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Dealing with Genealogical Disappointment

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Written by Lori Samuelson

“Disappointment hurts more than pain” is an old American proverb which rings true for those of us who have spent time researching out ancestors.  I find that genealogical disappointments lie on a spectrum.  Burned court houses, gas explosions, tornadoes, and sewage leaks have all impacted finding the needed records I’ve sought.  Accidents or nature’s fickleness are situations that cause us dismay, but as diligent family historians we quickly move on to locating other sources to fill in the blanks of our ancestor’s lives.

The middle level of disappointment involves callousness.  Why a distant relative is holding the family Bible or photos of your two times great grandparents’ hostage due to a disagreement that occurred a generation ago is difficult to comprehend.  Locating your 7th great grandfather’s indentured servitude contract for sale on eBay at an exorbitant price is maddening.  It’s infuriating to learn that the repository destroyed records because they lacked space and thought they were more valuable as landfill.  Although these experiences may cause us to stew for a bit we continue on.  

I’ve found that the most difficult genealogical disappointments to surmount aren’t a result of record inaccessibility; rather, they’re from discovering your ancestor behaved in a way you did not expect.  Our forefathers may not have Tweeted, texted or typed yet their human experience included many issues with which we are familiar today.  Incarceration, mental illness, addiction or displaying unsavory character traits are not modern phenomenon.  Discovering the dark secrets of your family’s past can definitely throw your emotions into a tailspin! The disbelief, sadness or anger that you feel are normal emotions when you’ve encountered the unexpected.  

I once had a client who was extremely proud of his family’s strong support of the Union during the Civil War.  While transcribing a collection of documents he had inherited, I discovered one letter that shed light on the real reason for taking the North’s side in the conflict; the family was hoping for the destruction of the South so that they could increase their company’s profit margin as carpetbaggers after the war.  Gaining the knowledge that avarice and not altruism were at the root of his family’s business was difficult to accept.

Another of my Clients wanted to know the reason for her great grandparents’ divorce.  She had heard whispers over the years at family gatherings that her great grandfather had abandoned the family.  The results of my findings were not what she anticipated; the couple had not divorced although they had lived separately for years.  The estrangement occurred after her great grandmother had been committed to a mental institution.  Her husband did not commit her; another family member did.  That family member testified in court records that the individual being committed was a widow when in fact, the husband was very much alive.  

I understand how difficult it is to receive sordid information and remember the first time I uncovered the unexpected.  I was searching for an obituary when I came across the following newspaper article about one of my great grandfathers, Francis “Frank” Landfair:

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I was stunned!  It took some time for me to process the information and move forward with researching that line.  

What can you do if your family’s skeletons are haunting you?

  • The first step is to manage your emotions.  What saddened my Client angered one of her children while another remained calm.  Know that whatever you’re feeling is normal as life experiences individualize reactions.
  • It’s good to remember you are not personally responsible for the views or actions of anyone else.  Even though you share DNA, your core values aren’t going to change as a result of the discovery.   
  • Try to look at the entire situation to gain perspective.  Your ancestor’s choices were made using the social mores of the time period and not the standards of today.  
  • In the future, it’s best to let your mental illusion of the good ole days go.

Oscar Wilde said, “In love, it is better to know and be disappointed, then to not know and always wonder.”  In hindsight, I’m glad I discovered my great grandfather’s indiscretion.  It helped me understand why my grandparents were teetotalers.  I’ve come to accept the humanness of my ancestors and know that what happened can’t be altered.  By valuing the lessons learned from the past I can continue to make positive differences in my own life today.  In the end, it’s a wonderful legacy to have inherited.  


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