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Becoming American was hard.

There was a stripping away of

the past culture, language and

customs that was painful and

difficult. You were outsiders in

a new world.  Some thrived in

the new place but some did not.  
Many families forgot what it had
like. Others forgot on

As a rule the first generation was still equally tied to the old country and its culture. The second generation was the bridge between the old world and the new world

The third generation has usually fully “fit in” but selectively kept some parts of their past.


What did your family keep? Do they still show signs  of their previous culture in the foods they eat, the holidays they keep or attitudes about the world and each other that they brought with them?

Where did your family settle?  If they lived in the U.S. for generations they often pioneered and went to new places.  Geography and migration helped shape who they were.  Can you identify any of these experiences? 

Work & Education & Economics

What sort of work did people in your family do and how did they feel about it? Were they able to succeed financially allowing better chances of success in other aspects of their life?  Were they able to get schooling or did they have to quit early to become laborers?ut? What makes it interesting?  

Stress & Loss

Families are tested.  Death, divorce, mental illness,  substance abuse, domestic violence, trouble with the law.  Families under stress send ripples to the next generations. 

Family Relationships

A family member who was much beloved or one that was much hated can change your family for generations.  Are there memories of personality and its effect on your family? Did Grandma keep it all together?  Did the grandpa that abandoned the family effect those who came after?   What were their experience based on gender in the time period they lived?  Were there added cultural rules that they had brought with them that dictated how they should behave? Did they conform? Did they surprise?  Did they raise their children to think differently or were they rigid in their rules?


If religion played an important role in your family’s history it might have formed many of their opinions of the world around them and helped make choices to migrate to be part of certain communities.

Personal Ethnography Project

The best place to begin your personal ethnography project is to find out all you can about your family from other family members. 

Some families know and share their history easily. Others have a harder time remembering the past. Family pictures are a good way to jog memories of individual people and moments.  The UCLA Center for Oral History Research has put together a list of excellent questions you can ask family members.


Choosing an Ethnography

An ethnography is a study of some aspect of a culture or people.  It should show personal accounts of their life through their own voice.    Biography, anthropology, history and sociology studies where people’s own experiences are recorded are the most obvious but any writing that pulls from personal experience could be used.

Consider the part of your family’s experiences that interests you most and choose an ethnography that focuses on that theme. The library has  suggested reading lists for ethnographies based on time, place and experience.   

Thinking About Your Family

After you have collected information start to think

more deeply about their experience.  Consider their

lives through some of the following aspects:  



Unless your family was Native American or came as an enslaved family your past is filled with immigrants. All immigrant experience was not the same but some parts were fairly constant:

The choice to come:
 Immigrants left all they had ever known because staying was no longer an option – what caused your family to say I can’t stay any longer and leave everything behind?


Who were they?
What was life like before America?  Were they poor or rich or something in between? Did they have skills that set them apart?  Did they have family members and friends who also wanted to come to America?  What was life like in the place where they came from?


The passage.
If your family came to
American before the 20th

century they came on a ship.  What might that have been like?  Does anyone remember?  Where did they go when they got here and why?

Searching for your family. has a wealth of information about your 20th century families. You will need a free account (up on the top right corner of the site)  It will ask you for your name and email

Searching for Basic Family Records


The U.S. Census
Census was taken ever ten years in the United States.  Different census asked different questions but 20th century census tells you ages, where people were born, what they did for a living, when they immigrated if foreign born, if they were veterans, and other information.


Because of privacy concerns the latest census open to the public is 1940.  


If you know who your family members would have been in 1940 start there because you always want to start with the latest census available and work backwards.   If you cannot find the person you are after do you know his sibling? Once you find someone in the family everyone in the household is usually there. Census records often show "about" ages meaning they might list your grandpa as 7 when he was really 10. 

Once you find your family in the U.S. Census click on the name and it will give you the details.  To the right will be a camera icon that shows you the image of the original page.  The original page will have more data than the transcription so you always want to look at the original.  If you are having trouble understanding what the question is they are answering the U.S. Census Bureau has a handy list of the questions asked on each census that you can refer to.


If your family was not in the United States by 1940 there are databases and record collections outside the United States!  

If you go to this page at FamilySearch you will see a listing on the left hand side of the page under PLACE of major geographic areas. Click on the one you need and you will see a listing of what has been indexed or digitized for that country.    


Marriage Records - some marriage records only tell the bride and groom and where they married but others list parents or added information like birthplace and occupation.


If your family members married in Washington you can find their marriage record at the Washington State Digital Archives.


For marriages outside of Washington you can try a marriage search at FamilySearch.  Put the name of the bride or groom, click on the marriage tab and it will give you fields to put in the place (just put in the state) and approximate date range (like 1910-1930).  If you click the spouse tab you can add the name of the person they are marrying.  


When the results are returned click on the name for further details and when you have the details look to see if there is a camera icon.  A camera icon at FamilySearch means you can see the copy of the original record which may tell you even more.

Military Records

Look for family members in
WWII Draft Registration Cards   Put in your family member's name and click on the draft registration tab where you can enter the state.  If he had a common name you may want to click on the birth tab and enter the state where he was born.  If you find the person you are after click on their name to see more information and look for the camera icon to see if you can look at the original image.

There are some more ideas for hunting for family information pinned in our Heritage Visual Guides - you must have a Pinterest account to view them or sign in through a Facebook account

If you need more help using these records or have more questions you can ask  Anne in the library.

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