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

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

On Burying the Skeletons in your Genealogical Closet

The British Museum crystal skull.
We all have a skeleton or two (or more) in our genealogical closets. What do we do with them? First of all, history is history. A quote from Michael Crichton is appropriate:
“If you don't know history, then you don't know anything. You are a leaf that doesn't know it is part of a tree. ”
I think I have used that quote before, but it appropriate in the present context. Since we live in the present, anything that just happened becomes history. For genealogists, unless that history was recorded in some way, it simply did not happen. History becomes history when it is recorded. Of course, the methods of transmission vary considerably. Once we become interested in our family's history, we start to become aware of the possible sources of information about our family. We are immediate heirs to an oral history transmitted by our immediate relatives. Some of us are deprived of this oral history because we have little or no contact with our relatives because of adoptions, abandonments or other difficult situations. We may also be separated from our oral history because our immediate family is estranged from other family members or for a whole list of other reasons.

However, oral histories are very selective. In some cultures, oral histories are the main method of transmission but in our American and Western European-based culture in the United States, we only get our oral history, if at all, in bits and pieces. For most of us, starting our research into our family becomes a voyage into the unknown.

After spending years doing genealogical research and learning more and more about my ancestors, I find that there are plenty of skeletons that were entirely ignored by the relatively small number of stories that were transmitted through the oral history channel. I have found stories of inspiration and overcoming obstacles and hardship. But I have also found that some of my ancestors were not model citizens.

There is an old saying, that I first heard from the Walt Disney movie Bambi, that goes, "If you can't say something nice, don't say nothing at all." This attitude is an undercurrent that strongly affects oral history transmissions. As I have solicited oral histories over the years, I have seen that there is a distinct tendency to ignore or eliminate any references to conflict or unpleasant issues. But sometimes, these issues are recorded in court records, newspaper articles, and other less editorial sources.

There is another saying that applies here and that is, "Absence makes the heart grow fonder." In our case, as genealogists, we are happy to connect ourselves with all sorts of unsavory characters as long as they are back some distance in time and turn out to be famous or infamous. I am always amused that so many genealogists proudly display their "royal" ancestry when many of those same kings and queens were horrible people. It is interesting that some people will refuse to even talk about a close relative who has done something "terrible" but are proud to parade their more distant ancestors who did things that were much worse than the closer or more proximate relative.

Another aspect of this issue is the tendency genealogists display to rewrite history both to eliminate undesirable connections and to bridge gaps that they think need to be bridged. Although much of the inaccuracy of today's online family trees can be attributed to sloppy research and indiscriminate copying, there is a good measure of fabrication also. If a lengthy pedigree is impressive to some people, it is now easier than ever to acquire a long pedigree especially one leading back to royalty. It is also easy to overlook the lack of any supporting documentation. Many of the surname books I have inherited containing my "family history" start out with statements about how our family is related to royalty when no such connections have ever been documented.

Genealogists should be more in the mode of digging up the skeletons rather than burying them and don't forget that even the skeletons need to be carefully documented with the sources recorded.


  1. The present-day genealogist must also realize that his or her present-day morality or custom may not equal that of other places and times. Some in the present approve of polygamy, while others do not. Some in the past deemed sale of something on a Sabbath day abhorrent, which others did not or do not consider worthy of "skeleton" definition.

    1. Yes, cultural mores change with the times.

  2. Hi James. Have you read "In praise of Forgetting" by David Reiff? I'm sure you would enjoy it.