My mother always cautioned me about looking too closely into my family history. She was sure I would find one of them buried on Boot Hill. This was a long time ago, of course, as evidenced by the reference to Boot Hill, but her caution was well intentioned and, for the time, when everyone wanted to be like everyone else, it didn’t do to have family “buried on Boot Hill.” Well, I ignored my mother and plowed headlong into family history research and turned up some very interesting things, none of which were particularly shocking, since I have a great tolerance for peculiarity and pecadillos.
I also have been working as a genealogy assistant for a very long time and have encountered the family stories of hundreds of people, so, in comparison, my family is boring. This is perhaps a privilege of my occupation – that I get to hear the stories of so many different families but one thing I have noticed and want to pass on to anyone interested in starting their family history is brace yourself. You are going to find information that you may not want to know. You know the Ancestry ad, the one about the grandfather’s multiple marriage certificates, that is tame compared to the grandfather who had about eight different families. There was only one marriage certificate, however, which meant that gramps was a bigamist. In one family, it turned out that grandmother was purchased from her father for a horse and buggy. And I can’t tell you the number of people who never married yet had children, who went to prison, who were found floating in the river, and on and on.
Many people accept these family stories with aplomb. There is actually a subset of genealogists who celebrate their black sheep (although the definition of a black sheep varies from family to family – in my family it was someone who married outside of the church) But every now and then I encounter a genealogists who is truly shocked and unable to come to terms with what they have found. There is a belief that people in the past were more moral and disciplined, that they followed the rules and, with a few exceptions, behaved in a much better manner than we do now. What I have found is that this is simply not so. Our ancestors swore, cheated, drank, cavorted and behaved badly. And I think that when we start our family stories we need to be prepared for the eventuality that our ancestors may have feet of clay.