When you think about your ancestors, what do you envision? I, personally, envision people along the lines of “what my grade-school teachers taught us about the puritans”. Hardworking, patriotic, a little uptight, god-fearing. My Great-grandmother, Ethel Coulter Richards, was a school-teacher, in a one-room schoolhouse. Helped her husband on the family dairy farm, was a devout Methodist and was president of the local chapter of the WCTU (Women’s Christian Temperance Union). My mom would tell us stories of how the cousins, during family reunions, would try to hide the fact they were drinking beer from her. Grammy was a force to be reckoned with and an awesome person. It was her Great-grandfather that served during the American Revolution. I somehow imagine all my ancestors to be like that. And I am not the only one.
In the three years since starting at the Historical Society of Berks County, I have yet to have a day where I haven’t learned some juicy detail of someone’s past. While we have these images of what we think our ancestors are like, the opposite is always the case. There are black sheeps in every family and uncovering them can be really fun. Some of our ancestors behaved just as badly as we do today. For instance:
We had a researcher in over the past summer, who discovered that one of her family members (married) had an affair with a woman. Both the mistress and the wife became pregnant around the same time, gave birth within the same week, both had sons and both named their sons after the man. Talk about a scandal. The mistress ended up moving across the Lancaster County border. The researcher was trying to figure out which mother bore her family line. When you have two boys, named the same, born almost at the same time and living in the same area, it makes for a little bit of a History Mystery.
Our researcher’s genealogies always contain an illicit affair, a deadbeat husband, a family alcoholic, children born out of wedlock, or before a nine-month wedding anniversary. Some might even have the stories you don’t talk about, but have laws crafted that we make fun of as being stupid or weird laws on the books. In one such case, a friend of the HJL just recently discovered one of his ancestors was an art forger, due to an article in the New York Times. Who knew? Actually, this is a pretty big deal. He passed a painting off as being of Mary Todd Lincoln. The painting hung in the governor’s mansion in Springfield, IL before moving to it’s current home at the Lincoln Library. It wasn’t until conservators started cleaning the painting they discovered the forgery. To read further: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/12/arts/design/portrait-of-mary-todd-lincoln-is-deemed-a-hoax.html?_r=1.
Not all is bad though, we had another researcher, whose ancestor was Governor of Pennsylvania. What makes him pretty unique, was that he was the Union soldier in charge on the Lincoln Conspirators. You really never know what you might uncover!
Other than what is written down, we only ever know the facts about someone. When they were born, baptized, married and died. We can garner some information from an obituary, but those only tell the best of someone. Despite their faults or because of their accomplishments, it helped us get to where we are today. We might have a black sheep in our family, but it makes the family stories more interesting. The next time you picture our ancestors, picture them with a little bit of you. It will help them come to life and make them more real.