparently wasn't a member because he wasn't in it. However, he was in a similar index which listed both office and home address. I worked backward from the year he died since we knew that he had been living in Florida at that time. Eventually I came to a year when he wasn't listed in Florida. Since he went to Medical School in Kentucky and since back then people didn't move as far or often as they do now, I looked in southeastern states and located him in Alabama. Sometimes in genealogy you have to guess and then prove or disprove your guess. I was then able to check census records in Alabama and a county history book. After very little effort, I identified a brother who was also a doctor, two ex-wives, more children, his parents, and one set of his grandparents.
We went to the town where Grandma grew up and the local Catholic church gave us baptismal dates for all of the siblings. We also visited the cemetery, the local library which had some old newspapers, and the courthouse. I not only found Grandma's parents and one set of her grandparents, but the house where she grew up as well.
The curious part was, how did a very young lady from Pennsylvania meet and marry a much older Doctor living in Florida. We went back to the informant Aunt and after we told her all we had learned, she was able to answer that question. We also had an idea why Grandma didn't like to talk. After all, a Catholic marries a guy with two ex-wives. That just was not done.
Finally, we went to see Barb's parents and Grandma to tell them almost all we had learned. Grandma was clearly shocked that we were able to uncover so much information in spite of her refusal to talk.
This photograph of my Great-Great-Grandfather Thomas S. Laird (seated, with beard and hat) and his wife, Sarah Jane Glidewell Laird (to his left), was taken in 1908 or 1909 for their 50th wedding anniversary. My Great-Grandmother, Amanda Clarissa Laird Horn, is seated next to her father. My Great-Grandfather, Kimber Cleaver Horn, is standing behind Thomas and Sarah. My Grandmother, Mabel Myrtle Horn (age 6) is standing in front of her Grandfather. I have been able to identify almost everyone in this photograph.