Follow the Biology or the Surname?

By Diane Haddad Premium

Q Before she was married, my grandmother had three children (including my father) by different men. She had three more children when she married the abusive man who raised my father and gave him a surname, but not much else. I’ve met my biological grandfather, who admitted to being my father’s father, but never embraced the relationship and died with no acknowledgement of my dad as his son. Should I research that grandfather or the abusive step-grandfather? What’s the common practice—follow the biology or follow the surname?

A. It’s not uncommon to find sensitive family situations and strained relationships as you research your family history. According to Emily Anne Croom, author of the best-selling Unpuzzling Your Past, 4th edition (Family Tree Books, $18.99), the biological line is considered your “real” genealogy—but there’s no right or wrong practice for your situation. You should do what you (perhaps in consultation with family members) feel comfortable with.

What are your research goals? If you want to record family health history, determine your ethnic makeup or join a lineage society, you’d research your biological grandfather. Keep in mind you might connect with great relatives who make up for his rejection.

Some researchers go with the step familyr because that’s the closer relationship, or because information is more readily available. You also could choose to research both grandfathers—or neither, and concentrate on your grandmother’s line instead.

Either way, Croom advises clearly recording in your research notes and on your pedigree charts whether a relative belongs to your biological or step line.

Whatever line you research, be prepared for upsetting discoveries you might dig up, and be sensitive to other family members. Don’t press relatives who’re reluctant to answer questions, and avoid publicizing controversial information that involves a living person. For more on what to do when you come across a less-than-respectable ancestor, see the May 2005 Trace Your Family History, a special issue of Family Tree Magazine.