Monday, February 17, 2020

Family history pitfalls (part 2)

This is the second part of an extract from my short book Family History Pitfalls, which is available as a free pdf download to those who subscribe to my newsletter The Scribbler.


How do you tell members of your family that, based on your research, what they’ve told you is wrong, without upsetting or insulting them?
If it’s simply a case that, for instance, the date the family has always celebrated Grandma’s birthday is a day or two out from what is recorded in the official records, revealing that fact to your family may not cause too much of a problem. It will likely produce surprise, perhaps some discussion about how the discrepancy arose, and debate about whether the family are going to change the day of the birthday celebration or keep on celebrating on the same day as they’ve always done.  
Some members of the family may resent any suggestion that what they have remembered is inaccurate. People don’t like being told that their memories are not perfect. Be as tactful as possible when telling someone that you’ve discovered that their memories are not completely correct. If all that’s involved is the accuracy of a date or the correct spelling of a name, showing them the records may be enough to satisfy them, or at least to settle their minds.  
Disproving cherished family myths and legends can be a greater cause of consternation or resentment, even if the old stories and the newly revealed truth are both harmless enough. These are the stories that family members tell one other to explain who they are. They are part of our family heritage, the ties that help hold the family together. Sometimes they may even serve as the rationale for keeping certain family members at a distance. They are the stories that come out at Christmas gatherings, during wedding speeches and at funerals.  
If you’ve grown up repeatedly hearing the story of how your Aunt Alice met your Uncle Fred during the war, when she nursed him to health after a bullet hit him in the leg, you may want to think twice before telling everyone that, actually, Fred was on home leave and fell off a ladder, and Alice wasn’t a nurse but a hospital cleaner. Even if Alice and Fred are long dead, the story itself has its place in the life of the family, and something about the family dynamics will change if the story changes. 
 If you’re lucky, your newly discovered information will become the new family legend and enrich the family. If you’re less fortunate, you’ll be excluded from conversations at family gatherings for being an iconoclast. 
Jumbled memories and false assumptions are only two of the ways in which facts get distorted. Sometimes the stories that get passed down in the family have been deliberately constructed to explain or hide awkward facts.  
When I began researching my mother’s side of the family, I vaguely remembered my grandmother telling me that her grandfather, Alfred Pearson Bentley, had left his family in Manchester and gone off to America. He’d planned to send for his family once he was settled, but they’d received the devastating news that he had died in Boston. His widow and her family in England were left in poverty. 
What a cousin and I both discovered, when the US records became available on-line, was that, far from dying in America, Alfred had been alive and well and had entered into a bigamous marriage with an English girl soon after his arrival. Possibly he and the girl already knew each other in England, since she had lived not far from him and she’d arrived in the USA about the same time as he did. They had a son born in Boston and Alfred did quite well for himself there. After a few years he and his second wife returned to England and took up residence in the next county from his ‘widowed’ first wife. 
It’s impossible to know whether Alfred really intended to send for his family once he settled, or if he had quite deliberately planned his escape to a place where he was unknown, in order to marry another woman. We’ll also probably never know whether his first wife knew what was happening, and played along with the story of his demise, or whether she was cruelly deceived by a false report of Alfred’s death coming from Boston. Whatever the case, the story passed on to his children was not the whole truth.  
News may be upsetting to people simply because it is unexpected, or worse than expected. I can imagine that my own grandmother, had she lived long enough to hear it, would have been quite disturbed by the true story of her grandfather’s bigamous marriage. A cousin with an interest in family history told me that when he revealed that his great grandmother had died, demented and alone, in the workhouse, his mother wept for days. She hadn’t seen her grandmother since childhood and hadn’t previously known what had happened to her. 
Most of us start researching our family history without thinking about what we’re going to do with what we discover. We might plan to create a pictorial family tree to hang on the wall or have in mind to produce a written account that we can share around the family.  
Others begin their research out of a more personal need to know their own background, particularly if they have very little knowledge about their family and where it came from. Some may be motivated by a sense that their family has kept secrets from them that they want to uncover.  
Whatever the case, it’s likely that somewhere along the research trail you’ll find information that not everyone in your family is going to want to hear. It’s worth thinking in advance about what information you’re going to share, and who you are going to share it with.  
It’s also worth thinking about how you are going to handle information that affects you, personally or emotionally. Even if you think you know everything there is to know about your parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, you may come across details that surprise you or perhaps even distress you. Are you prepared? 
Needless to say, I’m giving this advice based on hindsight. It’s not something I thought about before I launched into researching my own family tree. Fortunately, I haven’t discovered anything startling or new about my immediate family, but others have, as you can discover by reading posts on family history forums.  

Download and read the whole book (14 pages) by subscribing to my Readers List. Subscribers also receive my monthly newsletter, the Scribbler, with interesting articles, useful links and news about what I'm writing. Here's one sample and here's another.

You can unsubscribe at any time, and keep the book. But I hope you'll find the newsletters entertaining and informative enough to stay.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Family history pitfalls (part 1)

A belated Happy New Year!

Last year I embarked on a series of posts about places where my ancestors once lived. Over the year we've travelled from rural Essex and industrial Lancashire to the bustling streets of Sydney, Adelaide and Limerick. They were interesting posts to research and write, and I hope you enjoyed reading them.

This year I'm not sure what to post. I've been running this site for eight years now. Although family history is never complete, and there's always something new to discover, I've already covered most of what I know of my own family history. The site also needs some behind-the-scenes work to bring all the links and cross-links up to date, add summary sheets for people where they are missing and so on. 

While I'm updating the site and deciding what to do next, I thought I'd post some extracts from my booklet Family History Pitfalls, which comes free with a subscription to my email Readers List. It discusses, as the title suggests, some of the hazards of researching your family history, including some that may be unexpected.


“Hazardous” is not a term usually associated with family history research. And certainly, the physical hazards of such research are few—perhaps having a heavy parish register fall onto your toes, or developing “computer stoop” from spending too many hours on-line might be examples. 
But family history research involves families, families involve relationships, and relationships are the source of many emotional hazards. Anyone who gets very far in researching their family history is likely to find themselves faced with tricky and complex questions about how they share their findings with others. 
Family history research also involves (obviously) history. Our forebears seldom had us in mind when they went about recording, or hiding, the details of their lives. The joy of discovering new information is often balanced by the frustrations of trying to find, decipher and interpret it. 
I’m not trying to dissuade you, here at the beginning, from researching your family history. What I want to do is to disillusion you from the idea that delving into your family history is a purely personal hobby and what you discover will be fascinating but harmless information. Unlike bird-watching, or stamp collecting, or even local history research, family history research inevitably involves and affects other people in ways that you may not expect

 Memories are fallible and legends may be fables
One of the first pieces of advice you’ll be offered when you begin researching your family history is “Start with what you know”. You know your own name and date of birth. You probably know your parents’ names and their dates of birth. You may even have your grandparents’ names and, if you’re lucky, one or both of your grandmothers’ maiden names.  
Maybe there are also a few interesting stories about an aunt or cousin, or a great grandfather, that have been passed on to you. That gives you quite a bit to work with.
If you are fortunate enough to also have official documents, such as birth, marriage or death certificates, then the information you have is likely to be reliable and detailed, though as we’ll see, don’t count on that. But how reliable is word-of-mouth information? It’s easy to assume that what you’ve been told is true, but is it?  
That leads to the second most important piece of advice you’ll receive from any book or article on researching family history. Whatever information you have should be considered unproven until you’ve found confirmation, no matter where the information came from.  
Human memories are fallible, especially as we grow older, and names and dates can be forgotten or mis-remembered. Stories passed on by word of mouth can get caught up in a multi-generational game of Chinese whispers. Every family has stories that have gradually changed over time, with some elements omitted and lost, and elaborations and embellishments added to others. 
When I began researching my own family tree, I already had the names and dates of birth of all four of my grandparents, provided to me by my parents. It didn’t take long to confirm these birth dates, and to find marriage and death records for each of them.
But when I came to my great grandparents’ generation, I only had stories to guide me. 
On my father’s side, I had the tale of my paternal great grandmother Eliza’s birth in Australia, even though the rest of the family were solidly English. According to my father’s Aunt Mill, her grandfather, David Whybrew, (my great great grandfather) had been stationed in Western Australia with the British Army. Her mother (my great grandmother Eliza) was born while he and his wife were living there. A year or two after Eliza was born the family returned to England. 
I thought it would be easy to trace the birth of a child with the surname Whybrew in Western Australia, especially since that’s where I now live. It’s not a common name. I knew roughly what time period to look at, based on the history of the British army presence in Western Australia. Counting back twenty to thirty years from my grandmother’s date of birth gave me a likely date of birth for her mother. But my search through the microfilm records at the State Library was fruitless.  
The reason for this became apparent when, much later, I found the family on the 1881 UK census. Eliza had been born, not in Western Australia, but in South Australia. So either Aunt Mill’s memory, or my own memory of her story, had proved misleading on that point. 
But there was a bigger surprise to be found on the census. Eliza’s mother Susan had also been born in South Australia. Throughout my search I’d assumed, for no good reason, that Susan had married her soldier husband David Whybrew in England, before he was posted to Australia. I’d wasted hours trying to find their marriage in the English records. Once I knew that they’d married in South Australia, it was easy to trace their marriage.
The fallibility of human memories can cause problems with the reliability of your family history research. Checking your facts carefully before you share them with other researchers is important. But discovering that remembered “facts” are not really accurate can create other, more personal, problems. How do you tell members of your family that, based on your research, what they’ve told you is wrong, without upsetting or insulting them?  

I'll continue this extract in my next post. In the meantime, if you'd like to download and read the whole book, you can, by subscribing to my email  newsletter, The Scribbler. It appears once a month, with interesting articles, useful links and news about what I'm writing. Here's one sample and here's another.

You can unsubscribe at any time, and keep the book. But I hope you'll find the newsletters entertaining and informative enough to stay.