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Skeletons in the Closet

I received the following from one of our customers today and enjoyed it so much that I'm republishing it here (with permission).

Decades ago when I first started investigating my 6th great-grandfather’s family of descendants I was particularly fascinated by the oblique notes I found in the older genealogies.  

“Killed in a hunting accident” “Met an accident in the woods” “Went West and untraced” “Died in the great Galveston Hurricane.”  

Since then I’ve discovered that none of the above was entirely true if at all. 

I’ve also discovered descendants omitted, “died” or down-played in family accounts for more onerous reasons – multiple divorce, murder, kidnapping, suicide, medical tragedy and more. 

If like me, your twig of the family tree hasn’t exactly been pristine, consider the gifts these people have given you. 

Strength – if you have experienced one of these things as a near relative, realize that no matter how much you suffered at the time that you have survived it and congratulate yourself. You are strong. 

Perspective – if you know or discover that an earlier relative is a closet skeleton - thank them if you haven’t experienced the same thing yourself. If you have, also thank them – it means you aren’t the only family member who’s faced the same thing whether now or generations ago. 

Faith – Learn about the lives of your ancestors and their message to you. I have found at least three times that their survival is the miracle that I even exist. 

Embrace the past with love and sensibility. Learn as much as possible about your ancestors recent and distant and respect any medical problems those in your twig might have had – you may have inherited them as I have.


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I agree wholeheartedly! Our skeleton's make us stronger not weaker and it sure is fun to read in your narratives about your family. One side of my family is nothing but skeletons and were scoundrels extraordinarily bad. It is fun to uncover the whys and wherefores of our families and Legacy helps me to save them. Thanks Legacy Family Tree. I have enjoyed it for several years now.

Skeletons are half the fun of genealogy!!!!! Found a few of my own and some in friend's trees!

As I look deeper into the lives I am researching, I am recognizing that most of the people in my family tree who've been hidden are likely the people who suffered the most, whatever reason for hiding them. (There is one possible exception to that, but there usually is to everything.) I have learned to have compassion for them, as they as much as the others are part of me and who I am. For almost all of us, what might have become a character flaw may, in other circumstances, have become a positive attribute, and sometimes is both in the same person. I see this in myself, as well, and it has led me to understand and forgive my own foibles, and those in the people around me (especially those I am related to!).

This posting is a good lesson in not taking everything at face value, and also not giving up. Myself and several others were researching a line that ended up not being related, but we did not know that at the time. One of the ladies in this line listed herself as widowed in a particular census, and we accepted this...until we found her husband living several counties away in the same census! It's been a long time and I don't remember if we ever found out whether they were divorced or simply separated, but people had all sorts of reasons for telling the census takers things that were not 100% true, and keeping this in mind serves all of us well (beside the fact that some of the census takers were clearly lazy and not putting forth a whole lot of effort to "get it right"). Another interesting factoid is that it is not uncommon to find that some ladies did not age 10 years between each census...keep that in mind when you have someone you are sure is the right person, except that their age doesn't fit!

Some skeletons in the closet can be very useful. If, like many Australians of British origin, you have a convict or six (like I do) in your past, you are genealogically very lucky. Thanks to the American War of Independence, convicts previously sent across the Atlantic were re-directed to Australia from 1788 to the 1850s. They were very well documented, as to their crimes, their origins (even listing family members), their physical appearance (very few over 5'6"), their conduct and employment whilst "guests of the government" in Australia, and even their marriages (permission to marry was required). In fact, those fortunate individuals who were sent to Van Dieman's Land (became Tasmania in 1856 and eventually the State of Tasmania) were so well-documented that they have been used as the basis of sociological and medical studies of populations. However, after serving their sentence of 7 or 14 years, many disappeared from the public record and became model citizens, giving little cause to appear in newspapers and the like. A few became prominent citizens of note, but the "convict stain" continued to colour the lives of many. Linking the families of my grand and great-grand parents to earlier generations of convicts has been tricky as they actively discouraged the discussion and perpetuation of the knowledge, some even changing their names. Having discovered the links in most cases has opened new lines of enquiry, taking many lines back into the early 18th century and beyond.

I love the original post and all these comments! I too, love the skeletons in my family. I also have found some reasons for my clinical depression, seeing suicides, and knowing my dad fought depression, also. It opens up new ways to look at their lives and mine. I have learned to cry and laugh with my ancestors. But know that they made me strong, to deal with my life.

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