The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

I recently spoke with a woman who had an interest in researching her family tree but was worried about what she might find out. She knew she was adopted and that her conception was the result of an extramarital affair. Did the pregnancy break up the marriage? What about the other children in the family? She’s not sure she wants to find out for certain. Another acquaintance told me that she didn’t want to know anything more about her ancestors. She said she knew enough about her family to be pretty sure that her family history would be loaded with…well, scoundrels to be polite.

This is actually a valid consideration. I firmly believe in the adage, “Don’t ask the question if you’re not sure you want to hear the answer.” These women, and many others just like them, need to decide that for themselves before they start their search. They may find out things about their ancestors that doesn’t fit with our current beliefs in society and morality. The PBS show “Finding Your Roots” ignited a scandal when one of their star clients found out that some of his ancestors were slave owners. He was ashamed and sought to have the information buried. I personally found out that I had ancestors who owned slaves and even one who was convicted of murder and sent to prison! Anyone interested in their family history must be prepared to hear that some of their ancestors may not have been the saintly figures they would like to claim.

As you progress in your research, the number of people in your tree increases exponentially. At 10 generations, you’re looking at over 2000 men and women just in your direct bloodline, not counting any siblings. If you’re lucky enough to go further back than that, you could be looking at tens or even hundreds of thousands of people. Odds are, you’re going to find something about at least some of them that you won’t like. That’s OK. You don’t have to approve of everything that your ancestors did or believed; nor do you have to apologize for them. The fact that your ancestors owned slaves doesn’t make you a racist just as a murderous ancestor doesn’t make you (or me!) a criminal.

Yes, you might find people in your tree that you might not wish to invite to your family reunion, but then again you are also likely to find some of the bravest, most admirable people you can imagine. You’ll see them survive and thrive through the most horrific circumstances. Perhaps you’ll find ancestors who left everyone and everything they knew to travel, penniless, to a new world where they found their place and built a legacy. Or maybe you are descended from slaves who endured so much and yet took their freedom and made a life for themselves always looking and working toward a better future. You may find, as I did, heroes of the American Revolution, ones who didn’t appear in the history books but were just as essential a part of the founding of our nation as any others.

Whoever you find in your family tree, whether heroes or simple farmers, there will be lessons you can learn from them.  I learned that life gets hard sometimes but you still pick yourself up and move on. I compare some of my hardships with what my ancestors went through and realize that my situation is not nearly so bad and if they could make it then so can I.   I learned that my family helped to build a nation and that I also have a place in it and a responsibility to continue to improve upon their work.

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