Family History Daily would like to thank Thomas MacEntee, genealogy industry thought leader and respected blogger, for shedding some light on the dark side of researching our family history. Find more from Thomas on Geneabloggers.com.
Incest, theft, and kidnapping. Financial ruin, scams and deception. Love lost, love found and love unknown. Prostitutes, sexual predators, and perversion. The baseline themes in the latest Hollywood blockbuster or perhaps a New York Times best-selling novel? Wrong. You’ll find all of these and more when researching family history.
If you have ever been interested in finding out more about your ancestors, realize that what you learn and what you discover can’t be unseen or unheard and the stories you uncover may astound and even upset you.
Not for the Squeamish, But Don’t Look Away
As genealogists our goal is finding the truth about our ancestors. And the whole truth no matter how ugly it may be. Don’t be tempted to skip researching certain persons or aspects of their life based on what you may have heard from a family member or read in an old newspaper.
If your goal, like most family historians, is to put all of your ancestors in historical context and to better understand their lives, you need to take a 3-D approach to research. This means going down those dark and narrow alleys. Looking under that bed despite being afraid of monsters. Pulling back the rug to find more than an ancestor’s dust.
What you will find is this: life. Our ancestors had the same hopes and dreams as well as successes and shortcomings as we do. This is what makes them human. And when we see them as real people – faults, warts and all – then we can bring them back to life, if only in our memories and on paper.
Where and How To Find The Dark Side of Your Ancestors
There is a myriad of television programs related to crime scene investigations and it seems to be a requirement to show a grisly crime scene or an autopsy. But present day depictions of wrong doing, victims and mayhem can’t even compare to the florid and sometimes horrifying prose used in books and newspaper accounts from the late 19th century, for example.
Keep in mind that these were the days before television or radio and even decent photographs in a newspaper. The story could only be told in a manner that we today find very exaggerated and sensational. And like today, editors knew what sold newspapers . . . any story that was salacious yet still within the bounds of common decency of the time.
Beyond the written stories in the media, let’s say you have a black sheep ancestor (that’s what we call them) who committed a horrendous crime. Look to record sets for clues including:
How To Handle Bad News
The good news: you’ve made major progress on your research, perhaps even breaking down a “brick wall’ and taking your family tree back another generation. The bad news: you’ve done so by uncovering a family story that would even shock present-day readers. How do you proceed?
Every situation is different and what you decide to do with a story and the evidence behind it depends on your comfort level and those with whom you want to share the information. Here are some guidelines and ideas to help you make a decision on the best approach:
Discomfort Brings Pain and Has Energy
Consider the oyster and how it creates a pearl: an irritant is placed inside its body and the oyster creates a beautiful work of art to remove what makes it uncomfortable. Open up the oyster shell and you’re in for a surprise. The same can be said about a tragic tale of an ancestor.
Yes, the research may make you uncomfortable and the result may break your heart. But this shouldn’t stop you from making sure that the story is told for generations to come. There are many ways to ensure that even our black sheep ancestors have their stories told, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us or our family members.
Thomas MacEntee is a genealogy professional specializing in the use of technology and social media to improve genealogical research and as a means of interacting with others in the family history community. He is the founder of GeneaBloggers.com, a community of over 3,000 bloggers documenting their passion for family stories and genealogy research.
© 2013, copyright Thomas MacEntee