Back in the 1930’s, my
partner’s Great-Aunt Margaret made a journey from West Texas back to Arkansas
to search out the family history. Travel was difficult at that time, and she
spent several weeks on the trip, so it was a big project and a considerable
investment of time and money for her. When she got back, everyone was naturally
eager to know what she found out.
Her response? “I’m not going to talk about it—it was just
too awful!” And she never did. Did she discover someone who ran a house of ill
repute? Was there a murderer in the family? A bigamist? Or maybe even a
Presbyterian? The family’s speculations were probably more lurid than the
reality, but nobody knows. Whatever secrets Great-Aunt Margaret uncovered were so
shocking to her that they are still secrets to this day.
Of course, not everyone is shocked to find ancestors who
were less than law-abiding. Some of us would prefer to find a few colorful
characters. They make the family much more interesting—at least as long as they
are several generations back.
Among my ancestors, for example, is a several-times
great-grandfather we always thought of as a mountain man and explorer. An old
picture of him in a buffalo coat and fur cap supported this story. Then my aunt
started researching the family tree.
It turned out that Great-Great-Great-Great-Grandfather did
start out to participate in the California gold rush in 1850. He got as far as
Council Bluffs, Iowa, where he settled down and started a business that was terribly
mundane—buying excess property from overloaded immigrants. Later he was one of
the founders of a new town, where he started the first school, was the first
postmaster, served as a prosecuting attorney, and was in general
disappointingly respectable. My father said one day, “You know, I liked him
better when I thought he was about half a horse thief.”
Tracking down ancestors is challenging. It involves tedious
digging through archives, census records, church records, court records, and
newspaper files. It requires laborious deciphering of faded old records—when
you are able to find them. The frustrating reality is that sometimes it’s just
not possible to find what you’re searching for.
Since finding ancestors can be so difficult, it’s only
reasonable that once we do track them down, we’d want them to be the right
kind. Famous ones, preferably. Infamous ones, as the next best thing.
Unconventional ones, at the very least. A pirate is more exciting than an
admiral. A circuit-riding pioneer preacher is far more gratifying than a
city-bound bishop. A rich great-great uncle who made his fortune in the Yukon
is much more interesting than one who did the same on Wall Street. And even if
our immediate ancestors are ordinary Norwegian farmers, we can laugh at
Norwegian jokes with equanimity, secure in the shadow of the fierce Viking
raiders a few dozen generations further back.
Most of us have our share of ancestors who would embarrass
us horribly if they came to life and showed up at our front doors. As long as
they stay safely removed by three or four generations, though, they’re merely
colorful. Unlike Great-Aunt Margaret, most of us are more than willing to claim
them. Their presence adds a little drama and excitement, even if they are on
the shady side of the family tree.