Families like to present their best side to the world – or what they believe is their best side. What we consider the best side today may not be what was considered the best side a few hundred years ago.
In order to find the truth, sometimes you need to understand the times. The truth shows the real struggles and how they were overcome. This is something everyone can be proud of. Just the fact that a family hung in there, through physical and mental illness, through poverty, through substance abuse, through persecution and separation – it’s big stuff and well worth the family pride.
If you think about a family from a distance of one hundred years, the little things are gone. No one remembers that young Joe swore a lot, that Susie lost her virginity to her childhood sweetheart a whole five years before she met her husband, that Dad used to drink too much and once the policeman found him sleeping in the park and had to bring him home … these things are very disturbing at the time, but in the general scheme of things they’ll be completely forgotten, even if they happened over and over again.
Some things, of course, have entered the official records. Even if the family forgets, someone down the track is going to do their family history and discover anomalies. Maybe they’ll take a DNA test and discover a whole lot of anomalies.
I was involved in a conversation recently about NPEs. This acronym is used in the genealogical DNA community to refer to a parental event where the DNA does not support the official record. Originally it referred to fatherhood – Non-Paternal Event. A bit of a silly phrase. Then it transmuted to become Non-Parental Event which makes even less sense. The conception of a child is very very much a parental event. Maurice Gleeson refers to it as ‘Not the Parent Expected’ which makes perfect sense, and also removes any judgement so I like that one.
Our discussion was really focused on how many families can expect to find them in the tree, if they were able to DNA test all their near ancestors. Some felt they would be found in every tree. Some felt 90%, some 50% … a few were convinced that NPEs are an unusual event and only about 5% had them. Most of those people were certain there were none in their own tree. One did have one and was losing sleep over the mortifying discovery.
The odd thing about that one is that it is a Y-DNA matter. His Y-DNA test matches him at close genetic distance with a group of men of one surname that is not his own. For example, assuming his surname is Smith, his Y-DNA matches are all surnamed Cooper. They definitely have the same paternal ancestor and the others are scattered far across the branches of the tree. Cooper became Smith and not the other way round. His father, grandfather and great grandfather and so on back are all Smith. Looks like one of those Smith ancestors was not really his ancestor. He’s quite shaken.
I’ve seen this now in many internet forums and email lists. I fully understand how one might feel shaken to find that your own father or grandfather are not your genetic ancestor. This is personal, we know these people quite well – what they look like, what their personality was like. You have uncovered a secret about them which either they kept from you or did not know themselves. That’s quite fair enough and takes some working through. But a great great grandfather that you have never heard of? We can’t possibly know the story so why would we immediately think it was something shameful?
Actually, I quite understand also how we can become attached to a favourite ancestor, one whose life and decisions we admire and who we have researched particularly carefully. I have a few of those myself. It’s hard to let them go. But our true ancestors will be just as exciting when we find them.
Once something like this is uncovered, I’ve noticed that a whole lot of people jump to the unwarranted conclusion that there was cheating going on. My friend the present Mr Smith is not in the minority when making the assumption that there was a Mr and Mrs Smith but Mrs Smith had a thing with Mr Cooper. Yes, it could have happened that way. But it could be that Mrs Cooper was Mrs Smith’s sister and that she and her husband couldn’t raise their own son. Just because we don’t know the story doesn’t mean it was a nasty secret at the time. Perhaps young Mr Cooper simply changed his name to sound more dignified, or to remove any association with a less-nice family of Smith nearby. It was perfectly acceptable once to use an alias and not at all illegal. Newspaper notices often referred to ‘Thomas Jones also known as Samuel Kiddy’. It’s just how it was. Nothing dodgy.
Even if the first Smith in this line was born to Mr Cooper and Miss Smith, this still does not mean anything shady happened. In my own family we have an unexpected sibling but his father was a soldier who had been sent overseas before the young lady knew she was pregnant. The man had no idea he had fathered a child. She had no way of telling him. So she married someone else, who probably knew all about the coming child, and the child was born with that man’s name.
I have read that in farming communities in England and France in the late 1700s, young farmers preferred to marry a pregnant girl because they knew she was fertile. The children were definitely required to work on the family property so a barren wife was a problem, however nice she was. It meant hiring untrustworthy labour and no one to step in when there was illness. If the bride was pregnant, even to someone else, that was fine with everyone around. It is easy to impose our own values on those who lived long ago.
The other side of this is that there is no point hiding the fact now. If they accepted it openly, why should we cover it up in our present family trees?
I have recently spent some time on the family tree of a close match to my mother, one who must be about third cousin level. We have an identified third cousin, this match is just as strong – but we cannot find the link. Finally I re-created my match’s tree, from her parents up. I found four places – FOUR – where the ancestor was the eldest child and born a few years before the parents married. The mother’s line belongs in this tree but the father’s line doesn’t. In the UK census, the child is listed as ‘daughter in law’ of the mother’s new husband. There was no secret, she bore her mother’s surname and her place in the family was accepted. But my match has not included this detail in her tree, not even the tree on FtDNA where only the genetic ancestor is relevant.
My own ancestor is perhaps the mystery father of the closer of those girls. On her other side, her own grandfather was born to a single mother. That entire branch is irrelevant. While the adoptive/step/foster parents fully belong in a tree due to the cultural inheritance we receive from them, they don’t belong in a DNA tree.
One final point on misreading the past and mentally tarnishing our ancestor’s reputation – I have an ancestor named Timothy Morey. He was born in 1767 to a twenty eight year old single mother. I’d say she preferred a child out of wedlock to finishing her days without becoming a mother, because two years later she had a second son while still single. I have found no record that she ever married.
In the baptism register Timothy is the ‘baseborn son of Ann Morey’ with no father given. However, Bastardy Bonds exist for that parish and one Timothy Hoare, yeoman and church guildman, has accepted paternal responsibility and signed the Bastardy Bonds. He has signed the bonds for young Timothy’s brother William as well. In the same year he signed the bonds for infant Fortunatis Enticott, baseborn son of Sarah Enticott. You’d wonder how he kept his status in the church!
Anyone with experience in early English research will have jumped to it much faster than I did, but I did get there in the end. The Bastardy Bonds were about the support of the child and the mother whose life choices were restricted by her single motherhood status. If the mother applied to the parish for assistance, the parish would attempt to identify the father and force him to pay the maintenance. This was the law and we are talking a very small, close community in Dorset here. It is quite likely that Timothy Hoare was a most charitable, sympathetic and wealthy man who took his responsibilities serious. He probably stood here as an economic guardian to these fatherless children. His signing the Bastardy Bonds was not necessarily an admission of paternity, but a commitment to support the fatherless children in his parish. He MAY have been their father, but we cannot assume. He was probably just a very kindly man helping his neighbours. This is my apology to that long deceased man for my judgement. However, if he was not Timothy’s father then I have yet another mystery line. I can only hope the paternal line persists to the present day and is interested in a Y-DNA test.
In the meantime, I’ll try not to impose my 21st century understandings on my ancestors of previous centuries.