Research isn’t what genealogy is all about. It’s about understanding your roots. Knowing where you came from is part of your story. What makes you uniquely you.
Understanding your roots, however you feel about your ancestors’ decisions, matters to understanding your own story.
Sometimes, we won’t like the facts we find. (See Facing Ancestors’ Pasts & Not Liking What We See) We’re tempted to ignore them, make light of them, or re-frame them. The problem is, none of that breeds understanding.
I recently attended a lecture on telling ancestors’ stories. I found myself stopped short when I heard the speaker say, “We must be proud of our roots.” Although he was trying to make the point that ancestors’ stories can invoke family pride, he lost me. My brain was screaming, “Oh, no, we don’t.” If I limited my ancestors’ stories to those I could be proud of, I’d leave a bunch of folks out.
I was hung up on a discovery I’d made two days before. In 1688, the court found Joseph Tanner, my 7x great-grandfather guilty of beating a horse.
Joseph Tanner (born 1662)
A close inspection of the Henrico County, Virginia Court Orders (April 1, 1678 – April 17, 1693) revealed that Joseph was often in court. In fact, paging through the book, I wondered if he ever stayed home. He testified to the fairness of the start of a horse race, sat on juries, and witnessed wills. He also testified in 1685 that “servant” John Crossman was absent from his duties. And by the time I got to page 146 (1683) of the book, I found the horse beating judgement.
I wonder, knowing he was willing to beat a horse, how he felt when John Crossman received 20 lashes on his bare back as punishment for his absenteeism. And how Joseph treated that little five-year-old “Indian boy” he took as his slave in 1678. Yeah, that was in there too.
What We Hope to Find Versus Understanding Our Roots
Facing and understanding your roots doesn’t always come naturally. We want to find that our ancestors were nice people who stood on the right side of history. That’s not always what happens. As a white woman with southern roots, I know I’ll occasionally find some ugliness among my ancestors’ pasts. Recording the facts is one thing. The dilemma comes when I think about how I’m going to write their stories.
Studying the Past (and Writing about it) Promotes Understanding
Judy Russell stresses in her Ethical Genealogist lecture that denying the acts of our ancestors to the point of misrepresenting the past is nothing short of unethical. And let me tell you, that denial, once you start tippy-toeing around on it, is a slippery slope. Every time I find pre-1860 ancestors in Colonial Virginia that didn’t own slaves, I breathe a sigh of relief. I can almost ignore the fact that most of them didn’t have enough land or money to engage in slavery. Almost.
Sue Cromwell, a genealogist here in Farmington, Michigan says that’s it unfair to judge ancestors by 21st century values. She says that our ancestors were simply products of their times, trying to get by the best that they could. She believes that, as we write about ancestors, we should let readers form their own conclusions.
That’s a hard one for me. Even as I look at my ancestors’ life decisions in the light of their socio-historical context, I can’t disconnect my sense of ethics. No, it didn’t escape me that the court that convicted Joseph of beating his horse was the same court—probably the same bench occupant—who ordered the 20 lashes for John Crossman. And yes, I did read where Joseph was one of the first on the scene after an “Indian massacre.” I realize that I don’t understand the brutality of Colonial Virginia. That at best, Joseph Tanner was a flawed man.
However, it’s my study of him—not my feelings about him—that engender understanding. It’s what starts discussions. And my feelings about him might cause someone to take interest in his story.
Understanding Your Roots Goes Beyond Good Genealogical Ethics
Examining our foremothers’ and -fathers’ lives is important to understanding our family story. And sometimes that understanding means immersing ourselves in facts that will trigger emotional reactions.
We can and should record facts impartially. However, I’m not convinced we can always pull dispassionate off when we write about the episodes of the past. I’m also not convinced we should. Impartiality is different from honesty. I can be honest about my feeling without distorting facts.
I can be proud of the woman my grandmother was and, at the same time, resent her father, who abandoned her at 12 years old. DNA from both runs through my veins. Embracing them or criticizing them isn’t going to make me a better or stronger or worse person.
On the other hand, denying or misrepresenting their stories might undermine who I am. Whether I’m proud, ashamed or ambivalent, delving in and understanding their stories will give me a nugget or two of wisdom. And that’s worth the journey.
When have you felt a tinge of shame or disappointment in your ancestors? How did you handle it? What insights did you gain? Did the story help you understand your roots? How did you decide to tell their stories? I’ d love to hear your thoughts.