Connecting Ethnography to Genealogy Research

Cover of a personal history.

Written by Alana Jolley

January 12, 2024

Connecting Ethnography to Genealogy Research

The first ethnography writing I completed was in the form of a personal history of my great aunt, Virginia. I did not realize my family-history writing might take on a whole new dimension by connecting ethnography to my genealogy research.  Aunt Virginia’s story is one of many, which connected me to my father, whom I never knew. He was a glider pilot in WWII.  Like many, who died in Europe, he was buried outside of his homeland in an American cemetery in France. My interviews with my Aunt Virginia helped me to find, more specifically, how I fit into my own cultural heritage.

Uncovering Memories

I wanted to uncover memories of my father, which still lived within my aunt. In her story of partly raising my father, I hoped to find him. Through her recollections, I found a father that lived and breathed, who went to school, who loved to fly kites on the beach when not swimming, who loved horseback riding and drawing cartoons.  I wanted to uncover his childhood, with his brother. How did Walter fare among so many aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents? How was my father acculturated, with dominating cultural values, beliefs, and traditions on both sides of his bi-racial heritage?

My aunt told me my dad was part Mexican and part Swedish. She said, “The marriage of your grandparents was not made in heaven. They married against the wishes of both parents.” In her clear, but Spanish-accented voice, she told me, “Your father grew up in three worlds. He learned some Swedish, and he spoke Spanish, but grew up in Los Angeles, speaking English. Your father loved to visit his grandmothers: the Swedish one in Los Angeles,  and my mother, in Ensenada, Mexico.  He loved to be with his Mexican cousins, so he stayed with me most of the time, in Mexico, when he wasn’t in school.”


My deceased grandmother, Camelina, as she is lovingly remembered, was the oldest of fourteen children, born in Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico. I only met her twice, when I was seven months old, and on my sixth birthday. Aunt Virginia was her sister and the second oldest. I had so many questions for my aunt. When was Camelina born? What was her childhood like, as the oldest in such a large family?  My aunt shared the delight of their childhood, with their own dad and their own grandparents.

How did my grandparents meet, being from such opposite cultures? Where did they live? What was their home life like? Where was my father born? How did he end up in Kentucky where I was born? These were just a few of the answers I was seeking. Aunt Virginia’s interviews led me to other venues of research. She knew my father was a glider pilot, and that he died in a plane crash in WWII.  Her recollection of the telegram she received about his death peaked my interest in glider pilots.

Glider Pilots

Exactly what did glider pilots do? One evening my husband and I took our two youngest children to the library to do homework. While there, I looked for books about glider pilots – and found one called, The Glider Gang, by Milton Dank, who was a glider pilot. After finishing his book, I read the inside back flap. I discovered Dank’s war credentials exactly matched my fathers.

They were both stationed in London, assigned to the 439th Troop Carrier Group, 94th Troop Carrier Squadron. I became so excited; I had to call Mr. Dank. “Yes,” he said, “I did know your father. We traveled together for thirteen days across the Atlantic on the USS George Washington.”  Dank sent me a roster of  the living glider pilots he believed would have known, or served, with my father.

Emotional Times

Those were emotional times for me; as I penned letters of inquiry to all 25 of the glider pilots on the list.  I was both overjoyed and overwhelmed as their responses came flooding back from Maryland, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Ohio, Texas, Utah, Arizona and fourteen other states.

Hidden information was resurrected from deep inside my father’s comrades’ memories in battle.  Their descriptions made my father come alive for me.  Each letter documented characteristics of the father I have no memory of.

True Ethnography

True ethnography unveils many cultural aspects. What did I learn from those veterans, about their friend, my father?

Milton Dank: “With best wishes for your search and God bless you for keeping the memory of your father alive.” (This was my purpose.)

Henry Benefiel: “I remember him as a very able, good looking, dark haired, athletic, pleasant young man, . . . he also was a caricature artist, entertaining us at times . . . he was powerfully built. I have seen him walk on his hands for a block. I never heard him speak anything but excellent English.”

Pershing Carlson: “Your Dad was one of my best friends. . . . our squadron suffered extremely high casualties, losing 87% of our original cadre. Your father was a kind and generous person. . . . a good pilot and good officer. He frequently expressed his concern as to what would happen to you and your mother should he not survive the war.”

Vearne Ogden: “Lindy, as we called him, and I were very close, we had something in common (daddy’s little girls) . . . when most of our buddies were out on leave we would sit and talk about our little girls. Lindy wrote a poem, ‘Daddy’s Little Girl,’ that he gave to me.”

Thick Description

We learn on this website, that ethnography is about description. In fact, it is about “thick description,” as Clifford Geertz explains in, The Interpretation of Cultures. What thick description is gleaned from my Aunt Virginia’s ethnography?  What did I find in he glider pilots’ descriptive responses?

It is easy to see how connecting ethnography to genealogy research gives it a whole new dimension.  Explore More! 

My new book, My Father Had No Children, will be out soon at Amazon and other booksellers.  It will be in hard back, soft cover, ebook, and audiobook.  The book is intended to provide a legacy for my father; but within his story is mine.

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