18    Oct 20111 comment

Genealogy: (Accidentally) Digging up the Dirt

Researching your family history most certainly has its ups and downs.

Most of us, however, receive a net benefit from the research, such as the feeling of familial inheritance, the joy of family stories or  just the thrill of the chase.

Look hard enough, though, and you're likely to find something lurking in the closet. Perhaps a skeleton, if you will. Of course, there are many ways to deal with these issues and, for many, the revelations will be so old that you can detach yourself completely from the embarrassment.

Others, however, are left in a situation where their new hobby has suddenly unearthed life-changing facts about their heritage.  Covering up these discoveries involves heartache and obvious holes in family research. Adopting an honest policy is desirable, but those life-changing facts can be too hard to bear even in modern society.

A thorny issue that frequently rears its head in genealogy forums is illegitimacy. A forum post by a relatively (no pun intended!) new genealogist recently caused a stir.

The researcher asked "Which surname should I use for a child (in the 1880 census) who lived with his mother and a man who wasn't his father." The census record listed the man under his surname and listed the children under the mother's surname. A plethora of different views followed from genealogists around the world.

During colonial times, an illegitimate child (technically a bastard) often appeared on a birth record as a means of protecting the state from having to provide welfare for the child. Bastardy laws in some states often saw pregnant women being hauled in front of the courts to name the child's father under oath. The reason was so the father could then be served a bastardy bond. Even more shocking: If the woman refused to name the father (not unusual), then her father would be required to post the bond. Shocking stuff.

The forum poster eventually took the advice of using the surname adopted later in life by the illegitimate child. Strangely enough, this name remained a mystery as no other records existed.

This presented a more modern problem of how to record the illegitimacy. You'll be pleased to learn that the phrase, "Documentation was not found to identify father," was used rather than "bastard" in this case.

It's certainly something to think about. Our job is to compile accurate records while striving to reflect our true lines of heritage. A little compassion though never hurt!

Does your tree contain hints or records of such events? How did you handle it? How have others handled such revelations, either historical or recently discovered? We are interested in your own experiences, so please comment below.

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  1. On the 1910 US Census for Leesburg VA my grandmother Maud L. Wise is listed as age 8, along with her brother's Richard and Clifton. Her mother, Maggie Wise, has answered the question "how many children" and the answer is 0. Now this was not an "oh my" response but a "I told you" response. The unfortunate part about all this is who truly is the mother of the Wise children? It then makes you question their father, Louis Wise, born in 1881, is he really their father or could he have been an older brother? It then alters thinking, who was Maggie Wise and where was Louis Wise at the time of census, he was not in the household with Maggie and her children are listed as servants in the home of Charles McKimmey. As you note our job is to compile accurate records, and thus far this is as far as I've gotten with Maud. A birth record would be a blessing but there is none as yet to be found; I was told it was no required to have births recorded. Although it is not believed that she or her siblings were born in Leesburg. The family thought....Maud and her brothers were conceived with a black woman and a white man, but the woman was not Maggie Wise. Maggie would years later have two children who were indeed dark in color as she, not the three where I have found them listed as mulatto and even white. So my own experience leads to this factor, Maud was the best grandmother ever and the best mother to her thirteen children.

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