Sunday, February 16, 2020
What if it IS my Circus?
Sometimes, we run into messy stuff when researching our family history. Face it, if life can sometimes be messy, so can the narrative that flows out of our own family's history. And sometimes, the mess gets so confusing that we—or someone else following the same trail—can get thrown off track.
I've run into that problem before, most recently back at the end of last year, when I had two different genealogy companies yelling at me that I had the wrong wife for my Aaron Broyles. (No, as it turned out, I didn't; mine was long gone when the other Aaron—and the specific wife that had been mentioned—still lived in that other state everyone was insisting on.)
My response, once I put together my draft of a proof argument, was to just leave it alone. How could I first find all those other subscribers at two different companies who insisted otherwise, and then convince them of their error? I've often learned that no good deed goes unpunished, and I didn't want to try and prove that maxim wrong—at least, not in this instance. And, as my husband often likes to say, "Not my circus; not my monkeys." I left it alone.
But just this weekend, I ran across another messy research problem. It involved a fourth cousin once removed—removed far enough, that is, to be someone I wasn't personally acquainted with, but close enough to possibly show up as a DNA match to me. This woman's life story apparently included some sad or difficult episodes, and I'm sure there would be plenty to read between the lines of the few documents I was able to glean on her life's trajectory.
She was married at least twice, the first time to a man who eventually ended up in their state's "reformatory" institution, and the second time, when she was well into her thirties, to a man whom she left a widower when she died fifteen years later.
The problem was this: in all the census records where I found her with the first husband—in 1920 and 1930—there was never any mention of children. But by the time of the 1940 census, suddenly she and her new husband had a fifteen year old daughter, listed with the surname of the second husband.
Obviously, my question was: who were the actual parents? This second husband had never been married before, and all previous census records showed him living alone with his own widowed father. All previous census records for the wife showed her living alone with her first husband—with no children. Could this have been an adopted child? A child of a now-deceased sibling of one of the adults?
Obviously, a lot can unfold in the space of the ten years in between two census enumerations. There is probably quite a messy story that evolved in a decade's time, in this family's case. Of course, I tried my hardest to piece together the story, looking in every direction, both time-wise and relative-wise.
This is just one instance of the many types of confusing research clues we may encounter as we piece together the stories of our own families over the generations. And it brings up a question. What do we do when we find others have got the facts badly jumbled? Do we just walk away with a shrug, spouting that old Polish saying, "Not my circus; not my monkeys"?
What if it is our circus?
Thinking this through, I had to go back and revisit the case of mistaken identities for the two Aaron Broyles men in my mother's line. Do I really just leave everyone else thinking they had those details right? Or do I speak up?
That's a question that came up in a family history workshop I was teaching yesterday. In the past, I would have just said, yeah, leave it alone. Forget those sayings about the monkeys; how about this one: you can bring a horse to water, but you can't make it drink. Some people get really incensed about being approached, out of the blue, to inform them that they got something wrong. Especially if it concerns their own family.
On the other hand, the thoughtful people in my class yesterday wondered if there might be other ways to broach the subject and offer a correct version of the facts. And that is quite possible. After all, while we can't change someone else's tree, we certainly can exhibit correct documentation on our own tree. More than that, we can edit our entries to add brief statements on why we chose one version of the story over another one. After all, we do have control over our own public trees posted at such venues as Ancestry.com. And on the universal tree in places like FamilySearch.org, corrections can be made upon producing the determining documentation, so that all can benefit from that information.
While it still may earn you not much more than the ire of a total stranger if you go correcting other people's trees, the situation is far different when you make the case clearer on your own turf. By adding notes, comments, and listing resources on our own trees, we can publicly introduce others to our thinking process and provide evidence to support our contentions about specific family links different than the status-quo mistakes on other trees. In addition, that can become a way to flag the situation and bring it to the attention of researchers who don't, yet, even know about such a discrepancy.
People do take a look at other subscribers' trees. Though we can't necessarily make everyone look at our mini-proof arguments posted on our trees, by providing that information publicly, we are still making our contribution toward making the right lines of reasoning available to a wider audience. Hopefully, some people will be observant enough to take action and likewise correct their own tree.
While I don't—yet—think it is our responsibility to correct all the research wrongs in the world, I do see the pursuit of family history to be a collective effort. We do share what we've found with each other, even if passively (and perhaps even unwittingly). In that one small way, I've come to see I've needed a slight attitude adjustment to realize that, yes, in some cases, it is my circus—and by example, I can make that incremental contribution towards the collective betterment of the record-keeping for the family lines I'm most concerned about.