Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Unseemly Findings

As an amateur genealogist, I still get excited about turning over stones and finding something unexpected. Sometimes, I also do not know what to do with things that I didn't expect to find or that don't seem to fit into my fairy tale notions of my own family history.

For example, it jarred my senses to imagine that my great-grandmother Mary Ellen Stephens Goff could have been married before she married my great-grandfather. I don't know why. My great-grandfather had been married before, and I can't even find his first wife. So why the double standard? Why was I so incredulous to the notion that Mary Ellen was a happy divorcee prior to getting hitched to Richard Goff? I haven't the foggiest.

Likewise, when researching my great-great-grandmother, Martha Webb, I uncovered more unseemly matter than I'd ever dreamed was possible. The family had always handed down the story that Martha was raped, and our great-grandfather, John Henry Webb, was the product of that incident. John was reared by Martha's parents as their own child following her death a number of years after his birth. The family always said that Martha "willed herself to die," because of the shame she bore from being raped. This is history handed down through the family.

What was not handed down through the family was the fact that Martha's father, Willis Webb, had two families. Not only did his wife, Margaret, nee Stewart, spend nearly twenty years of her life bearing children, but Willis' mistress also bore him several children.

When I think of the rural setting in which the Webb family lived and the sprawling farmland they made into a home, it shouldn't surprise anyone that Willis needed sons to help work the land. What does surprise me is that Willis' other family appears to have more information about his legitimate family than I've been able to uncover from any other source!

My mother is beside herself with embarrassment over these findings; while I, on the other hand, have embraced my new extended cousins with open arms, because they are, in fact, related to me by blood. The Webb family has always been a stalwart of grit and self sustenance, pillars of the community; so the idea that there are these skeletons in the closet is, in my mother's eyes, something one should not talk of in polite society. She would prefer I sweep these things under the rug or out the door and forget them, but blood can't forget blood - at least mine can't.

I am very curious how other genealogists have handled these situations when they uncover them. Do you add them to your tree with caveats? Do you hide them away as improper like my mother would prefer? Or do you do what I did and embrace a new set of cousins.

As a footnote of sorts, it is important to note here that documentation on "the other family" and the information they had about the "legitimate" family has not yet been verified; however, what I have seen and heard from them is consistent with the history of the time and family folklore.


Terri O'Connell said...

My aunt found half siblings while researching our family. Because the older generation is gone, there seems to be no real issue. They have met and do keep in contact. Some of the siblings do not feel the same and have ignored the fact that another sister is out there. The sad thing is that she is so much older and time is short, some will probably never meet her.

My advice is to add the information to the tree, once you can verify it. No one needs to know that you continue to look into the "extra" family. Every family has its skeleton's and I say give a shake and see what they have to say. Besides, that is what makes genealogy so interesting.

Carol said...

Depends on your outlook, consider that it is not our job as researchers to judge, but to record. That said, our parents generation do tend to be embarrassed by this all. Be assured, yours is not the only family. Oh, believe me, they are not! I have some goodies - -