Celebrate Imperfect Ancestors
9/27/2009
Family secrets, black sheep and skeletons in the closet—when you start investigating your roots, expect surprises. Here's how to be prepared for twists in your family tree.
Though Jeff Scism's ancestor John Endicott was the first governor of Massachusetts, most descendants wouldn't boast about that pedigree. "He botched a few military campaigns before starting the first US war against the American Indians," Scism says, adding happily, "His grandchildren prosecuted witches." Scism also thinks he's related to General William Tecumseh Sherman, "who marched through the South and burned everything in it."

Scism takes perverse pride in his colorful ancestors because he's flockmaster of the International Society of Black Sheep Genealogists blacksheep.rootsweb.com. He helps others come to terms with—and even celebrate—the skeletons in their closets and surprising twists in their roots.

While your own black sheep might not be as prominent as Scism's, experienced genealogists say almost every family history harbors surprises. The old joke defines genealogy as "tracing yourself back to better people," says genealogist Joyce Parsons, but it's more likely that "every family tree has some sap in it."

When you find them, family secrets may take some getting used to, but the truth can be liberating. Take my own case: For 45 years, I kept the "deep, dark secret" that I was the illegitimate daughter of Harold Presley, a good-looking man who lived fast and died young. (Other surprises included the fact that Presley was a third cousin to Dan Blocker, who played Hoss Cartwright on "Bonanza," and a probable distant relative to Elvis.) I hid my black sheep father because I thought people would hold my lineage against me, but when I decided to tell my story I found just the opposite was true. People empathized and many told me of similar stories within their own families. And telling the truth about my father actually helped fulfill several of my lifelong dreams—including selling my first-person story to Redbook.

Your first clue to your own family surprise may be that infamous "brick wall" in your research. Maybe the answer is right there in front of you—just not the answer you expect.

Or maybe you dig a little deeper and find something startling about an ancestor. "Surprises arise when you start putting together a biography, which reveals the character of the ancestor," says Kathleen W. Hinckley, author of Locating Lost Family Members & Friends (Betterway Books, $18.99). When you get beyond names and dates and start exploring court and land records and newspaper clippings, she says, expect the unexpected.

How can family surprises stay a secret until you come along? Blame time, distance, pride and human nature. These days, when news travels at Internet speed, it's hard to imagine someone not knowing about a close family member's marriage, childbirth or major life event, such as serving a prison term or suffering a serious accident. Remember, Parsons says, that in past generations, family members lived far apart and were unaware of day-to-day happenings miles away. And personal lives were more private than in today's wide-open, anything-goes world. "Whatever news was passed on to the rest of the family went through a 'public relations' clean-up to make it sound better," she explains.

Immigrants often exaggerated their importance back in their hometown or native country to enhance their acceptance here in the United States. "For example, any man who served on board a ship always seemed to tell his descendants he was a 'captain,'" says Parsons. Other immigrants told their descendants they came from wealthy families back home. "Perhaps it helped them acclimate to poverty circumstances in their new country."

Don't forget, Hinckley says, that genealogy is relatively new to poking around in these personal areas. Originally, the goal of genealogy research was to prove a connection to a royal line or Mayflower immigrant to qualify for a hereditary society. Nobody wanted to be related to the sort of colorful characters Scism's black sheep society celebrates.

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