Skeletons in the Closet


This week\’s post is not about record sources. It\’s more of an opinion piece. It\’s been one I\’ve been wanting to write about for awhile.

A few days ago, a genealogy friend and I were discussing the \”less than upstanding citizens\” in our respective trees. Actually, the conversation was less about the ancestors themselves, and more about our living relatives reactions to our ancestors\’ misdeeds. It got me to thinking back about some of the episodes of those genealogy shows, when someone is absolutely horrified by some of the things their ancestors have done. They immediately classify them as an evil person. I can sympathize on one level Sometimes reality can be a shock. I am also a little… annoyed as well. That\’s not quite the right word, but I\’ll explain.

First and foremost, your ancestor\’s decisions are not a reflection of YOU. Just as you didn\’t actually do the heroic deed they did, you didn\’t perform the \”dastardly\” deed either. We all remember the brouhaha a couple of years ago when a certain celebrity asked one of the genealogy shows to not air the fact that he had a slave owning ancestor. The show went with a different story from the celebrity\’s ancestry. Now whether this was because of the celebrity\’s request, or because they thought that the story they did use was more interesting, I personally do not know. Nor do I want to rehash the incident. I actually thought the one they used was more interesting than if they had gone with the slave owning ancestor, but that\’s just me. Just to be clear, I am NOT condoning slavery. It\’s one of the horrible parts of human history. But to shy away from it and pretend it didn\’t happen doesn\’t do any good either.

If you do genealogy long enough, you are going to come across an ancestor whose life choices don\’t measure up to your own code of ethics. Whether you consider them a \”grey sheep\” or a \”black sheep\” would depend on your viewpoint I guess. Most genealogists are delighted to find one of these people, as it adds a good story to your family history.

Let me give you some examples from my own family history:

  • The married guy who had two children with his servant girl, and ended up marrying her after his wife died and then had a couple more with her
  • The man who was a confirmed bigamist
  • The woman who was a suspected bigamist
  • The woman who had 3 illegitimate children and never married
  • The woman who was a prostitute for awhile
  • I can\’t prove it, but I\’m pretty sure at least one person in my tree might have supplemented their income through less than legal means
On the surface, these people don\’t look too good. But, do we know the whole story? Divorce has been around for a long time, but it has not always been easy to obtain, or cheap. It might have been easier and more economic for a couple just to go their separate ways, but legally they were still married. Did the woman who was a prostitute feel she had no other options to support herself? We feel sympathy for the medieval man who poached to feed his family. The social safety net that we have today is a relatively new thing, historically speaking. My ancestors with possible \”shady dealings\” might have been just trying to support their families.
Take a look at some of your relatives that you know personally. We all have that one older relative that has certain ideas and opinions that we don\’t share. It may be their opinions on gender equality, their views on another skin colour or religion, or sexual orientation. They may use terms that we consider derogatory today, but that people of their generation see nothing wrong with. How about that cousin that made some life choices you disagree with? Do you think these people are absolutely evil? Probably not. You may not like certain aspects about them, but they are not all bad are they?
Now take a look at some of the hard choices you\’ve had to make in your own life. A couple of hundred years from now, your descendants are not going to know all the reasons why you\’ve made that decision. If they only had part of the story, how would you look to them? 
What I\’m trying to say is that no one is all good, and no one is all bad. We are all shades of grey. What was considered a social norm in your great grandparents\’ time may not be now. What is a social norm now may not be in our great grandchildren\’s time. We wouldn\’t want our entire life judged by a single action or decision. We should do the same with our ancestors. We only see snapshots into their lives. Unless we know the whole story, we should keep an open mind.

4 thoughts on “Skeletons in the Closet

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