|Ancestors Were Only Human
By Candice Lynn Buchanan
The classic genealogy pet peeve, in my opinion, is the tendency of researchers and relatives alike to deify our ancestors.
No story better highlights this trend than the one below, circulated via email on an Ohio genealogy list. The author’s name has gotten lost in the transfer, but I think this researcher’s story sums it all up and I believe it is credible and not uncommon. The email came as a moral: Don’t believe everything you read.
“A cousin supplied the only known photograph of (Great-great-uncle Remus) showing him on the gallows, with a rope around his neck. On the back of the picture there is a note which states:
REMUS STARR, HORSE THIEF, SENT TO MONTANA TERRITORIAL PRISON, 1885. ESCAPED 1887. ROBBED THE MONTANA FLYER RAILROAD SIX TIMES. CAUGHT BY PINKERTON DETECTIVES, CONVICTED AND HANGED, 1889.
The family genealogist was not proud of him so she wrote:
‘Remus Starr was a famous cowboy in the Montana Territory. His business empire grew to include valuable equestrian assets and intimate dealings with a Montana railroad. Beginning in 1885, he devoted several of years of his life to service in a government facility, finally taking leave to resume his dealings with the railroad. In 1887, he was a key player in a vital investigation run by the renowned Pinkerton Detective Agency. In 1889, Uncle Remus passed away during an important civic function held in his honour, when the platform upon which he was standing collapsed.’”
Responsible genealogists have to know that they are obligated to present their research accurately. It is not that I want to highlight the indiscretions or irritating habits of the folks who fill the branches of my family tree, I just do not want to gloss them over or leave them out to the point of a false impression.
A little scandal here and there, or even unfortunate tragedy, as terrible as these facts may be, are the true points of interest that make our ancestors people. Though Waynesburg land was once historically called Eden, it was in name only. Ancestor does not equal saint.
Most ancestor alter egos and imperfections are minor; obviously I’m not implying we all have criminals and traitors in the clan. However, a bad guy or gal here and there may actually help your research. Court records tend to be well preserved, even indexed. On my part, I have an insatiable desire to locate family photos to the point that I have wished for a random criminal who might show up in a mug book kept by authorities in the 1800s – what a treasure trove of identified photos! And brief bios too!
It is not only the family’s black sheep that have controversial details to “never be spoken of.” Whether your great-granduncle got ran out of town by the local vigilantes (and yes, Greene County did have them), or your great-grandma simply had a not-so-endearing habit of chewing tobacco, don’t leave those details out. Those small facts often lost over time, say much more than the cookie-cutter “respected citizen” line that graces the obituary of every 19th century resident who was not fit for hanging.
I’ll not leave my genealogy out of the mix. My personal favorite is cousin Andrew Buchanan Brown, born in 1826, the son of a doctor and a Congressman’s daughter. Andrew was a Civil War veteran who served his time then re-enlisted to serve some more. He married just once, stayed married, and raised the children his wife bore. I could leave it there, but then you wouldn’t know that the greatest curiosity about this man is that none of those children were his – an important point genealogically speaking. Nor would you know that his wife, a local girl already once divorced when she married Andrew, and already the mother of one child belonging to neither Andrew nor her first husband, continued to have five more babies after she married Andrew – five children born in his home but making another man a father. Ultimately, in the Andrew Brown household were Sowers and McClelland children born to a lady who had been a Carter and a White, but died married still to Andrew Brown. If you can keep up with it, it is worth wondering what that was like! I am not bothered or bummed by the unique family arrangement, but in fact, though it may aggravate some, I am simply rather proud of accomplishing the immense amount of research involved in sorting it all out.
You can accentuate the ancestor positives for sure, but don’t make your ancestors out to be people that are impossible to live up to. We should feel a comfort in and connectivity to the people who fill the family tree and for that to happen we have to know that they were just like us – only human.
All material within this
web site has been compiled by Candice Buchanan <firstname.lastname@example.org>
(63 W. Franklin St.; Waynesburg, PA 15370).
Data sources documented whenever possible. Contributors credited for shared information. Questions, feedback and contributions welcome.
Copyright © 2003-2008 Candice Buchanan. All rights reserved.