Genealogical Tip #1: Cut Your Ancestors Some Slack

March 14, 2016

Today begins a new series on this blog: a compilation of my top tips for genealogical research.  Each tip is something that has either been helpful in my own personal research or research for clients, or has been helpful to students I’ve taught.  These tips aren’t just about avoiding common mistakes, though they certainly encompass those as well; they are also about how to make the most of the resources available to each one of us.


Tip #1: Be okay with who your ancestors were.


Feeling an intense connection to your ancestors is common in family historians, and dare I say, to be much desired.  After all, if you didn’t care deeply about your family and its history, you wouldn’t be doing this research in the first place.  An emotional attachment can reinvigorate you when you hit a dreaded brick wall (the genealogical term for a seemingly impassible and incredibly frustrating barrier in your research), and it can help you hit that amazing high when you uncover a new piece of information or find a heretofore-unknown record of your ancestors. 


There are also times, however, when that connection can be a downright hindrance, sending you into spasms of passionate disappointment or even denial.  This happens mainly in two cases: first, when a researcher has grown up believing a family legend about an ancestor (usually, that the family is descended from royalty or some such), and second, when the researcher finds that an ancestor behaved in a way contrary to standards of behavior (whether contemporary or general).


None of this is to say that there aren’t plenty of people out there who are descended from royalty, especially European royalty.  If you know anything about European history, you know that those royals got around.  This was presumably before given royals started looking like Prince Charles.  There are many genealogists and geneticists, in fact, who claim that more people alive today are descended from some form of royalty at some point in history than are not (it’s mostly to do with statistics and the number of ancestors each of us had at a given time versus the number of people actually living at that time).  Even if you are descended from royalty, though, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to find a confirmed link between you and King Whatshisface (being the BBC’s alternate code name for Prince Charles… and I promise, I’m out of Prince Charles jokes now). 


Those shapely ankles are totally a family trait.  Henry VIII of England, painted 1497/98 by Hans Holbein the Younger.


And if you are descended from royalty… So what? And I mean that in the least sarcastic sense.  Really, so what? So one of your ancestors happened to wield some power.  Does that really make him more interesting than the ordinary people who comprise the vast majority of your family tree? The only definitive positive I can imagine is that the nobility tend to have better documentation of their lives and family than most.  However, a person of royal or noble blood is not necessarily any better or more fascinating than the kitchen scullion or the peasant. 


The second case – finding out that one’s ancestor was not a paragon of virtue – is a slightly more complex issue, in my mind.  Many people are sensitive about their families, and many seem to feel that a wrongdoer in their ancestry is somehow a reflection on them or on their sense of self-worth (See, for example: Ben Affleck asking Finding Your Roots to remove a segment from the episode because it made mention that some of his ancestors owned slaves).  Causes of this disappointment can range from crimes that have always been serious (murder) to things that are crimes/looked down upon today but were social norms way back when (child marriage, affairs, the whole slave-owning thing), to much smaller offenses (an ancestor told an inexplicable lie).  People with this sensitivity either experience crushing disappointment that an ancestor did not live up to their expectations, sometimes to the point of quitting their research altogether, or find a way to deny the ancestor’s action and block it from their minds. 


This is a little harder for me to emotionally understand than the royalty thing; if I found that I had a murderer in my family tree, my response would be more along the lines of, “Really? That’s so cool! I mean… how sad for the victims.  Of course.  What a tragedy.  Where can I find more information about this? The more detailed, the better.  Are there still undiscovered bodies? Husband, go fetch the shovel!”  It’s possible that I’m callous or insensitive, but maybe I also understand that our ancestors were just people.  They made mistakes and bad decisions, same as us, and unlike those of us who grew up with the internet, they didn’t have a sense that their bad decisions would haunt them decades or centuries later.  There were good people and bad people, same as today.  Good people could give birth to bad people, and vice versa.  They lived their lives and – unless they were teenagers or irretrievably stupid – usually had some sort of reasoning behind the decisions they made.  Maybe your great-grandfather stole that horse because he was a criminal who liked to steal from other people while cackling and twirling his villainous mustache… or maybe he stole that horse because it had been stolen from him in the first place, but he didn’t have the documentation to back that up.  Maybe there’s another reason entirely.  And maybe we should be very cautious about judging people who lived hundreds of years ago by today’s moral standards.


The search for our family history is, in a sense, the search for the truth about what led to us.  Blinding ourselves to that truth by insisting that our ancestor had to be a specific person or that he or she always behaved a specific way does no service to us, to our families, or to the reality that we, as researchers and historians, seek.  Or, as Sherlock Holmes said, “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”    


And let’s face it, a horse thief or a rascal in your family tree will usually make for a better story than yet another saintly, but boring, doctor or chivalrous knight.  


 Because you know there's a good story behind a mugshot like this.  From the New South Wales Police Department, 1921.


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