Genealogy as a Minefield: Watch Where You Step 3

When we research family history, we are usually looking at records that are 70 plus years old.  The events associated with these records may still have an emotional payload even though those family members are gone.  As a genealogist, I have researched my fair share of joy, tragedy and the bizarre.  I always ask my clients if they are prepared for what I might find or if there is any types of information that I should hold back.  Most clients want all the details they can get – good, bad or ugly.



When we discover these same tragedies in our own families, contractually we don’t have to share them.  Our first reaction is to tell everyone the ‘interesting’ news.  Not all family members are ready to hear the more sordid details of the past.  A few years back I found out that my Irish grandmother was illegitimate.  When I talked to my uncle about his mother, he took the news very hard.  He couldn’t believe that it took 65 years to learn this.  I think he has since come to terms with the knowledge.


We need to engage our audiences in conversation to test just how sensitive they might be to the topic of darker details of the past.  I knew my Scottish grandfather (Tom) left my German grandmother (Edna) shortly after my mother was born.  I’ve asked my mom what she remembers and knows.  Her answers still have bitter emotions attached.  Each time we talk, I get a little bit more history, but never enough to satisfy my curiosity.  So, I dug. has a decent collection of St Louis records and I was able to find the marriage index images.  My mom was born in 1939, which put the potential marriage record somewhere in 1938.  The record could be earlier, later or non-existent.  I was prepared for whatever I found.  Happily, for all parties, the index showed a married recorded in September 1938.  I didn’t expect to find a marriage and I was not surprised that the date was five months before my mother was born.  Mom was glad that I found the marriage record.  She knew it was there.  I could sense that she didn’t want to be thought of as illegitimate.  We didn’t talk about the ‘shotgun’ wedding.


Grandpa Tom had a younger brother, Nelson.  Nelson married Grandma Edna’s first cousin, also named Edna.  Nelson and Edna were both from St Louis, but I found their marriage record 45 miles away in Jefferson County, Missouri.   I was only slightly surprised to find that there was only six months between the date of the marriage and the birth of their daughter.  Edna died of tuberculosis in 1945.  Nelson left their daughter with his in-laws and remarried.


Grandpa Tom had two older brothers.  William, the oldest, seems to have been the sensible one.  I haven’t found any records to suggest including him in the same category as his younger brothers.  The next oldest was David.  At age 22, David married Genevieve, age 16.  Genevieve got her mother’s permission, so it was all on the up and up.  David Jr. was born 6 months later.  A year after the birth of his son, David left Genevieve and remarried.


As I planned this article, my working title was ‘Cads, Hussies and Bastards’.  Probably a little insensitive, but it hit the mark.


I probably won’t share all of this with mom.  I’m still searching for the Depression Era sociological dynamics that could explain how and why these events happened.  Was there something inherently wrong with these brothers?  Was it because their father died young and they had no role model?  Were these women victims or were they intentionally getting pregnant to win a husband in economically bad times?


The history that I discover doesn’t shock me.  It’s history.  I can learn from it, but I can’t change it.  Not everyone can handle sad events like these.  It is important to understand the emotional impact that uncovered family secrets can have.  A careful conversation can help map where the trip wires are in your family history minefield.  Once you are in the middle of that minefield, your choices are to back away or to move forward.  You can’t un-step on a landmine.


Mike Maglio is the author of Deep into DNA, a monthly column in The In-Depth Genealogist which focuses on the use of DNA in genealogical research. Mike can be found blogging at OriginHunters.


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3 thoughts on “Genealogy as a Minefield: Watch Where You Step

  • Barbara Gallagher

    For all of us researching, there is also another facet to this — that, in light of these social scenarios our ancestors may have lied on their documents to conceal their perceived shame as well. Before we advanced in birth control, the impact of improprieties was significant and the result was public. Many families conjured up a story to disguise the truth and the records may contain more than a few “little white lies” that became a sort of “common law truth” and accepted as fact. Our ancestors often altered the facts on record that they could not alter in reality. It sure makes the truth a revelation!

  • Mariann Regan

    You make some excellent point here, Mike. We can’t un-step on a land mine, or un-ring a bell, if we uncover an upsetting fact. While it’s true that the definition of “sordid” can change from generation to generation (pregnant brides, for example, are not so scandalous as they used to be two generations ago), there is no way to tell how upset any particular living relative will be at any particular revelation.

    Everyone has a right to their own “trip wires,” so to speak — if they’re upset, they’re upset, even if those around them think a certain revelation is no big deal. You show a wise sensitivity when you recommend a “careful conversation” with each family member. That’s what I’m trying to do now with my family, about some evidence that 150 years ago would have been shameful. Is it now? That depends upon the family member you’re speaking to. We have a large family, and I’m anticipating that we will find some solution that will, as our family says, “hurt no one’s feelings.”