Kristin Butcher

Family secrets – a genealogist’s conundrum

To tell or not to tell—that is the question genealogists must ask themselves.

Finding a black sheep or a scoundrel or two among our ancestors is usually cause for celebration.

The passage of time renders their foibles and misdeeds interesting, rather than shameful, and we can’t wait to tell anyone who will listen, that great great Uncle Billy was a cattle rustler, or your four times grandmother ran a brothel.

But what if the relative with a tainted history isn’t quite so distant – an aunt, a father, a cousin, or a grandparent perhaps?

Though certain aspects of their past may not be widely known, the family still holds these people close, and to reveal what was hitherto a secret, would probably come as a great shock, even if the individuals in question have already passed on.

So what do you do?

You’re the genealogist. It is your job to chronicle the family history.

You may have stumbled upon the truth inadvertently, or perhaps you were told the information in confidence.

The question is – should you include it in the family tree, or should you keep the information to yourself?

This is indeed a conundrum.

There are several factors to consider.

Revealing what you know could tarnish someone’s image in the eyes of those close to that person, so you must ask yourself if an in-depth family record is more important than an individual’s privacy.

You also need to be sure the information is valid.  Is it true?

And if it was told to you in confidence, you would be betraying a trust and eroding your integrity.

In addition, there is the distinct possibility that the information will not be well-received, and the family will turn on you – shooting the messenger, as it were.

On the other hand, burying the truth will weaken the family story, and if you don’t record it, it could be lost forever.

Of course, you could always document the information and lock it in your safety deposit box until your own demise, thereby making it someone else’s problem.

I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer. It’s an individual decision influenced by personal values, intellectual beliefs, and family bonds.

It certainly makes an interesting topic for debate though.