Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Through a Glass Darkly: Viewing our past through genealogy

New South Wales, Australia, Convict Indents, 1788-1842
What is your attitude towards wars, crimes, slavery, polygamy, bigamy, infidelity, abandonment, colonial exploitation and all the complicated and disturbing issues of our world? How much of this lies hidden in the names, dates and places of your family group records? As researchers, we sometimes give token acknowledgement to some of these issues, but we are blinded by our own prejudices and those of our ancestors.

I have written before about the inability of my own family to acknowledge polygamy. My Great-grandmother was the third polygamous wife of a prominent Utah leader. Her husband died leaving her with three small children. She entered into another marriage with a prominent leader from eastern Arizona and lived in dirt-poor poverty the rest of her life. Eventually she ended up living in a walk up with a shared bath facility apartment on South Temple near where we will be attending #RootsTech 2016 next week. She merits a one line reference in the extensive biographies of both husbands. It was only after I began doing intensive family history research that I began to learn about her and her family.

As I help people find their ancestors, many have discovered their own tragic stories and relationships. Many have been surprised to find that their ancestors were slaves or slave holders. Much of the time, they learn about these issues for the first time. Their own relatives have managed to rewrite history and transmit only what they thought was "proper." It took me years to discover anything about my Grandfather's involvement in World War I. As it is I have nothing but a few artifacts, some photographs and a Veteran's headstone as evidence of his participation in the Mexican Border War and World War I. I know now that his unit in the Great War fought all the way from France to Germany but that is all I know about his personal involvement in either war.

One of my ancestors was given a commendation for supplying his slaves to the American Revolutionary Army. We sometimes cannot imagine how our own ancestors could have been involved in such actions, especially when our own politicly correct time maintains such a tight hold on revealing only the past we want remembered.

At the opposite end of the story line, as I have mentioned before in some of my writings, our family is heir to several stories such as our relationship to Daniel Boone and that one of my great-grandmothers was an illegitimate daughter of the King of England, that have absolutely no basis in fact.

Years ago, while I was still in graduate school, I read the following book.

Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, 1970.

I still have a copy of book in my personal library. Over the intervening years, I spent a considerable time reading every book I could find about the Indian Wars in Arizona, including many personal accounts written at the time or shortly after the time of the wars. Both sides in those conflicts did some terrible things, but the portrayal of the Native Americans in the Dee Brown book is solidly one-sided and ignores much of history that is contrary to the contemporary accounts.

It is said that the winners write history, but it is also true that the losers re-write it when they can. How you approach the settlement of the Western United States may depend heavily on whether your ancestors spoke English, Spanish or Navajo and what you were taught about that history as a child will likely be strongly colored by your ancestry also.

It is always a continual surprise to me how many genealogical researchers seem untouched by the history of their families because the never really think about it or take the time to learn about it. In my own culture, I had certain stories told about my family that I now doubt are strictly true, but I have heard those same stories repeated by relatives who knew nothing else about our family. No, I do not take the time to correct their misimpressions. I simply smile and acknowledge that we are in fact relatives and leave it at that. The story is more of a token of relationship that an actual statement about our shared history.

One of the most extensive writers about my Tanner great-grandparents was the son of a polygamous family. His stories and writings reflect the reality of his times growing up with the reality of polygamy. But it is also apparent that he was decidedly unhappy with the whole situation. His attitude and the attitude of many other people who were the products of polygamous marriages has decidedly colored our own understanding of this institution. Here is a cartoon from the time when my own ancestors were actively practicing polygamy.

Attributed to San Francisco’s Wasp on 1879 Feb 01 See Wikipedia: The Wasp (magazine)
I can assure you that none of my own ancestors had horns.

I can also assure you that very, very few of my own relatives have even the slightest idea about the basis for the controversy or about the details of their own ancestors' involvement. We do rewrite history even when it is genealogy.

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