Family history: Learning from the past to inspire your future

A young child holding onto dads finger.

Knowing how your ancestors weathered difficult times can help foster resilience and provide life lessons that are timeless.

The challenges of living through a pandemic are something today’s children will tell their grandchildren about. While these circumstances are unique, dealing with hardships isn’t unprecedented. Your ancestors faced major challenges of their own and found ways to persevere — and to thrive. So what lessons can we learn from them? In part, it comes down to what they were (or are) able to record or share.

“One of the most important benefits of retelling your family’s stories is that it can inspire a sense of resiliency,” says Mark Speltz, historian and lead family dynamics specialist, Wells Fargo Wealth & Investment Management. “Understanding how your ancestors navigated life’s most challenging times — such as a war, the Great Depression, or even a previous epidemic — provides the perspective, confidence, and reassurance that you’ll be able to weather obstacles of your own.”

Here, Speltz and Gretchen Krueger, historian and senior lead family dynamics specialist, Wells Fargo Wealth & Investment Management, share practical tips for investigating and documenting your family history and sharing it with younger generations — along with your own stories of resiliency.

Understanding how your ancestors navigated life’s most challenging times … provides the perspective, confidence, and reassurance that you’ll be able to weather obstacles of your own.

Put the call out to the broader family

“Connect with family members who have an interest in your family’s history, and learn what already exists,” says Speltz. “Find out who might have photographs, letters, or recorded memories. If there’s a book about your family, what’s left out? Who’s been overlooked?”

Start with what you know and work backward. You may want to use a genealogy website to help fill in the gaps. Gathering these details can provide some background information to put your family’s past and present into perspective.

Gather specific stories

Next, talk to older relatives to find out what hardships they’ve endured and what helped them persevere. Krueger suggests these conversation starters:

  • Is there a global, national, or local event in your past that had a particularly meaningful impact on your life?
  • What was living through that event like, for you personally and for the community around you?
  • Who or what helped you navigate those times?
  • What are the most important lessons that you learned as a result that you want to share with future generations?

You can also discuss how your relatives were affected financially, along with how they responded. Reviewing insights like these is an important part of the wealth education of younger generations.

Invite children to participate

Making family history relevant to younger generations can be a challenge, admits Speltz. “But it’s critically important work, as stories communicate values and bridge generations.”

Krueger’s son recently interviewed a relative by Zoom for a class assignment. She recalls, “His nervousness quickly changed to awe as his aunt relayed her tale and the lasting life lesson it taught her about speaking up, especially when it is difficult.” They’re making plans for a family reunion this summer, looking forward to sharing more stories and making new memories together.

Keep collecting your thoughts and experiences

Today’s challenges can be a springboard to inspire you to capture your stories for future generations.

“Start small,” Speltz says. “Keep a notepad nearby to capture thoughts and record daily routines, along with the biggest challenges and simplest joys.”

Think these insights are trivial or mundane? Not so. “Imagine having even a page of experiences of an ancestor mining gold a century ago,” he says. “Your reflections will be priceless to future generations.”

Explore other ways of sharing family stories

Many families of wealth can benefit from collecting and curating their stories in other ways as well. For example, those stories can be used to create narratives for a foundation website or to craft a business mission statement that best reflects the family’s values.

That’s where historians like Speltz and Krueger come in. They have a passion for helping clients explore, discover, preserve, and share their family’s stories — and they understand how to create materials for a variety of intended audiences. To learn what’s possible with their help, reach out to your wealth manager.

Whatever you do, Krueger and Speltz urge you to start today.

“It’s both never too early and never too late to begin,” says Krueger. “Today is the best day.”

Wells Fargo Wealth & Investment Management (WIM) is a division within Wells Fargo & Company. WIM provides financial products and services through various bank and brokerage affiliates of Wells Fargo & Company.