Friday, January 13, 2012

Our Ancestors Family Dynamics

One brother shot the other!
As genealogists we try to take a peek into the past and uncover our ancestor’s lives: who they were, what they did, when they had life changing experiences, and where they experienced them. The who, what, when and where aspects tells a story.  But, the “who” is the hardest to capture since each ancestor had individual unique experiences, personalities and foibles.  The “who” is not the grouping of a surname, but reveals an individual’s personality, a persistent trait, a unique characteristic.

Why Would a Sibling Shoot?
As family researchers we often lump the family in groups - “They were  “religious people.” Were they? All of them?  We can take a look at our own sibling interactions to understand the gamut of possibilities.  I had 3 brothers, none of them are alike. Their personalities were more disparate than Kansas seasons.  Sometimes I wonder if siblings were raised under the same household.  Ask about one event, you get three totally different experiences. Only the place and time - the where and when - seems to be in accord. The what happened is from the perspective of the who tells it, which means it would take an experienced excavator to uncover the truth.

Our ancestors were no different. We can easily identify the affluent sibling, the entrepreneur or  educated one. There’s the sibling that has a trail of court records and those who have written self-promoting manifestos allowing family researchers to more easily assess a personality type because his “truth” can be either supported or in conflict with the documents. 
Example of a transcript
Recently I read a bio that suggested a completed college degree. It even stated “the class of …” But this self-promotion could not be supported by the school or the transcripts on record. Yes, he attended the college and had many completed hours, but no degree requirement was met.  We might look to the family for answers. What made him self-promote? Did the family value education and he failed to obtain his degree? Did siblings achieve what he did not have? Perhaps he habitually stretched the truth, or sacrificed his integrity for status or career growth.  Our genealogy records don’t always offer the reason, but it does allow us to take note; to see if there is a pattern. 

Unidentified Characteristics
With family research and closer reviews of the sibling dynamics, I’m left with wondering which one was the bully or perhaps the aloof one or controlling one. There always seems to be a selfish or narcissistic one.  And it never fails, one is always a persistent victim. Even after reading and studying birth order characteristics, we can not necessarily define a personality sets, because there is no set answer when defining the “who,” not even with a Myers Briggs analysis.   

Correspondence and Letters
Just like today, a visit from a sibling does not mean the relationship is one bound by love. Perhaps it’s by obligation. Perhaps it was a strained visit. Think of your last family gathering. Our genealogical records do not openly show us the dynamics.  But, through correspondence we may assess a relationship substantially.

We sometimes uncover a personality through our ancestors’ journals or written accounts by others.  A documented personal account of an incident, hurt or loss may give us a peek into our ancestor’s relationships. We mustn’t overlook small hints.

Not all correspondence is from family jus sanguinis. Our hints to an ancestor's personality or family dynamics may come from letters written by close friends - “family of the heart.”  These types of notes give us a peek at who our ancestor was to other people. They may be our only clue to an ancestor’s true personality.

No Longer the Family Secret
Not so long ago it was uncommon to “air dirty laundry”; few family members were transparent. They would not have considered openly journalling family feuds or unpleasant events. The “happy perfect family” appearance was always the same to the “outer world.”

With present day social media the next generation genealogists will be able to capture much more.  The move toward transparency and scanning of personal affects will assist in our research. The most personal depositions are beginning to appear online. I have even come across online where a person declared himself a prophet and was entangled with a church scandal. Although the dramatics are of Hollywood quality, for the genealogist the accompanying church depositions highlighted personality traits. Since church records are often the key to our genealogical research, these scanned public records should not be overlooked.

Where to Look
Be sure to closely analyze documents, letters, church records, school records, and even employee notes for more hints to sibling and family dynamics. Newspaper articles also may reveal our ancestor’s true character. By all means, don’t assume family dynamics without assessing the evidence.

Kathleen Brandt
Accurate, accessible answers


  1. Very interesting post, thinking - -

  2. This post hits very close to home. My paternal grandfather did in fact shoot and kill his only brother in the late 1930's. In their case his brother has been a troubled, ne'er-do-well his entire life and on that particular day threatened to shoot and kill my grandmother and my aunt, a small child, in front of my grandfather and his own mother. My grandfather went into the house got his rifle, returned outside, begged his brother to cease, but in the end shot and killed him when he would not. The shooting was ruled justifiable and his own mother testified at the hearing that he had no choice.

    This story was never talked about between my father and his siblings while growing up; in fact they knew next to nothing about it as my grandfather never discussed it again. Grandpa was a kind and gentle man who always took care of others so it must have pained him terribly to carry the burden of killing his only sibling. After his death my grandmother began talking about it and now the entire family knows the facts. I also have copies of the newspaper articles that were printed at the time.

    I mean to put this story as I know it down on paper some day but at this time I will not put it on my blog. My father and aunts and uncle are still living - I do not know if any of them has even seen my blog, but do not feel comfortable at this time publishing. Sorry for the lengthy comment, but your post called to my conflicting feelings as to what is the right thing to do with this story.

    Teresa Wilson Rogers

    1. Teresa,
      I have a personal rule not to publicly publish potentially embarrassing data if the children are still living. This does not deter me from researching and writing about an event. I even often share with those who wish to know about the event, but I don't necessarily put on internet or broadcast. I also do not share this information for those I feel will use it negatively.
      Even when doing client work, I ask for permission to include potentially embarrassing "family secrets" in the body of text. Often it is added to the end of a report making it easy to remove for those cousins who may find it offensive.
      It is our job however not to change, alter or hide history.

  3. I just want to say that was an excellent article. I found an old newspaper story of my great grandfather that said he shot a man over tellin' lies about him in town. But what was the real circumstance? I might never know.