Sunday, 7 April 2013

Family Tree Research - Skeletons in The Closet

Admit it!  You start your family tree journey on a wing and a prayer with your own surname and if you're lucky a grandparent still alive to give you some stories to build upon.

Family tree research is exciting when you first begin.

Back in the day (1987ish), all I had was a notepad and my parent's stories of their parents, aunts and uncles.  My dad knew his grandfather was a Welshman, my mam knew her grandfather was a Tyne waterman.

I drifted down to my local history library and spent hours mulling over cemetery indexes, microfiched 1881 census and St Catherine's Indexes.  It took hours, often overlooked by grumpy librarians checking that you paid for your crappy dry silver copies of microfiched Gazette pages.

Now of course, new genealogists can get a week or two free on Ancestry.Com (or or GenesReunited among other sites.  I won't lie, I love and made recent contact with a cousin once removed in Australia and we're rattling off emails to one another and sharing photos and stories and it is just wonderful.  It is like finding the missing pieces to a jigsaw.

But what about discovering skeletons in the closet?

I learnt a valuable lesson recently about not putting my twenty first century thoughts and feelings into something that was going on in 1851 between my great x 3 grandmother and her family and yet, it has been a tricky business trying to 'disconnect' from it when the job of a family tree researcher is to basically join the dots.

I won't go into the gory details except to say that it involved her abandoning her young children to go in search of a man.  My research shows her finding him, marrying him (not a time for everyone to say 'Awww' just yet!) and then returning to her home town to have more children with him but not be reunited with her other children.

Each subsequent census entry reveals her children living with either her sister or her parents and then of course, the children grow up themselves and marry.

I have fought with myself over this woman, really I have.

I got to a point where I had to log out of my computer for about a week because I could not find anything to show me that she was reconciled with her children.

And then I thought to myself  'What gives you the right to judge?' And it was a wake up call.

Genealogy is full of skeletons in the closet and it is your job as a researcher to find them but it is not your job to make sense of them beyond the evidence you find.

Evidence in the case of family tree research  = dates, names,places,births,deaths,etc,etc.  

I could not prove that she was not reconciled with her children.  I could not prove that she never saw them again so I had to step back and present JUST the evidence.

She was widowed young, left to bring up four young children and maybe she went looking for my great x 3 grandfather because she was alone and vulnerable?  Who knows? I DON'T!!!!

I have learnt an important lesson though.  Yes, they have my surname and I am a genetic mix of all of them but I do not know anything about them as people - I can put meat on their bones to some extent  by learning about how they lived but it is just unfair of me to judge them!

Accept and embrace your family tree skeletons in the closet - they must have had their reasons for doing what they did but they lived in a time you did not, when things were very, very different. And actually, it's none of your business!  

They didn't ask you to go back in time and dig 'em up, that was your decision - and remember, they're long dead but you can still learn to respect them.

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