#NaBloPoMo: Five Ridiculous Things Genealogists Do

I rarely refer to myself as a genealogist (a word I often struggle to spell), preferring ‘family tree explorer’ or ‘family history documenter’ mainly because genealogists seem to be nuts.

Not all of them, not all genealogists. But enough of them are loud enough to suck the fun out of it.

  1. Rigidity about who I should include in my tree. Why include you couin’s spouse’s parents? Or the ex-husband of your 2x aunt? They aren’t your family lineage.

I include people for lots of reasons. They are/were part of the family that shaped me or impacted my life indirectly. My great-uncle’s sister and her husband spent a lot of time with my father when he was a child. Their stories shaped his life. And I found that her husband, Fritz, had an amazing backstory – he was a fighter pilot for Germany in WWI, fled when fascism was on the rise, raised foster children here in the US, got entangled unfairly with McCarthyism because of his military past, etc. That’s not my blood lineage, but it absolutely shaped my father’s life and by extension my own.

There’s also the reality that repeatedly I find one branch of my extended tree married into another branch. My paternal grandfather’s family settled in the United States long ago. So did my maternal grandfather’s line. Guess who are connected at all sorts of junctures?

And sometimes I use a method that I call “going sideways” – if I get stuck on someone and can’t find their parents or their location after a certain point, I go through all of their siblings looking for clues. Sometimes people lived with siblings. Sometimes a marriage certificate or a death notice will provide a hint. Sometimes it seems a real stretch as with my great-grandfather whom I could never find in the 1910 census. It turned out he was boarding with his sister’s in laws. I would never have found him if I didn’t poke around the brother-in-law’s life.

The reality is that you determine who is your family. There’s no absolute right way to do it. There are lots of great tutorials and suggestions. There are some common practices that help keep your tree organized (use maiden names, never married names, etc.) If someone tries to control how you research and define family, they are out of line.

2. Claiming ownership over family branches. Most software keeps living people private from anyone who is not an administrator of the tree. That’s a good solution to allow you to add nieces and nephews and cousins without compromising their privacy. Still, there are some folx who will try to insist that you remove their family branch. And that’s ridiculous. Most of this information is public record. And most of the contemporary information comes from really long obituaries and social media. If you want to research your neighbor’s family tree, do it. Why not? You aren’t spying on them. You might find something interesting or valuable, like a common ancestor.

Now I will add an exception to this – do no harm. I discovered that my mother was conceived before marriage and I know that would devastate her so I didn’t make that known while she was alive. If you discover abusive, trauma, etc … give it some thought. Both of my grandfather’s had affairs that produced children. I believe those adult children and their descendants deserve to have access to a true accounting of their biological families. But again, if my mother were still alive, I would not include it.

3. Whitewashing history. Using best practices from Black Genealogists is how I approach the reality that my ancestors enslaved human beings. They advise creating notes with as much information as you can glean. I include an image of a link of chain as the profile pic so people looking for clues to their own ancestry will notice right away. I also create a custom fact that reads “This person enslaved human beings” and include details with a link to the original source. And I remove any confederate flags that get downloaded from other sources. That removes it from my tree alone, not theirs.

This makes people so angry. But It is accurate. And the reality is that some of those enslaved human beings were raped by their white enslaver and descendants of those children are related to me. I have a moral obligation to be transparent about it. So I should amend my statement – this makes white people so angry. In the cases where I do ‘meet’ distant cousins who are Black or otherwise multiracial, I have never encountered anything other than curiosity and appreciation for the information.

In my case, a maternal great-grandmother is the link to many slave owners. Her parents and family lost a lot of property and assets during Reconstruction, but she married someone who became head of a large lumber company and was able to send her sons to Ivy League schools. So the white privilege rebound into the middle class was pretty quick. I’m not responsible for any of those things, but I am a beneficiary of them.

4. Refer to “real” versus adoptive or step children. This is a huge pet peeve for me. My older cousin was adopted by my uncle and my grandmother never let us forget it, always saying things like “your real cousin” or “my real grandchildren.” I loved my cousin and saw how that hurt her. It was cruel. She was raised in our family since she was a toddler. She logged more years than most of us. My other grandmother would say the same things about my cousin’s stepson – he wasn’t really part of the family. Even when he came to help her move out of her apartment unlike other great-grandchildren, she still said it. So when I came out as a lesbian, did that make my partner not real? I remember when my mother met my niblings she didn’t understand how I could be “Aunt Sue” without marriage. She wasn’t being cruel, just stuck in her generation. She told the kids to call her “Kerry” not “Mrs. Kerr” and when Ava told her she had pretty hair and a soft face, she was a goner.

To be clear, I use the software tools to indicate the legal relationship between parents and children, but I also show stepparents or foster parents when I have that information. There was a case where a first husband died and the wife remarried and had children. The first husband’s parents were heavily involved in their lives as caretakers and family. To suggest that wasn’t a ‘real’ relationship is just inaccurate.

5, Sending a terse message to me demanding information. Usually that goes something like “You have John Amos in your tree. He is my 2x great uncle and I want to know you are related to him.”

Now I have multiple trees, something people can see if they look at my profile before demanding I attend to their wishes. There’s no date for the person, no location. No courtesy language. No incentive to actually comply.

A lot of this has to do with wanting to control and manage other people. There’s no right way to do genealogy unless you have a specific goal such as joining the Daughters of the American Revolution – you have to follow their guidelines. But if your tree is for your own needs, do it your way. The exception is that you should not include information you know is false because that misleads other people. That’s not cool.

I was once told that my desire to understand the broad strokes of history, not necessarily who owned what plot of land, that I was not doing genealogy and I should write historical fiction instead – wow!

Researching my family history is interesting and fun. Some days when I’m struggling, the family tree software is like a crossword puzzle where I can untangle the thoughts and focus on something meaningful, but not life altering. If people don’t like my tree, they don’t have to look at it.

Some of my favorite blog posts include profiles of my eight 2x great-grandmothers. I feel fortunate to know their names, something that wasn’t true as a child – I knew of only one. I don’t have photos of everyone, but they are real to me and part of my story on this blog.

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