Saturday 19 January 2019

Boring Ancestors?!

The following is an article I wrote for Practical Family History magazine, in March 2009:

Boring Ancestors

Chris Paton takes a look at the potential folly of trying to characterise our ancestors based on a limited amount of documentary information…

How many times have we come across an ancestor who appears to have been the most boring person on Earth?! “His name was John Smith” or “he was only an agricultural labourer” are for many people war cries to signpost that it is time to hand in the genealogical trowel on a particular line. We may be keen to dismiss our ancestors very easily when nothing obvious appears to stand out about them, but a 'boring' ancestor may be one simply badly recorded to posterity, or whose records have not survived to the modern day.

Personalising our ancestors

It can often prove extremely difficult to characterise our ancestors’ lives, as in many cases very little information actually does survive about them. Yet we are driven to try to learn as much as we can – they were our relatives and we want to relate to them as family, not just as names on a page. If our ancestors left memoirs, and put into their own words their life experiences, we can be extremely lucky, as these can greatly help us to understand who they once were and what their outlook on life was.

I was once fortunate, whilst trying to break a genealogical brick wall for a client, to discover that a brother of her four times great grandfather had kept a diary in the Aberdeenshire parish of Fyvie. A microfilm of the book, covering over ten years of his life in the early 1800s, was available for consultation at the National Records of Scotland. This turned out to be gold dust, as it recounted the names and events of many family members which allowed me to push the tree back a further four generations. The diary was more valuable from another point of view, however, in that it also provided a great deal of insight into the writer’s religious views, his attitudes to certain members of his family, his business ability and more. In such a case, with so much material available, it was possible to gain a sense of what drove him as a person, and to some extent, other members of the family around him. He was, for example, devout in his religious observance, and genuinely so, with many long passages quoting various scriptural passages that he had heard each Sunday, from which he had taken comfort. At the same time, he left very little money to his eldest son in his will, deeply hurt that he had made a life for himself in America and had cut all ties with his family back home.

Most of us, though, will at best simply get to know our ancestors from occasional documentary references that place them in a set location at a particular time. How well these were recorded will affect how we visualise the person described. If John Smith is listed as ‘surgeon general of the British Army’, he will grab our attention more immediately than a simple description of him as a labourer. But what if John Smith the labourer helped to build the Titanic, took part in a protest that secured the vote for ordinary working men and women, fought in a military campaign or was crushed in a rebellion? He may not have been boring at all; his exploits may simply be waiting to be found within more unusual sources.

Creating portraits

So how do we redress this? With the information we find initially, from vital records and census reports, we can create a basic chronology for our ancestor, and then try to further flesh out the story from other sources, such as newspapers and wills. In many cases, an ancestor may appear dull because he has not been well documented, but it may also be that we do not know where to look for the right records. If we become stuck, we need to create some options for ourselves. We can join our local family history society and ask for assistance from those who are further down the road with their research. At the same time, we might post what little we do know of our ancestors online, on a website or in a discussion forum, and use that as a lure to attract others who may be working on the same family. Books and magazines may offer some clues as to where to go next, and a short genealogy course might even help.

We can also look around our ancestors, instead of directly at them, and establish the world within which they lived. If all we have are a couple of vague references that describe our relative as an agricultural labourer, for example, we can still ask some useful questions. What was the parish like with which he lived? Can we locate the records of others doing the same job in the same area, and perhaps gain an understanding of his experience from their
stories? What sort of farm work was going on in the area, and what was the bigger economic picture? Then there is the domestic situation. What was the house like that he would have lived within? Does it still exist, can we visit it, or perhaps a contemporary building in his area that was similar? What religion was he? Where would he have worshipped, etc?

Whilst we can to some degree try to recreate the environment within which they existed, we must also appreciate that we can never completely understand that environment from a modern perspective. What may have been truly shocking to an earlier generation may seem laughable to us today, but it was still shocking back then. People burned witches in the past out of fear. Even if we cannot understand why they may have done so, we still need to accept that such a fear was very real. In many cases we may not understand the rationale for something at all, but that does not mean it was not there, and we should be careful not to invent an interpretation that may in fact be false.

Don’t overdo it

Whilst we may be desperate to characterise our ancestors, we need to be careful that we do not over-interpret the information that we do have, or try to ascribe characteristics to them based on our limited perspective of events.

I once found a letter in an archive regarding the recruitment of my four times great grandfather into a regiment in 1797, which described how a recruiting sergeant in Perth had for several days tried to coax both him and four other weavers to abandon their looms, and to accompany him to Edinburgh. It was addressed to his superior at Edinburgh Castle, who was demanding to know where the new troops were. The poor sergeant reported that they were all refusing to leave for fear of being heavily fined for non-completion of the work. When I first read it, I burst out laughing. We talk in my family about “the Paton Pride”, basically the trait that we all share where we tend do things when we are good and ready, and not before! Clearly this was a long standing tradition. But then I realised that four other people had done exactly the same thing as my ancestor. It wasn’t a personality trait at all – it was an economic reality that drove their actions, not some genetic trait passed down through the generations.

We should also avoid trying to over-romanticise an ancestor’s story. An ancestor may have been transported for having stolen an item, and we may be tempted to believe that such a robbery had been committed perhaps because the family was starving and destitute in some Dickensian hell. But another possibility does also exist however – that the ancestor may well have been a career criminal, only happy when running off with someone else’s gold watch!

The sad truth is that sometimes we may never know who our ancestors really were, but the fun remains in the constant effort to find out. Our ancestors might well have been boring – but only accept that as the truth if you find the evidence to prove it.

(c) Chris Paton

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