How do you contact distant relatives who may or may not be interested in genealogy?

+4 votes
I had an exciting discovery today. I found a land patent record for my 3x great grandfather, and found the address of where he lived back in the 1880s, just outside of Fargo. I then looked up the address on a white pages site, and the people who live there now have the same last name as my ancestor!

So, needless to say, I'm excited to get in contact with them and swap family history info. But I don't want them to think I'm creepy/a scammer/an identity thief. I feel like maybe the best thing would be to send them a letter, but here's the thing: I'm going to be in the Fargo area in a couple of days. So I'd really, really like to talk to them and maybe swing by and meet them.

I assume just going to their house is not the best idea. So, I guess a phone call? What advice do people have for calling a stranger and saying "hey, I think we're 3rd cousins!"?
in Genealogy Help by Lianne Lavoie G2G6 Pilot (423k points)

4 Answers

+3 votes

I think your on the right track. Definately call first and explain about finding the land patent. Hopefully they will be interested and want to meet.

Let us know how it goes.
by Eugene Quigley G2G6 Mach 7 (75.6k points)
+2 votes
If you use Facebook, you could look them up and send them a message that way if they have a profile, too. Share the information about the land patent, and maybe include some links to related WikiTree profiles and your blog so they can see that you are on the up-and-up and genuinely interested in genealogy (and not an identity thief or scammer). If the farm has been in the family that long, they may be open to talking to people about the history of it - a lot of people who have history in a place love to share that pride with others. That's a good opener for a phone call, too. You're calling because you are interested in the history of the place because your ancestor lived there. Then the family still living there can choose the direction of the conversation based on their comfort level with getting a call out of the blue.

Good luck, and I hope you get to meet them.
by Erin Breen G2G6 Pilot (224k points)
+4 votes

I have introduced myself to "cousins" several times. I usually write them a letter first, giving them a definite "out" (by not responding) if they're wary or uninterested. So far, I've had nothing but positive responses. However, that's moot, as you apparently don't have the time for that.

If you're going to call them first (that's certainly the thing to do if you don't have time to write a letter), before you ask if you're speaking to so-and-so, introduce yourself, establishing that you're entirely willing to fully identify yourself, using your full name. I suggest you immediately establish your relationship to your g-g..-grandfather (not the people in the house) and you have no intention of entering the house. Present the most non-threatening person you can be.

Maybe, something like: "Hello. My name is Lianne Lavoie. I'm a genealogist and have been researching my great-grandfather [full name]. A land record indicates he lived in Fargo in 1880, at [give the address]. I found this phone number on the internet associated with that address [EDIT -establishes that you have nothing to hide about where you got the number]. I'm going to be in Fargo [such-and-such date] and, as I don't want to appear suspicious, would you mind if I took pictures of the house from the street or sidewalk?"

Thinking of it as if you were calling me, I probably would have no objection. After all, you could take pictures without my permission in any case. I'm guessing they would have no objection to that request.

Most of all, it lets them just say "yes" or "no" and hang up if they're uncomfortable or have no further interest.

Hopefully, the response may be "Really?! That's my great-great-grandfather!" and you're off to the races.

by Bruce Veazie G2G6 Mach 5 (57.5k points)
+2 votes
Lianne, I can't count the many times I've contacted distant cousins or even potential cousins over the decades. I've had maybe two or three negative responses out of possibly hundreds. At different times, I've gone to towns where family members used to live many years ago and went through the phone book calling one person with that surname after another. With one exception (on the phone), people have always been friendly and interested once 'family tree' was mentioned. Not only that , they've opened avenues for me by calling other relatives so I made the rounds going from house to house, recording their information and taking pictures of their photos.

Once I was driving by a house in a county my grandfather came from and I saw a surname of interest posted in front of the house. People were sitting on the front porch so I stopped to visit. It turns out they were distant relatives and I wound up going inside and recording their information and taking pictures of their photos.

Another time I stopped at a house where I was told a relative lived. A lady was in her front yard and extremely friendly until she found out I was interested in the family tree. She told me to drive down the street and talk to her brother and refused to say anything about the family. When I got to her brother's house (another cold turkey visit)  I found out she had good reason for reacting the way she did. My aunt and I wound up spending several hours at his house recording information and taking pictures of photos.

I guess I'd better stop, but I've had so many rewarding visits with people over the subject of genealogy that it's hard to find a stopping place. The odds are greatly in your favor that you will have a wonderful, memorable experience by visiting these distant relatives.

I never used any set speech, but it generally boiled down to, "I'm working on my family tree and I think we may be related." Talk about an ice-breaker. That turns people from cautious to very interested.

You should write an update here after your visit so we'll all know how it went.
by Debby Black G2G6 Mach 8 (81.0k points)

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