ICYMI: Genealogical complexities

[Author’s note: This post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 3 September 2014.]

Amy Lowell2When 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.

17 thoughts on “ICYMI: Genealogical complexities

  1. Thank you. The important sentence here for me is “reporting it all – without judgment – seems to me the way to go.” It should make for better genealogies and with fewer “secrets” better understanding of our families.

  2. I have had second and third thoughts about entering brief first marriages in the permanent record. How did you approach your cousins who raised questions regarding unwanted marriage rec0rds? Did you maintain the full record, or delete it completely? Or, perhaps, make a brief side note?
    My instinct, because my living kin have strong feelings about it, is to delete the record completely, if there were no children.
    My mother’s words come back to me. “What does it matter? No one need be reminded of an unfortunate choice. No one is hurt by not saying anything at this point in time. And. Strangers do not need to know what goes on in our family.”

    1. I didn’t always agree with Judith’s comment until I started uncovering the skeletons on both sides of my family. My mother urged me to leave out the negative graphics of divorces, and other unbecoming problems, etc. because there was no reason anyone now needed to know what I had found. I was hesitant at first. But now older and wiser my thinking is: I want to be remembered for the good things in my life, not my mistakes, follies, and stupidity, and why wouldn’t those who came before also want to be remembered kindly.

  3. I think there are still some dilemmas to face. One cousin of mine has 4 ex-wives (and is on #5). Well, he didn’t want all of them in the tree and explained why a couple of them shouldn’t count. What to do? Another cousin didn’t want to acknowledge a half-brother in the tree. Family genealogies will get more complicated. It’s fine to say that we shouldn’t judge but, apparently, some (not necessarily the family genealogist) ~will~ judge what they see in a tree or a book. I understand Judith’s feelings too. I don’t expect to do a book with my immediate family in it and so will not – right now anyway – worry about how many of the broken relationships to record. Beyond this, if a person has a “partner” and they never marry and subsequently break up – is that recorded?

    1. Genealogies are not done to please people; they are to record the truth. A marriage is a marriage; if it appears in a newspaper or in online records/indexes I include it. I am very disappointed and dismayed with the comments above. Shame on some of you. You cannot erase mistakes; you live and learn from them.

      1. It seems your reply was directed to me, fumetti2011. I am just stating what folks in my family have said. I think you do have to respect living relatives’ desires. You say a marriage is a marriage – well some of the relationships these days are not marriages, i.e., there is no notice in the paper or legal – or any – ceremony of any kind. For example, folks who decide to live together (without ceremony or formality of any kind) and then break up. What would you do? If there is a child of a relationship, I think it has to be recorded. As for mandorac’s comments, what if there was no positive outcome from a relationship? And what if the person who was involved wants to forget the relationship – and wants everyone else to forget too (even if everyone already knows)? I don’t see any reason for me or anyone here to be ashamed of their opinions or comments. It is a discussion and we will all have to figure out how to deal with things. Best wishes to all.

  4. I find myself agreeing with fumetti2011. Recording genealogy is to record the truth. Also, by leaving out an unfortunate short marriage that ended in divorce without issue, in my opinion leaves out how that event might have affected the rest of the person’s life. What if they divorced, stayed friends, and the person landed a great job through first spouse that led to great wealth? What if that first unsuccessful marriage led to the person never marrying again? I’m just speculating here. I find it interesting how social events shaped a person’s life. On the other hand, if compiling a contemporary genealogy including living people, then their consent regarding their relationships should be sought because, as mentioned above, bringing to light a first marriage or sex change could very much affect their life in the present (if it is something not of common knowledge among their family and friends). Just my thoughts.

  5. I wonder what Cousin Amy would have made of all of this? – For the times she lived in, wouldn’t she just as easily have preferred to be recalled as “unmarried?” – One supposes that they, the deceased, get no say in the matter – truth or falsehood. For myself, I can only aspire to record “a life” (whatever the particulars of “the truths” of that life were) as the person who lived it might have wished it to be remembered or told. Perhaps this is the subtle difference between “family history” and the recording of a standard formatted genealogy.

  6. Scott – I have been away from Boston too long. What was the saying about three families of Boston where A talked to B and B talked to C and C talked to God? I know of one Saltonstall from boarding school and my great grandfather’s home in Boston is now the Saltonstall Office Building.
    And my father was a member of the class of 1939 at Harvard; I wish he was alive so that I could look at the yearbook!

  7. There are things that only my family will know during our lifetimes. After that, our descendants make the decision. This is an issue of ethics for living persons and for their direct descendants. That doesn’t mean I think the truth should be hidden. After the “revelation” that ended Mormon polygamy, there were generations of Mormons who pretended it hadn’t affected them and then, as the truth came out, another kind of denial appeared: excusing it away. I am glad that is easing. Members of my family were deeply embarrassed by the fact of polygamy in our background. I did not learn of it until I started doing genealogy on my own, and found that it permeated several generations of my family. This is healthier than either pretending it never existed, or excusing it as a cultural thing whose time has passed. I do not believe that either is true. By learning the truth about my grandmothers’ lives during that period, I grew to understand some family dynamics that have come down to this day, and I’ve come to feel closer to those women for what they endured. They did not choose what they got, and not all of them simply endured. I am glad now to have plowed my way through that era, though I still have much to learn about the lives of the women caught up in it. I feel I owe it to them to open their lives and experiences to the light, so we can see them for who they were, and understand how that era affects the lives that came after.

  8. I believe we should record the facts, without judgement or filtering. Standards and norms change over time. I would prefer to leave all the information possible – we will all be long gone when someone finds it and or needs it.

  9. There are a lot of aspects of my life for my education to personal choices with jobs that I am not proud of, but I will always let people know about it because it is the truth and it is what I actually did and where I went to school. People who want to eat race information about their personal lives are cowards as far as I am concerned. If they don’t want to tell her kids certain things they don’t have to. However the kids are going to find out anyway to various means. So you might as well be honest with your family.

  10. One of my ancestors was charged with fornication as a teenager in the 1670’s. His partner in “crime” was described as a “colored servant” and the child had died. Was she a slave? How did the child die? The double standard prevailed and he was fined while she was to be publicly whipped. When I write of this I will include all of the published details..

  11. Forgive me for commenting again. I think Jeff has the right idea. A genealogy, by definition (after all, we are relying on legal records) consists of “the facts M’am, just the facts,” as Jack Webb succinctly put it. A genealogy with an upper case G is just the facts or just the chart. However, there are so many genealogies being created, now that genealogy is the number one hobby in the USA, it is hard to believe that any historical society is going to add everyone’s genealogy to their collections the way they have in the past. So, the chance that private family affairs are going to be bruited about willy-nilly is low.
    The subtle difference is are you creating a Family History – Upper Case – or a family history – lower case, or a Genealogy – upper case. I like to think my history will stay in our family and be looked at by “the grands, great grands, etc” many years from now. But still do not see the need to include marriages that are brief, what they call “trial marriages,” nowadays. Youngsters who get married because they are too young to know better. There are no children from these marriages, therefore no genealogy to worry about in terms of descendants. I find it distasteful to add these people into our family if they never stayed around long enough to become part of it. In other words, there is no “family history” attached to these people.
    Otherwise, a “trial baby” is of course, something different and justly so should be recorded as a legal member of the family. That is my history with a lower case h. Just a hobby and for family use only.
    If I pretend to myself that my history deserves an upper case H, by dint of being absolutely professionally numbered and accurate to the last jot and tittle, then I guess it is important , from the standpoint of the genealogist I am pretending to be, to include everything, including any rather dubious activities. Let it all hang out. That is the watchword of the day, now, just put a camera and microphone in every room of my house because I think its really cool to have everyone know my personal business.
    Again, anyone from my grandparents’ generation would remind me there are two words: “Discretion,” and the other one “Tact,” that have been lost in the mists of time. Goodbye discretion. Goodbye tact. Sorry to see you go.

  12. Just a small note as to how we record (and react) to the facts – I found in the “Genealogy of the Blish Family in America,” where Hannah Maria Blish, wife of Chipman Swift Young was recorded (along with her vitals) as “a large fleshy woman”) – The poor lady – to be remembered not so much for the woman she was but just for that fact that she was fat. Sometimes the truth isn’t always necessary for us to “see” – or report on in the life of the person who lived it.

Leave a Reply

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