Genealogical complexities

Amy Lowell2
Amy Lowell

When I started out as a genealogical writer, I followed the model of genealogies published earlier in the twentieth century. The genealogical world they depicted was an orderly one, with generation after generation born in one place, married in another, and buried in a third. The greatest dramas I faced in writing my first book (The Sarsaparilla Kings, published in 1993) concerned cousins who deplored the information I had uncovered on their brief first or second marriages, information they were reluctant to see in print.

How times have changed. Where, in The Sarsaparilla Kings, I treated a child born out of wedlock – in every way like his half-siblings, born during their father’s marriage, but noting this child’s alternate parentage – in the years since I have covered long-term same-sex relationships, same-sex marriage, and sex changes. It is my hope that I have done so responsibly, with the informed consent of the parties: my goal has always been to treat family members equally while also noting where a person has one name at birth and another at time of marriage or death – and why.

Most of my recent work has been on all or some of the descendants of an eighteenth-century progenitor. It is interesting to see how eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Lowells and Saltonstalls married into the same families, again and again, while the geographic spread of family members, and the range of people they married, expanded greatly during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

The genealogical complexity in these families, as well as my own, requires new terminologies. Greater openness about living arrangements is healthy, too: I can think of another book on which I worked that showed a marriage of cousins, their previous or subsequent marriages, and the offspring one had outside of marriage. Perhaps there was a scandal associated with some part of this saga, but for genealogical purposes reporting it all – without judgment – seems to me the way to go.

As an example (taken from The Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts), Amy Lowell’s relationship with Ada Dwyer Russell is well-known, but to refer to it in print in a genealogy seems to me a fairly new development. Yet Miss Lowell has a number of relatives covered in the book who are or have been in same-sex relationships or, since 2004, same-sex marriages. Not to note Amy Lowell in this context seems to me odd when other family members have shared their own contemporary information.

What does the future hold? Perhaps children born of surrogates, or a man who lived as a woman – I can think of an example, a member of the Harvard Class of 1939 who appears in class records, without comment, as a woman. How should he be treated when he married and fathered children? Under his name at birth, or by the name she preferred? Both, undoubtedly!

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward was the founding editor at Vita Brevis; he served as NEHGS Editor-in-Chief 2013-2022. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

22 thoughts on “Genealogical complexities

  1. I have for years trying to find the parents of my grandfather. He was put in Boston Children’s Friends Society at age of 1 yr. Born 1874. The only info they could tell us they had for him was the possible names of his parents. I have found many different instances but none work out. He became a ward of the state, I guess, and worked on farms etc. NO BIRTH CERTIFICATE ever appeared, had to get a facsimile for the time her married. I have checked all vital records, and no parents. Do you have any suggestions for my Brick Wall?
    Thank you in advance for any direction you may show me.

  2. Since you brought up the subject I have three questions. I don’t know the “proper” way to treat the following:

    1) My ex-husbands niece’s children. She had them via artificial insemination. They have the same father but he is not known at the current time. I tried putting artificial insemination in the name field but that really looked strange when I printed something out. So right now it is in the comment section.

    2) My second great grandmother who was illegitimate and there is nothing know about her father in the current generation. Her mother lived in a small town in New Hampshire. Married a second person (probably) and had more children. My second great grandmother went by her mother’s maiden name and her brothers and sisters had the name of her mother’s husband.

    3) Then there is my 7th great grandmother who was born in 1668. There was a court case but the ruling as I remember it was that there was reason for suspicion but no proof. My 7th great grandmother went by her “father’s name”. Do I put him down as the father? It turns out that he is my ancestor through another line so I guess that it doesn’t matter but…

    1. Dorothy: I would stick to what you know.

      1) Children of [your niece]:

      2) Daughter of [your great-great-great-grandmother, including all of your great-great-great-grandmother’s names, maiden and married]:

      3) You might say, “perhaps daughter of [father] and of [her mother, whom I take it you know?]

  3. Scott,

    Have always told folks when researching, especially their own families, that they will have to accept whatever they find whether the “relatives” are merely “in-laws” or “outlaws.” For one reason or another I can see why some folks would rather hide or change a relationship. However, that doesn’t change the past it only serves to deny or obscure it. I think that may be one of the reasons many folks don’t want to have anything to do with DNA testing.

    1. When I recrossed the doorsteps of the National Archives in DC years ago after having a fantastic and fun afternoon of family data gathering, I was told by one of the staffers that some wished that they had never crossed that doorstep ! But regardless– all such “problems” are your “blood line” and contain DNA information that may be vital to your health and well being. The issue in many … if not most of the old blood lines in New England is that when cousins marry cousins (and not even aware of it in some instances ) the DNA heightens whatever missteps are already in the DNA – for good or for worse !

      1. …of course I meant the DNA of the offspring or “issue’ and not the marriage union itself. Such unions in the days of nobility for money, status and land rights , etc. did produce some very interesting DNA combinations, to say the least !

    2. I agree, Smokie. Genealogy is at once very intimate and very expansive. In the short run, family members might deplore information about unhappy prior marriages being published, but remember, in many cases that information is in the public domain — via newspaper announcements, etc. In the long run, collecting current and historic information about your family is a public service: for you, for them, and for posterity.

  4. I pretty much disagree with this whole premiss. A living person has enough to worry about without a relative outing them in a publication or on the Internet. These are very personal issues and if the publication of such information hurts or angers even one soul, it should not be published. Genealogists have enough trouble getting information without upsetting folks with pertinent information unnecessarily. Without a strong respect for individual privacy, DNA testing would have been dead before it even got started.

    No, I side with the folks who are reluctant to see certain information in print. My life is an open book, but not everybody is so lucky. Keep potentially hurtful information private, please!

    1. Protection of the identity of the living is one of the hallmarks of sound Genealogical research…. the issue is that to many thumbs are now in the pot without such safeguards !

  5. Another issue of this sort is having an ancestor of another race. Another researcher found that my 4th great grandfather freed a slave woman and her son at his birth and that a few years later, that child inherited his entire estate. There certainly are members of my family who don’t want to think about this, and I am glad my father didn’t know, but really it’s quite remarkable. BTW: that son owned slaves.

  6. Good for you Scott – I don’t know you well, but I do know you well enough to know that you will and would always continue to treat such subjects with dignity and respect. These very distinct individuals of this subject matter are nonetheless facets of all of our lives, past, present, and certainly future, and are deserving of all of our consideration. To ignore these relationships or lifestyles by leaving them relegated to traditional terms, or to portray them as something they are not, or only as if through the means of the “old tomes,” does absolutely nothing to further the advancements in the field of genealogical reporting, or of anyone’s family history in general. This isn’t about judgement, its about a fair and practical representation, to consider it anything more is as much of a folly as it would be to ignore such aspects of both history, people, and or of life itself.

    Sometimes one has to stomp on a few grapes to make a good glass of wine.

    All the best,

    J. Record

    1. Many thanks, Jeff! These questions come up frequently in my work — as a genealogist and a publisher — and I feel the tension between present-day needs (privacy vs. accuracy) and those of the future, where, I believe, accuracy will be what matters.

      The genealogies I used as models when I started out almost certainly obscured uncomfortable facts, most likely about dates of marriage prior to a birth, and that reflects the values of the society that made them. These days, we are franker and we have a variety of relationships and identities that can now be named. That all seems to me quite healthy.

      Of course, the future might well feature a return to the values of 1900 — in which case, the genealogies then produced will also reflect the society making them.

  7. Well done Scott. Privacy considerations are important to the living and should be but as someone who identifies as lesbian it is very affirming to see acknowledgement of our relationships as part of a family. I believe you should be accurate and truthful in your research but only publish facts about the living with permission. I’ve found other LBGT relatives but only after I came out did my grandmother mention them as being like me. I was 35 when I came out (now 52). Apparently ‘everybody knew but it wasn’t said’. Without coming out to my grandmother I might have never known and would have been the poorer for it.

    1. Deb, I think that is a function of visibility — and thus another reason to write (responsibly) about the full range of personal relationships. There are a lot of “everybody knew but it wasn’t said” stories in my family, too, and it’s a shame, since opening up about the emotional lives of earlier generations can provide models for this generation and the next.

  8. A few months ago while researching my family history I discovered that my deceased uncle fathered a daughter via an extra-marital affair and that the daughter was adopted from a home for unwed mothers in 1949 shortly after she was born.

    My aunt (sister of my mother) age 95 is still alive as are 3 of the couple’s legitimate children ages 58-67.

    For now, I’ve decided to stay silent. I would ask my cousins for permission to publish the name of their half sister but I do not know if they know about her. Since my aunt has advanced dementia I am not concerned about obtaining her permission.

  9. For years I searched for a marriage record for my grandparents in MA, where I knew my grandmother was born, and in CT, where they lived when their children were born. All of the records I could locate, including their death records, their children’s birth and death records and various census records gave conflicting info on where my grandfather was born. Finally my mother’s elderly cousin, on learning of my search, decided to reveal the family secret, and the actual surname of my grandfather, in a letter to my only surviving aunt. It turns out that my grandfather had deserted his wife and child in MA to run off with my grandmother, an art student. He took a new name and they settled in CT where they raised a family of three children, apparently never formally marrying. My grandmother’s family, with one exception, lost all contact with her.
    If my mother’s cousin had never written that letter we never would have known what happened as she died shortly thereafter. With the surname she revealed I was able to construct a fairly complete picture of my grandfather’s life, including what happened to the family he deserted. I have even had some contact with his descendants from that family and we all agree that we’re better off knowing the full story.
    BTW, once I had his actual name I searched the membership cards of the MA Grand Lodge of Masons on American Ancestors and got a hit. His membership card contains the statement in the comments section – “Deserted wife and child.”

  10. Hello, my name is Theodora, as was my mothers. It is my understanding Theodora Iisley is my Grandmother. My mothers maiden name was Theodora Finlay Reilly, was O’Reilly and they stopped using the O in protest with the Church in Ireland. Her sisters are Emily, Charlotte and Anne, all deceased and I am a senior citizen. They all ended up in New Jersey after their fathers death. Mother told me her father owned bottling plants and was the son-in-law backed by Granddad to start Ayers Sarsparilla. My sisters middle name is Ayers! Is this why family never was talked about? We were well off and mother was brilliant. Theodora

    1. Theodora: Was your grandmother Emily Ann Ilsley? She was Sara Theodora Ilsley’s niece, and thus my grandmother Anne Beekman Ayer’s first cousin. Theodora Ilsley Ayer, my great-grandmother, married Charles Fanning Ayer, a son of Frederick Ayer, who, with his brother, founded the J. C. Ayer Company, which made medications including Ayer’s Sarsaparilla. I wonder if the Ayers name in your family comes from another part of the family — perhaps your great-grandmother Charlotte Gilchrist Ilsley?

      Speaking of the Ilsleys, you might want to look at my series of blog posts on the musicians in the Ilsley family, which starts with this post: I have also written about the family of Elizabeth Lawrance Fowler (Mrs. John Beekman Finlay), with this post:

      1. Greetings again Scott, You are spot on, Emily Anne Iisley is my Grandmother. Beekman and Charolette are my Great Grandparents, we are distant something or others.
        I love the hunt! Reading books would be too simple but will purchase all of them I can find, (yours included) when my tree is as complete as possible.
        My children will add themselves, they do not care one way or another. I want the record straight. There has been enough trash talk and back stabbing. These are real people who should be acknowledged and not hidden away. Mother missed some of those people deeply and had a less fulfilling life (in hiding). She and Aunt Charlotte were great friends, mother dark like her Grandmother Charlotte, her sister Charlotte had long flaming red hair, they spoke French and I learned it early.

  11. Scott, I took your advice and read all offered by you and others. What or who are people trying to protect? My thoughts are that they are protecting themselves or the trough they are receiving benefits from. Because women had no voice, (legally) until 1926, they were chattel and were included as “household goods’, like furniture and other property. How can one develop a voice if you have no right to one? Of course I am only one voice and you are much more learned then I but it was amazing how many of my women friends did know!! Most of our little group agreed that if we would have been threatened with banishment our lips would seal in public and we’d seethe in private. As a child I saw mother rage at the power of the ‘silver spoonerism’ (her terms). Just so happened I had a engraved baby rattle and very expensive silver baby items from the Ayers’ that were often tossed about or moved during the holiday’s and then speaking French would ‘curse”;( did not know those were curse words until later). Mother had started to ask me to find the answers to her questions and I told her to do her own dirty work as that’s what she used me for. Honestly if your writings can end the suffering of even just one person like mother then I am all for it. If people would own up to their mistakes and others not to continue the ruse, for whatever reasons; we are not going to become any healthier as a community or nation. I even understand my mother better now and have also witnessed and at times been a victim of the deceit loved ones have put upon me and what others have heard about me is shocking. Please continue writing and to all your doubters, everyone has the right to know who they are and where they come from not just for medical reasons for their own, mental health and well being. Thank you Scott you are helping people. Hey people, keep your closet clean and be honest about your actions! Happy Trails! Theodora

  12. Mr. Steward could you please tell me how we are related 2nd or 3rd cousins once removed? Of course we are complete strangers but do share DNA somewhere up that line. Thanks, Theodora

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.