June 22nd, 2010

Uncovering Family Secrets

Many of us begin our genealogical quest after either:

• hearing something exciting about one of our ancestors, or
• if we have the same surname as someone famous – just to see if we might be related.

As we begin our search for our infidel ancestor or our wealthy relative, it is possible to come across some information that we rather wouldn’t have. This could be an ancestor being involved in criminal behaviour; murder, theft, fraud, etc, or something like illegitimacy, adoption or infidelity.

Some families will be unaffected by such a finding, others possibly delighted to detect a bit of colour in their otherwise conservative clan, while still some may be embarrassed and not know what to do with the information. At this point the genealogist becomes the bearer of bad news, and discernment is needed when handling any potentially damaging information. For instance, it could be very hurtful to reveal to someone that their father is not their real father, or to inform them that they were adopted if they don’t already know.

What anyone does with the information they find when doing family history based researched is of course a personal matter. The one doing the research will know their family best, yet could still remain confused as to where to go with the information. At this point it may be wise to consult an older relative, even a professional of some sort. Whatever the decision, it is a personal one, yet should be made with kind consideration.

Where You Might Find Family Secrets

The following are some potential family secrets you may run into:

1. Illegitimacy and Adoption

2. Divorce and Bigamy

3. Poverty

4. Criminal Activity

In this series about family secrets, I’ll cover each of these areas and the records you may use to either verify or disprove them, beginning with illegitimacy and adoption.

Illegitimacy and Adoption

Believe it or not, illegitimacy was not always considered such a big deal. Many members of royalty in the past sired illegitimate children and rather than sweep them under the carpet, they recognized them publicly, even creating official positions for them and bestowing titles upon them. The children of lower class mistresses though not treated so openly or generously, were still cared for and given an education or a military commission in order for them to have an established place in society. These sorts of situations may be revealed while searching through Estate Records. If you come across payments made out of estate accounts to mysterious people, or for lavish gifts, these could point to support for an illegitimate child, or a mistress.

Another clue of illegitimacy is the lack of a father’s name on a birth certificate or an anomaly on a census report. Often a girl’s parents would adopt a child if it was born out of wedlock, yet if the family were poor, they wouldn’t be able to afford that. In such a case, the parents either; searched for the father and made him marry their daughter, or if he wouldn’t marry her, force him to pay a “bastardy bond”, the form of child support of the time. Unfortunately not all men were honourable enough to do either one of those things, and many fled the county or country by joining the army or running away to sea. If searching civil registration you find a marriage that happened a few months before or after the birth of a child, it was usually a forced marriage.

A common option was of course to put a child up for adoption. Unfortunately prior to the twentieth century, little records were kept of adoptions, and most arrangements were either made privately or secretly assisted by the church.

In any case, it’s very exciting to find discrepancies in records or in stories handed down through the generations. Keep an open mind and enjoy the journey to find out about your ancestors. You never know what your research may turn up!