When searching ancestors we may stumble upon information that they may have kept secret. Discovering these skeletons in our ancestral closets can sometimes pose a problem, either to ourselves or other family members. The information may expose a mistress, illegitimate children, or at the worst; incest. Should we then reveal what we’ve found while searching our ancestors? Such has been the dilemma of some family historians, and it is more popular than you may think. Such finds often involve intense research, but interestingly, the way that records are indexed can actually reveal sinister secrets. Let’s take a look at where we might find hidden secrets, and what they might be, when searching ancestors.
Much evidence of bigamy is unearthed when searching ancestors in military records. Many young men served in the army or navy during the course of their lives, their duties taking them to far off lands where they may have married again. Many didn’t return home after finishing their tour of duty, and established new lives with new wives. Some may have been imprisoned and been unable to return home, in which case they were presumed dead; allowing their wives to remarry.Try Ancestry.com and get 14 Days FREE!
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Fortunately, or unfortunately - depending on your view of the matter, many bigamists didn’t bother to change their identity, so evidence of their bigamy can be easily discovered when searching ancestors. Whatever the case, the availability of more and more digitized indexes that can be used in searching ancestors is revealing more and more cases of bigamy. It’s not uncommon to find to men with the same name and vital records appearing on two marriage certificates. Although often they will be two different people, sometimes they can be the same man.
When searching ancestors in Census Reports, you may be looking at evidence of illegitimacy without even recognizing it. Especially during the 19th century, census reports reveal both who lived with whom, and their relationship to each other. It’s quite common to find an illegitimate child being raised by the grandparents, usually the maternal ones. These children were commonly recorded as offspring of the grandfather to cover up the embarrassment of a mother having a "bastard" child. It is important to note when searching ancestors, that this cover up would often continue into adult life, and the illegitimate child would often continue to use the name of his grandfather as that of his father, even entering on a marriage certificate.
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Because it is difficult to conceal illegitimacy, more and more people are finding evidence of it while searching ancestors. A quick way to check for it in ancestry records is to look closely at the marriage date of your ancestor and compare it with the birth date of the eldest offspring of that marriage. You’d be surprised how often ancestry records show that nine months haven’t elapsed between the two dates.
As in the case mentioned above where an illegitimate child was listed as the son of the grandfather, unfortunately this occasionally may have been an actual fact. It is unusual though to discover incest when searching ancestors, as of course, it wasn’t recorded and was a closely guarded secret. Any birth to a married couple may conceal incest in ancient ancestry records, as it cannot be guaranteed that a child’s real father was his mother’s husband. It could well have been the grandfather, or even one of the mother’s brothers. As distasteful as it is, it may be best to do as they did in Victorian times and sweep it under the carpet.
Whether you reveal any such information you discover during the course of an ancestors search is up to you. Keep in mind that other people’s feelings are involved, and give careful consideration as to whether or not there is any advantage to unveiling dark family secrets. Unfortunately such objectionable information may be exposed when searching ancestors. The fact that they were embarrassed or ashamed enough to cover up those facts might help you with your decision whether or not to share it with other family members.
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