July 28, 2017

Standing in Judgement of Our Ancestors

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Standing in judgement of our ancestors may be unavoidable. Genealogists dig up the good, the bad, and the ugly. We cannot pick and choose what we find, but we might be able to pick what and how we share it with others.

Recently, I received a letter from a Gem’s reader which included a very delicate and sensitive matter. She writes:

Hi Lisa!

I love your blog and podcast. Thank you for all you do getting gems together for us!  I have a question for you and would love to know your opinion (or the opinion of anyone else as well!)

I was recently at a family wedding. I printed out all the family and ancestor’s paper trails and documents and was passing them around to my aunt, uncles, and cousins. My mom’s eldest brother brought up a memory he had of his grandfather, my great-grandfather, a German immigrant. My uncle whispered it to me because the saying my great-grandfather often said is very prejudice. I won’t tell you what the quote is but it’s prejudice against Jewish, Irish, and Dutch people. Here’s my question – should I write down that my great-grandfather was prejudice against certain people to preserve this part of his character or should I let this information fade into history? As genealogists we are always trying to get a full view of the person we are researching – past the census records, military service paperwork, and wills – and into the real person and personality. So, I now have a more broad view of my great-grandfather, but it’s negative. Should I preserve this character flaw in my ancestry notes? I’m conflicted about what to do. Maybe if this was a further distanced relative I would have an easier time brushing aside this prejudice but I’m having a hard time with the “right thing to do.” Any advice would be wonderful!

As a side note I will tell you that in the following generations this mans’ children and grandchildren have married Irish and Jewish spouses. Haha. I guess the “saying” was never echoed by his descendants!


Judgement of Our Ancestors

This is a great question and I applaud you for thoughtfully taking a moment to really think it through and ask for advice before moving forward on recording what you were told.

You asked – Should I write down that my great-grandfather was prejudice against certain people to preserve this part of his character or should I let this information fade into history? My opinion is, no. Mother Lisa says this is gossip and you didn’t hear it straight from your great-grandfather. I certainly wouldn’t want anyone else attributing a negative comment to me without having the chance to review or rebuke it. It’s a slippery slope.
judgement of our ancestors

Little Tea & Gossip by Robert Payton Reid, Source: http:⁄⁄www.liveinternet.ru⁄users⁄pmos_nmos⁄post357791815⁄

You also asked – Should I preserve this character flaw in my ancestry notes? And there’s the slippery slope. I believe that we, in modern times, should avoid sitting in judgement of ancestors who are not here to defend themselves. We don’t want to presume that we are in a position to decide how wrong “the crime” is. We certainly don’t want to be negatively prejudiced against others ourselves, but it is impossible to put oneself in another’s shoes in a differing time and circumstance. We know nothing about what the person really said. Perhaps they were joking (even though in extremely bad taste!) Maybe the person who heard this, and passed it on, had an ax to grind and part or none of it is true. Or, maybe there was an experience that our ancestor suffered that could have given him a reason to gripe based on his personal experience. You just don’t know.

In my book, I would chalk this up to gossip and either prove it with substantiated evidence or move on. What goes around comes around so let’s hope it will prevent an occurrence of someone gossiping about you and your future descendant spreading it into the ages.

Deciding to Write the Whole Story

In cases where you have secured substantial evidence that a negative story is true, you still have a choice to make. When I come across particularly sensitive or negative information about an ancestor, and before I make it public, I ask myself, “who will this help, and who will it hurt?” Does adding it to the family history enrich it? Is there anyone living today who might be hurt? If someone stands to be injured, but you’re set on capturing the story, I encourage you to do so privately for your own records and of course, cite all of your sources.

If you do decide to write and publish sensitive stories, I know that you will want to do so in as gentle and fair a way as possible. Here are some things to consider when writing about delicate stories of our ancestors:
  • Be sure to cite your source – who told you the story and when. The reader can decide whether to take the story with a grain of salt or believe it.
  • Let your readers know your reason for sharing the story in the first place. Genealogy Gems blogger Amie Tennant recently read a family history that included a horrible childhood memory. The writer stated it was important to put the family dynamics in full view so that other stories would be seen in the “right light.”
  • If naming everyone in the story will cause hurt or embarrassment, consider documenting the essence of the story without naming names.

Story of my life workbook coverWhatever you decide, writing a family history, though difficult at times, can be a rewarding experience!

Our very own Sunny Morton has just completed her fill-in-the-blank workbook for writing personal and family history. You will find the overwhelming task of starting your story as easy as pie! For a sneak-peek at what’s inside, read Writing Your Personal History: Step-by-Step or get your copy of the book “Story of My Life” here.


About Lisa

Lisa Louise Cooke is the Producer and Host of the Genealogy Gems Podcast, an online genealogy audio show at www.GenealogyGems.com. She is the author of the books Genealogy Gems: Ultimate Research Strategies and The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, and the Google Earth for Genealogy DVD series, an international conference speaker, and writer for Family Tree Magazine.


  1. I agree with your reference to the “slippery slope” Lisa. I frequently remind myself that my ancestors lived in a different time and place. That alone impacted the resources available to them. Their choices (good or bad) were made using the facts as they knew them in that moment. Hindsight is always 20/20, right?

    If I were Jennifer, I might consider adding the whispered comment to the uncle’s file, as a memory he shared. I’d want to remember that the reference had been made, but avoid using it as a character judgment about either individual. Later research may prove or disprove that this belief had been held by her great-grandfather.

  2. Lisa, I agree it is a slippery slope, I do remember a time at my grandparents when my Uncle was in WW11 and they had a flag with a star in the window.. Some people walked by and said” That’s where the Krauts live” and my grandmother came out of the house and told them to stop or it would get her dander up. I knew they must have said something bad, as when she said her dander up meant trouble! I was not offended by the remark as I didn’t like Sourkraut either! (I was 5 or 6) My grandfather was Harland C Schaufler and grandmother was Mary Ann (Mayme) McCaffery Schaufler. You always have great information..thank you..Nancy

  3. Christine Bauman says:

    I remember my mom saying that her father (b. 1888) used “slang” terms for various groups of people–words that she was uncomfortable with as a young adult/adult. But she also went on to say that while he’d use them in talking generically about those groups, his actual treatment of individuals did not match the words. He was a product of his era, and his speech patterns matched what he heard from those around him, though his behavior didn’t necessarily match his wods. So it’t as you mentioned, ” . . . it is impossible to put oneself in another’s shoes in a differing time and circumstance.” A grandchild hearing offhand remarks may not have enough information (or time spent with that grandfather in other situations) to accurately place the comments in proper context. Your suggestions were excellent, and every situation will need to be assessed individually.

  4. What would your choice be if the “gossip” were of a glowing reference? Would you include that? I say put a disclaimer on it and record it. Should I leave out of my family history that my father was an alcoholic? And my grandfather? And that it appears to run in the family? Would that somehow make it “better” if no one knew? I never knew my grandfather but my father, aunts and uncles did. My father came back from WWII with a few bigoted ideas of his own. These things are what made us who we are. Do you want an accurate family history? Then include it as a comment from the source.

  5. Nancy Fermazin Peralta says:

    My dad always referred to Grandma Minnie as his “mean grandmother”. (If you would like to read more, I wrote about her on my blog at http://nancy-fermazinfamily.blogspot.com) I feel that was a misnomer. Misnomer is from the French indicating a lack of fit when it comes to naming according to Webster. So I am going to tell you why. I did not know Great Grandma Minnie. I think I only met her about twice. However, I have researched her and talked to my Dad’s cousin Char and gained insight into Minnie’s life and times. I have great admiration and respect for her.
    Why do I think my Dad misunderstood Minnie. I don’t think he knew how harsh life was for her on the prairie and how difficult it was to raise seven children after her husband died in 1913. How lonely she must have been after the love of her life passed away. Minnie never remarried but she stayed involved with life and her church. Her boys became deacons in the Lutheran Church. That must have been a wonderful feeling for Minnie. She truly is one to be admired. I admire her so much for all she gave us: family, religion, work ethic, love, and our heritage.
    If you would like to read more, I wrote about her on my blog at http://nancy-fermazinfamily.blogspot.com

  6. Sometimes negative information can explain why things happened in a family. My very first effort at building my family tree back in the 1990s was a surprised find of my name in a tree on a family history CD. I called the person who had submitted the tree (those were the good old days!) and she advised me that we were indeed related, but her family had married outside the Catholic church and moved away from Iowa and that is why they had been ‘dead’ to my side of the family for 80 years!

    In another situation, one family had a son die in WWII. At the funeral someone made the comment that the wrong son had died. The father overheard this and the families did not visit each other after that. Now that we are working on a family tree together, that bit of information explains a lot!

    Fights over money are also great reasons why families separated from each other. I put the stories in my [private] tree to explain why brother A never talked to brother B.

    When I first started dating, my parents HATED Germans (My father had fought in WWI). Studying history, the events my parents lived through and their times explained a lot, looking back. The funny thing is, my mother insisted she was English and French. In researching her family she was not French but German! HA! Admitting that during WWII could have caused problems in many communities. That is why I include negative information along with the clearer vision we have now on the times of our ancestors.

  7. It is because the goal is an accurate family history that I would give the comment such careful consideration before documenting it. Do we know if that relative had an ax to grind? Do we know if there was some justification based on our ancestor’s own personal experience that caused them to have a “bigoted” idea? Have we considered the context of time and culture? Very often what makes us flinch now, was not considered negative at the time it was said. Words and their meanings evolve. Even with a glowing reference, citing a reliable source is vital for accuracy. And a father being an alcoholic is not a case of heresay or gossip, but rather a condition that may have had a negative impact on the person and the family (which is not the topic of this post.) I never implied it is better if no one knows, rather that we all benefit by treating others as we would want to be treated, that we don’t perpetuate inaccurate information by repeating it without proof, and that we tread softly so as not to harm others.

  8. Thank you for sharing Nancy!

  9. Thank you for your comment Christine. You put it so well: “a product of his era.” We all certainly are, aren’t we?

  10. 🙂 Thank you for your comments Nancy!

  11. Thank you for your comments Joan. I certainly agree and have no problem with documenting “negative” information. You provide good examples of why that can be valid and important. In the reader’s letter she was describing someone saying that an ancestor used to say very negative things, which falls more in the gossip category, with only the relative saying it for proof. Seeking and documenting more proof, further investigation into the time and context, and giving extra thought and consideration to the harm it might cause others are all sound steps for the family historian to take. And I love what you said: “Studying history, the events my parents lived through and their times explained a lot.” It certainly does! Thanks again.

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