Tag Archive | family history

Bad apples and sad stories: When your family research uncovers dark secrets, tragic tales, or shady characters

Bad apples

By Chris Little

When I began researching my great-grandmother’s life, I kept running into a wall when it came to her father. She scarcely mentioned him in her journals, and the newspaper column announcing her wedding in 1908 noted that he was too ill to attend the ceremony. And then in 1909, when his wife and unmarried daughters moved from the Boston suburbs to live near his son in Seattle, he did not join them. For a long time I thought he had died that year, but I recently uncovered records indicating that he had been committed to a state mental hospital in 1909, and that he had lived there until his death in 1919. There is much I still don’t know about that situation, but I’ve applied to receive his medical records and they should be arriving shortly—I look forward to learning more about those last ten years of his life …. sort of. It’s bound to be a sad story, one I’ll have to read between the lines of an attending physician’s report.

Mine is a rather tame example, but it raises the question: We may love to think of our ancestors as paragons of fortitude, resilience, and unimpeachable character, but what do we do when our family research uncovers a tragic story, or a deep family secret, even an criminal character?

Most of the time it’s not a big deal. I mean, it’s too bad that my great-great-grandfather died in a mental institution, it really is, but to be honest his tale feels pretty remote to me—I don’t expect the story I piece together from his medical records to knock me off balance too much. I think it’ll be kind of interesting, actually.

But sometimes these old stories can unexpectedly uncover darker stories—tales of shady characters who may lurk in our family tree. These stories can be a bit unsettling. “Experts say reactions can range from detached bemusement to identity confusion and soul-searching as the researcher tries to understand—and rethink—his or her lineage,” writes Sue Shellenbarger in the Wall Street Journal. Our ability to accept the bad apples in our family tree depends in part on how bad they were—and how far from us they hang among the branches. It’s important to maintain some perspective—they are not us, after all, and their deeds are not ours.

Still, in some cases our history can shed light on our present, and knowing even the darkest sides of our family histories can be healing. “Becoming aware of patterns of alcoholism, divorce, abuse or other misbehavior can make it easier for people living today to understand and change them,” writes Shellenbarger.

While sometimes we may stumble across these uncomfortable family stories without intentionally seeking them out, some researchers go looking for the black sheep in their family, their curiosity piqued, say, by a raised eyebrow or a loaded silence at last summer’s family reunion. Maybe you’ve picked up on some reticence on the part of your older relatives when someone mentions your wild distant uncle, for example, or maybe it’s always hush-hush when the topic of your great-grandfather comes up. In my own case, the marked lack of information about my great-great-grandfather, especially in a family so dedicated to preserving its history, is what initially made me suspect that something had happened to him that the others didn’t want to discuss. Suffice it to say that most families harbor some kind of secret, and sometimes those secrets beckon intriguingly to the intrepid researcher.

But be prepared: “Before you go digging for the truth, know what you’re getting into,” writes Lisa A. Alzo in Family Tree Magazine. “We’re tempted to look at our family histories through rose-colored glasses, but that’s not realistic.” Alzo provides helpful strategies for fleshing out your research, but she includes a proviso from Ohio genealogist Chris Staats: “As genealogists, we are most interested in the truth. Sometimes the truth is not what we would like it to be and sometimes it makes us uncomfortable.”

What’s more, learning the truth behind an uncomfortable family secret brings with it a moral—and in some cases, legal—responsibility toward those involved and their descendants, especially if you intend to share your story publicly. You’ll want to think through the consequences of sharing your knowledge, whether with your family or the public at large, and resolve that if you choose to go public with the skeletons in your family closet, you do so with sensitivity and respect.

So, once you’re ready, here are a couple interesting resources for tracking down those ne’er-do-wells in your family tree:

Kimberly Powell describes tactics for searching prison inmate databases in this About.com article. She writes here about tracking down infamous ancestors.

And in addition to her article quoted above, genealogist Lisa Alzo provides suggestions for tracking down your ancestors through the tragedies in their lives in this article for Archives.com.

Image: Some rights reserved by Public Domain Photos.

Wrinkles in Time: When your life echoes the past — and why that’s really awesome


By Chris Little

One of the most rewarding parts of researching and writing about my great-grandmother Ethel’s life is when my life seems to replay hers.  

A few months ago I spent an afternoon transcribing a stack of letters she had written to her youngest son. It was 1935, and Ethel and her husband were digging out of the Great Depression. They had moved from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Memphis, Tennessee, so that he could rebuild his landscape architecture practice in an area with a longer growing season. Things were looking up for Ethel, after the long years of uncertainty and real poverty, and she was immensely proud of her son, who had enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was working to gain admission to the U.S. Naval Academy.

I spent an autumn afternoon reading through her letters—which were mostly responses to his letters describing life at sea. She had sprinkled her replies with homey little details about her shopping trips to town and the progress of her flower garden. As I transcribed the letters, I wove them together with selections from her unpublished memoir, in which she described these same years of settling in to a new home in a new part of the country. In her memoir Ethel remembered warm days alone with her dog while her husband was off at work, and long walks down her driveway, past the cotton fields bordering her little house in the country to pick up the mail—and how each day she’d hope to receive a letter from her son.

All that reading and transcribing was fun, right? But eventually I needed a break, so I grabbed an apple and called the dog and took a walk down my long driveway to the mailbox—maybe there would be a letter from my son, who’s away at his first year of college.

Somewhere along the driveway it dawned on me that this is what Ethel did. Yeah I know, not a big deal, right? Lots of people walk down the driveway to pick up the mail. But somehow it meant something to me that my life was overlapping hers just a little—we were both missing our sons and hoping to hear from them at the end of a long walk on a warm afternoon—it was a kind of wrinkle in time.

It happened again this winter, as I was transcribing Ethel’s journals from her 1909 honeymoon trip to Europe. Last spring I was fortunate enough to go to Italy for a couple weeks to see the principal sights in Venice, Florence, and Rome, so it was really fun to read Ethel’s descriptions of being in those same cities—in many cases standing in the same churches I did, and before the same paintings. I was amused to find that she was as unimpressed by St. Peter’s Basilica as I was: “We did not seem a part of it, nor did it convey to me a sense of repose or reverence or sanctity, but only wonder at the prodigious achievement,” she wrote, while I had similarly, albeit much less poetically, compared St. Peter’s in my own journal to “a glorified train station.” That said, we were both utterly bowled over by the Pantheon. Neither of us cared much for the tourist shops in Venice but could have lived in Florence for a good long time.

I don’t know whether this is trite coincidence or something important. But what I think is that spending time learning about Ethel’s life—where she went and what she did and what she thought about it—lends a depth of meaning to my own life, especially when I go to the same places and do and think the same things. It both compresses and lengthens time, telescoping her past into my present and, as I write a record of her life, extending both her life and mine generations into the future.

I don’t farm land that’s been in my family for generations, and I don’t live in the same house my ancestors lived and gave birth and died in, but I can see how being connected with your family in those ways can make you feel anchored in place and time, rooted in a story that doesn’t belong only to you but also, in one direction, to your ancestors, and in the other, to your children’s children. Since many of us are disconnected from the geographic roots of our family, researching our family history may be a great way to develop a sense of connection that can be meaningful, not to mention build resiliency and purpose. So let’s call that Reason No. 253 (give or take) why it’s a fabulous idea to research your family history.

Image: Some rights reserved by karlenj5.

Girls’ Getaway: Scrapbooking

This scrapbook page by my friend Paula is a slam dunk!

This scrapbook page by my friend Paula is a slam dunk!

By Karen Hendricks

Photos have a wonderful way of reconnecting us to treasured moments, past events and important people in our lives. But as a busy mom, I am guilty—like most of you too, I imagine—of leaving those precious photos on my digital camera cards, or on my iPhone way too long. I try to stay up-to-date with downloading them, organizing them, saving them to CDs and backing them up in the cloud. But printing them? That happens pretty infrequently, I’m sad to say.

So it was a joy to work with hundreds of photos this past weekend, and chip away at an on-going project: scrapbooks for all three of my children. My friend and fellow Off the Merry-Go-Round writer Ruth organized a scrapbooking girls’ getaway weekend at an area hotel. About 25 of us filled our vehicles with bins and crates bursting with albums, photos, scrapbooking supplies—and much smaller in comparison, our overnight bags. We gathered in the hotel conference room and “scrapped” to our hearts’ content from Friday afternoon straight through til Sunday around noon.

If you have never participated in an event like this, I highly recommend it! My fellow blogger Jen wrote previously about the benefits of girls’ getaways (click here). So not only does an event like this provide plenty of time to nurture friendships—both old and new—it also provides time to preserve some of your family’s history. My friend and fellow writer Chris has been writing about her incredible journey researching and preserving her family history (click here for her latest post). While scrapbooking was a popular hobby for the past few years, it is sadly trending downward in popularity. Perhaps the biggest reason is that it’s time-consuming. I am sticking with it, because I feel as though the results are worth the effort—scrapbooking is a modern way of preserving our family’s history. And it provides a fun, creative outlet!

Over the course of the weekend, there were women scrapbooking memories of Disney vacations, baby days, family weddings, 4th of July fireworks, lots of sporting events including basketball games and Super Bowls, even marathons they ran, and the list goes on and on… what a treasure trove of incredible moments in our lives. It was an inspirational weekend that provided a real sense of accomplishment for all of us. Even though my oldest daughter is in college, her scrapbook was stuck in the 5th grade. At the end of the weekend, at least I brought her into the middle school years! Enjoy these photos, chronicling our fun—and creative—weekend:

photo 6web

Setting the scene… scrapbooking madness is underway!

Diane even has a supply of ribbons, organized by color, to embellish her pages... wow!

Diane even has a supply of ribbons, organized by color, to embellish her pages… wow!

Memories of a Christmas cookie marathon... mmmm

Mmmmm… Memories of a Christmas cookie marathon, by Bev.

Beautiful fall memories... by Gretchen

Beautiful fall memories… by Gretchen

Scrapbooking takes a lot of energy... good thing we have Gary's Famous Chicken Corn Soup (made and delivered by Ruth's husband). Delish!

Scrapbooking takes a lot of energy… good thing we have Gary’s Famous Chicken Corn Soup (made and delivered by Ruth’s husband). Delish!

Scrapbooking smiles... Ruth and I

Scrapbooking smiles… Ruth and I

photo 4web

My scrapbooking buddy Susan created an awesome Steelers page… that is quite a compliment coming from an Eagles fan 🙂

Heather's creativity sparked a spectacular fireworks page!

Heather’s creativity sparked a spectacular fireworks page!

The room as a ghost town by 1:30 am... Gretchen and I were the "last men standing."

The room was a ghost town by 1:30 am Friday night/Saturday morning… Gretchen and I were the “last men standing.”

What a creative Easter-themed page... love the photos trimmed into egg shapes.

What a creative Easter-themed page… love the photos trimmed into egg shapes.

Even a scrapbook page featuring photos from a whale watch!

Even a scrapbook page featuring photos from a whale watch!

Saturday night's dessert... Butterfinger Angel Food Delight

Saturday night’s dessert… Butterfinger Angel Food Delight

And this is what a scrapbooker's car looks like... all packed up and ready to head home. Great memories!

And this is what a scrapbooker’s car looks like… all packed up and ready to head home. Great memories!

Do you maintain family photo albums or scrapbooks? What are your tips for printing photos, journaling or scrapbooking? And have you taken the time for a “girls’ weekend?” We’d love to hear your stories…

Researching a Family History: Why Bother?

My great-grandmother with her children, c. 1918

By Chris Little

As I mentioned a few months ago here, I’ve been working on a biography of my great-grandmother lately. It’s been a lot of work, but also deeply meaningful and awfully interesting—yet I’ve noticed that whenever I talk about the project, I find myself trying to explain exactly why I’m doing it. I mean, I spend a good part of every day up to my eyebrows in a dusty journal, or struggling to make out the ornate handwriting on a crusty envelope, or squinting through a magnifying lens at a faded black-and-white photograph. Then, when it’s time to get dinner ready and I return, almost literally, to the land of the living—the living aren’t all that interested! And if I have questions about the meaning or significance of something I learn in my research, virtually everyone I could ask is dead. In fact, I meet dead ends almost everywhere I turn. So … why am I doing this?

But then there’s the deeply meaningful part, which is what keeps me plugging away on this project. Here are some of the reasons why I find this family research so important and rewarding:

Paul 1910 in Mpls (hand on post)

My great-grandfather in 1910, age 27.

Honoring the past. In some fundamental ways, our ancestors weren’t that different from us. Sure, they may have worn bustles and corsets, but like us, they loved their children and wanted them to have happy, successful lives. Some undertook great sacrifices and trials to give their children safe and productive futures. When we take the time to learn about, understand, and record the lives of our ancestors, we honor them and deepen the meaning of the struggles and sacrifices they made for their children and their children’s children—for us. What better way to show our gratitude to them, than by making the effort to understand them?

Enhancing the present. My grandmother is no longer living, but I remember how my interest in her life created a great bond between us. She loved to tell me stories about her youth, about her mother (whose life I’m now researching), and about what she knew of the generations leading up to hers. I learned a lot from my grandmother, but more than that, I treasure the memories of those conversations and the pleasure they gave her. Taking the time to ask our elders about their lives and their memories of their parents and grandparents—and then listening deeply to their answers—presents our loved ones with a gift we all share.

Linking the past and future. Studies show that families that have a sense of connection across generations are stronger and more resilient—you can read my post about that here. How will you forge that connection between your grandparents and your grandchildren unless you know something about your grandparents’ lives—their stories and histories? Today, of course, my kids aren’t that interested in my research, but one day, I hope, they’ll be middle-aged adults themselves, perhaps with an interest in their past. Then they’ll be able to use my work to help them find their place in the march of generations.

To be honest, this work feels somewhat urgent to me, because if I don’t do it, who will? When it comes down to it, I’m the one with the journals and letters and photographs in my basement. No person still alive on this planet knows as much as I do about my great-grandmother. I feel a deep responsibility to preserve what’s left of her life in a way that will give others meaningful access to it. With the sense of responsibility though, comes a sense of privilege. I’m grateful for the opportunity!

My great-uncles, c. 1925

My great-uncles, c. 1925

Having some fun! Sure, sometimes it’s frustrating, when I can’t figure out what that scribble on the page is supposed to mean, or when I can’t find the address for some old relative’s home, or when I come up for air at the end of a work session with little progress to show for it …. but when I do find that birth year, make that connection, or otherwise develop an insight into my great-grandmother’s life, it’s like solving a puzzle, and who doesn’t love a puzzle?

I realize that not everyone has boxes of family artifacts lying around in their basements. Some might only have a couple of old unlabeled photos, maybe just the names of their grandparents. Don’t despair! There are all kinds of great resources online for researching your family history—Ancestry.com being the biggest and best. Start with the names of your parents, and see what comes up! Then share some of your stories here—we’d love to hear them!

Telling Tales that Matter


Credit: Some rights reserved by woodleywonderworks

By Chris Little

As a parent you want to equip your kids to handle whatever comes their way. You buy them helmets to wear when they ride their bikes, and shin guards for soccer practice. But how do you protect their hearts, their emotions, for the inevitable bruises they’ll receive? In this New York Times article, Bruce Feiler writes that the best way to equip your kids with emotional resilience is by telling them stories — specifically stories about their family.

Feiler describes his search after a strained family reunion for what he called the “secret sauce” that holds a family together. “What are the ingredients that make some families effective, resilient, happy?” he asks.

After years of research he came up with an unexpected answer: “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative,” he writes.

Feiler suggests playing a game of 20 questions with your kids. Ask them questions like: Where did your grandparents grow up? Where did your dad (or mom) and I go to high school? Where did we meet? What is the story of your birth? And others like: How did your grandparents weather the Depression? How about World War II? Even: Where were we on 9/11?

Kids who can answer those questions correctly, Feiler says, have been found to be more resilient when faced with challenges, have a greater sense of control over their lives, and exhibit higher self-esteem. In fact, the ability to answer questions about their family history is the “best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness,” he writes. The reason may have to do with your child feeling like she’s part of a larger social group, a larger narrative, a history.

So naturally the first thing I did after reading this article was ask my kids if they knew where their dad and I met, and where their grandparents grew up, and how their great-grandparents got through the Depression. I was happy to learn that they could answer fairly well — and it was interesting to identify the gaps in their knowledge — but even more gratifying were the discussions we got into as a result. We’ve done a lot more talking about our family history lately.

Feiler points out in his article that there are different ways to tell your family story. There’s what he calls the “ascending narrative,” where you might describe your family’s rise from humble roots to a position of relative prosperity. There’s the “descending narrative,” where you might focus on your family’s fall from heights of prestige or wealth, perhaps in the Depression or as recently as the Great Recession. But the most helpful way to frame your family story, Feiler writes, is called the “oscillating family narrative,” where you point out your family’s ups and downs over the years or generations, and how you’ve always stuck together and supported each other to the best of your ability.

This might be a challenge for some of us, granted. We might be carrying a family narrative in our heads that’s been passed down through generations, one that could be either ascending or descending. But I suppose for the most part we have a choice in how we tell our family stories to our kids — and it might be good for us to look at how we talk about our families and see if we can make adjustments. We can choose to frame our histories in terms of an oscillation, sharing the good times and acknowledging the bad times, always looking for ways to emphasize family cohesion.

For example, I can tell the story of how my grandmother’s family lost everything in the Depression and struggled mightily to avoid going on “relief,” of how their house burned down, and of how my great-uncle failed in his first attempt to win acceptance to the Naval Academy — or I can tell the story of how the family moved to a new city and started a new business and eventually regained their footing, and about how my great-uncle eventually got into the Naval Academy, even serving at Pearl Harbor. Better yet — I can tell both stories. There are ups and downs in every family. What’s important, Feiler says, is to share with your kids the stories of your family’s perseverance and courage and commitment to each other, through thick and thin. It helps them to know they’re part of something bigger than they are. Something that lasts.

“Decades of research have shown that most happy families communicate effectively,” Feiler writes. “But talking doesn’t mean simply ‘talking through problems,’ as important as that is. Talking also means telling a positive story about yourselves. When faced with a challenge, happy families, like happy people, just add a new chapter to their life story that shows them overcoming the hardship. This skill is particularly important for children, whose identity tends to get locked in during adolescence.

“[I]f you want a happier family,” he concludes, “create, refine and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones. That act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come.”

You can read the full article here.