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

Thursday, April 3, 2014

What to do with genealogically valuable information about living people

 I received this comment from Tony Proctor in Ireland concerning one of my recent posts,
I totally agree with you about the lives, and history, of dead people James. However, I have a number of items that relate to living people. I don't publish this, as you already suggest here, but I maintain the information since it will also, one day, be about dead people. 
My question to you is how to accurately record the history (or as much as I know about it), and ensure it will not be lost (and hence available to later researchers), but without upsetting anyone in the meantime.
 I have found that I get along much better with my dead relatives than I do my live ones. My daughter Amy and I received a very negative comment recently from a somewhat distant relative that blasted us for mentioning two families at the same time. Essentially, the commentator was dredging up an old family animosity between the two families that, for Amy, went back 3 or 4 generations. All of the people were long since dead and this distant relative had to be in his 90s but there it was: the old family conflict in all its glory. We had no idea what he was talking about but could come up with several items of possible conflict. Are we supposed to assiduously preserve all the old garbage and maintain the honor of the families in conflicts where all of the original participants are long dead and even their children are close to it?

I realize that this is different than being sensitive to unpleasant and even criminal acts involving living people, but the question comes down to this: when does all this become history and therefore included in our "public" notes and comments?

To get some perspective, please be aware that there are a huge number of people who deny the existence of the Holocaust. There is a real danger when historic events are manipulated for personal agendas and to preserve prejudices. My own ancestors were persecuted and driven out of their homes at least three times. My 3rd Great-grandfather, John Tanner, was brutally hit over the head with a musket and severely injured. Do we write these incidents out of our history because they are unpleasant to remember?

We are family historians as well as researchers of the past. We need to preserve the present as much as we can and not pick and choose our subject matter based on our own personal preferences. But Tony's question remains, how do we do this without offending presently living relatives?

In my own case, I keep a journal. I usually share that journal regularly with my family. But guess what? Some parts stay in the journal and don't go to the family. If they take the time to read all of it, after I am gone to my reward, then they might find a few things that they didn't know or hear about. The trick here is keeping the information in an accessible and yet not too accessible format so that future generations can discover the information, but not until the parties involved are deceased. In some cases, this may be in the form of a "time capsule" only to be opened at some future date.

Sometimes the key to unraveling family mysteries lies in the unknown and unknowable. There are likely some parts of our lives that are best forgotten, but that probably doesn't extend to relationships that will impact constructing a valid family history.


  1. Anything and everything on my husband's biological family is out there. It's a tale that paints certain people is a harsh light but since we are still looking for living family members, it needs to be there. My side of the family is full of ministers and if there are things about them that shouldn't be shared, I haven't found any. It's up to the historian to decide what to share and what needs to be saved for later. I think a time capsule is a great idea and one that I would use if I needed it.

  2. It's funny that you would write about this today.

    I recently got an irate email from another cousin on that line. She was, first, very angry that I had misspelled her grandmother's name — the name is an uncommon variation of a common name, and Grandma Overson had gotten it wrong — and, second, she was mad about one of the errors that Cousin #1 had gotten so mad about.

    I finally had time today to search through TheAncestorFiles and see exactly who had made the claim that Cousin #1 and Cousin #2 were so mad about, and what had been said.

    Turns out that not only is it not on the blog, except in Cousin #1's comment, but the correct information is there repeatedly, along with great amounts of other detailed, fascinating information about the family.

    My conclusions: (1) some people just want to be mad about something, (2) this has been an interesting insight into certain dynamics that persist in the extended family, and (3) "a soft answer [usually] turns away wrath": after I corrected her grandmother's name, Cousin #2 and I ended up having a pleasant conversation by email.