There comes a time in every genealogist’s research when they uncover a potentially difficult piece of history. Details vary – sometimes a beloved family story turns out to be unfounded, or an ancestor was convicted of a serious crime. Whatever details come to light, it can sometimes be enough to leave a researcher reeling and trying to find his or her equilibrium again to move forward with the work. One of the essential ways to approach these situations is to put on your research cap and make sure the details are appropriately contextualized to help you make sense of what you’re learning. Here’s a quick checklist for how to proceed when you discover a genealogical surprise.
Ensure your documentation is in order
One of the first things to keep in mind when you uncover unexpected information is to make sure you have all your information clearly outlined. Have you gathered all the possible documentation to help you really assess the story of what happened? Consider for example that you find out an ancestor served time in prison. The circumstances could be fairly benign. They may have been locked up for a short time due to a debt or a public disagreement. Of course, the charges may be much more serious. But gather all the information that you can find – including court records – to help you really understand the nuance and complexities of the situation.
Try to understand the historical context
Even if you find that an ancestor of yours had life events that you’re struggling to accept, make sure that your research takes into account the historical context. Someone convicted of theft may have been living in extreme poverty and trying to provide for their family, for example. If you determine that an ancestor was born out of wedlock, are there societal reasons that could explain why this fact was covered up? Throughout history and throughout our own family lines, there’s a wide range of people who are both good and bad. But the societal norms, pressures, and challenges of their lifetimes were often extreme and can sometimes help put specific life decisions and circumstances into perspective.
Determine what’s upsetting to you
If you’ve gathered all the research and historical context to understand the story and you’re still troubled by it, it’s important to determine what’s bothering you. For example, if your research upended a popular family tale, you may be struggling with a shift in your identity. If you determined that you’re directly descended from someone who was convicted of murder or another serious crime, it may be challenging your ability to imagine anyone in your family could commit such a crime. By determining what’s upsetting you, you’ll be better able to work through it and determine what kind of support is best. Should you lay this particular piece of family history aside? Explore it more in-depth with other family members to find acceptance? Find a professional to discuss your concerns with?
A professional genealogist can help you navigate how best to process and contextualize information that you’ve found. Contact Price and Associates today to arrange for a personalized consultation and to discuss your work for a genealogist on our team.