Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Rattle of Old Bones

If you go into genealogy expecting to find famous ancestors or discover you're the heir to some long-unclaimed inheritance, you'll probably be disappointed. Most of us descend from "just plain folks" who lived ordinary, seemingly unremarkable lives much like ours.

What you're far more likely to find are the proverbial "sins of the fathers" -- not to mention mothers, brothers, sisters and more.

Our ancestors and their kin were human beings, after all, susceptible to the same foibles as every other human being throughout time. They made mistakes. They committed outright crimes. They were flawed.

So, how do you handle the skeletons in your family closet?

Discretion and tact are valuable skills for any genealogist but especially for the one who fancies herself a family historian. While it's one thing to record simple tombstone data, it's quite another to tell detailed stories about your less than illustrious ancestors.

For instance, when I first started my research, I soon learned of one noteworthy female ancestor in the late 19th century who had two sons -- both out of wedlock and presumably by two different men. Then she had the temerity to remain single her entire life. Research revealed a third child, a girl adopted out to another family shortly after her birth.

Sharing this story becomes rather complicated because many of the children of the oldest son are still alive and sometimes sensitive about their father's "legitimacy."

If you know for certain that the truth would cause undue embarrassment to any living person, you're better off keeping the details private. Record the facts, by all means, but do not publish them. My own example is deliberately short on details for that reason.

On a related topic, in the course of your own research you can expect to run across one of the great "coincidences" of genealogy. In most marriages, regardless of the era, the first child is invariably born "prematurely," i.e. less than nine months after the wedding. (If you're not sure what this means, drop me a line. I'll be happy to explain.)

In the end, it's best to proceed with an open mind. Be prepared for a few surprises, and avoid the urge to pass judgment.

Your ancestors weren't perfect.

Then again, who is?

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