An Uncomfortable Truth About Family History Research

Sometimes the greatest impediment to successful family history research can be what we believe to be the truth about our ancestors. A lot of the time we have actually been deceived by our own parents and grand parents who may want to conceal the sins of our fathers, grandfathers and beyond. We are only human and all have human failings and often seek to cover up things we are not proud of or promote minor differences from the norm into grandiose ideas of a richer, better educated family in our past.

I think this is because, in the United Kingdom at least, the feudal system never really went away. The stratification of society just mellowed and blurred over the centuries, the classes still by and large know their place; but some of us yearn to be something more. It is just human nature to want to be thought better of and this has probably always been the case.

The uncomfortable truth is that some people try and differentiate themselves from the lower orders in this system by attempting to associate with families who are further up the social hierarchy. In the past, in my own family too, relations attributed skills, social standing and riches to ancestors which were never truly there.

I am thinking here of people who hyphenated their surnames to appear more grand and thus stymie an attempt to locate their progeny in birth indexes. There are others who say great grand mother spoke fluent (it is always fluent, never merely some) French whereas, since nobody else in the family spoke a word of it, she could have been saying anything. Saying Uncle Fred was a brilliant musician probably meant he could play a few songs on the piano in the pub on a Saturday night. A lot of people could.

If all the heirs who married “below their station” to the scullery maid or the gardener, actually existed there would be no aristocracy left.

Illegitimacy has probably been one of the greatest hindrances to tracing our true lineage than anything else. Since we usually have no idea, despite DNA testing, who an interloper was who passed on his genes while a family maintained its surname should we really call this profession “genealogy” at all?

In some respects this undermines the whole concept of genealogy and moves what I do to the more “gene free” concept of family history. This is how and where these two entwined disciplines diverge.

Most of us have debatable origins to some extent, but some feel they have to conceal this fact for reasons of vanity or because of a reluctance to reveal paternity for fear of retribution or social ostracism. These can be human reactions to difficult circumstances, especially in times gone by.

The truth is that people exaggerate and conceal because the truth is banal or because it is painful. In extreme situations people flee from threatening and stressful situations brought on by themselves or by persecution and sometimes they change their name. This can be the most difficult riddle to solve. How can a genealogist like me even begin to guess what you would call yourself if you decided to leave your clothes in a pile by the sea shore and disappear?

Deliberate concealment is by far the most difficult stumbling block for a journeyman family historian like me! It often seems to me that what I do not know, if it became known, would utterly change what I believe I know. If you know what I mean!