Family history stories: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Most family history researchers have anecdotes about genealogy itself – their own stories, not their ancestors.’ Even the mainstream media ventures into genealogical territory. Here are some of the most memorable I have run across (or experienced) lately.

The good-and-funny: I know you, and you’re dead

I’ve posted this before, from my friend and distant cousin Roberta Estes. It is surely one of a kind. In her own words:

“My favorite [story] is that I’m dead. I wrote to the person assuring them I’m not, and they accused me of being a crook, to put it nicely. (They were anything but nice.) They told me they knew me and I’m dead. It was the most bizarre discussion I’ve ever had. I told them I’ve never heard of them and they said “of course not, you’re dead.”

I finally had to contact the company and ask them to remove my death information from that person’s tree because the fact that I was “dead” allowed my private information to be shown to others. I did this multiple times. They kept killing me off again. Seriously.”

Asked whether the whole thing was a joke, Roberta responded:

“Nope, they were dead serious, pardon the pun. They were angry with ME for wanting them to remove my death date in their tree. I suggested that perhaps it was another Roberta Estes and they very condescendingly said, ‘No, that’s not possible, I know you and you’re dead.’”

I was compelled to ask Roberta if she was already dead when she and I met about twenty years ago in Halifax, Virginia for family history research. I would love to be able to say that I met an actual ghost in the flesh, so to speak.

The bad: no good deed goes unpunished

This story from the Washington Post might make your head spin. Some three decades ago, a medical student in Oregon – now a Dr. Cleary — responded to a request for sperm donors. The lab reportedly assured him that his donations would be used only on the east coast, five times at most. Both promises turned out to be false.

Fast forward to the present. Dr. Cleary’s wife gave him an autosomal test kit last Christmas. Results have identified (as of the time the WAPO article was published) nineteen offspring conceived with Dr. Cleary’s donated sperm. There may be more in the offing. Many are located in the northwest, where he still lives.

He sounds like a genuinely nice guy who believed he was doing a helpful thing by donating. Some married couples and single women have no alternative for the woman to conceive except via artificial insemination.

Dr. Cleary responded warmly to the first few offspring who contacted him. Now apparently a bit overwhelmed, he has called time out on communications. Imagine the implications. He has children in the same area where offspring are turning up. What about the possibility a “new” offspring might be dating one of his previously known children, a half-sibling? What do you do about that? Demand a DNA test before any first date? Can you grasp suddenly learning that you have at least nineteen other children? Or at least eighteen half-siblings? I lack the imagination.

Finally, the truly ugly

I’m going to use phony names and locations, for reasons which will become obvious.

A couple of months ago, I received this email, verbatim, in toto:

 “Whatever prompted you to demote my grandfather from Captain to Sergeant?”

Huh? I had no clue what he was talking about. I should have ignored it, because the underlying anger is obvious. Unfortunately, I was curious, and the sender’s surname was one of my lines. Let’s call him Mr. Watkins. I was hopeful that I might have found another recruit for Watkins YDNA testing: I am always on the lookout for living male Burkes, Rankins, Lindseys, Winns, et al. who might be willing to test. Consequently, I responded.

Turned out that I had been researching a Watkins family who migrated from Virginia to the Ohio Territory. I ran across a Find-a-Grave listing for a Civil War soldier named Thomas Watkins. Find-a-Grave had him listed as a Captain, but I had seen evidence that he was a Sergeant. I provided the evidence to Find-a-Grave without requesting any change. Find-a-Grave changed his rank to Sergeant. This infuriated my correspondent.

I offered to ask Find-a-Grave to revise the entry if I were wrong (a waste of good will). However, a graves registration form filled out by the soldier’s son gave his rank as Sergeant. Also, a listing of his company roster identified Thomas Watkins as a sergeant in Captain Chamberlain’s company of Union soldiers.

I duly reported the evidence to Mr. Watkins and suggested he provide his contrary evidence to Find-a-Grave. He declined to do so. He clearly didn’t care about results – he just wanted to harass. His proof was a family heirloom Civil War pistol engraved “Captain” on the handle. His emails expressed his outrage that (1) I did not immediately recall providing the info to Find-a-Grave, (2) it took me some time to relocate the evidence, and (3) I was “messing with” someone else’s “family tree,” which he found reprehensible. Oh, and he has “no intention” of DNA testing.

The exchange ended with this email from him:

“In the impending civil war, I will keep you tight on my rank and my confirmed kills.”

One of my friends deems that a death threat. I do not. Her concern nevertheless inspired me to research Mr. Watkins and his family, to determine whether he was sufficiently nearby to add me to his list of confirmed kills even before his (probably longed-for) civil war commences.

Sergeant Watkins was his great-great grandfather rather than his grandfather. After the Civil War, the Sergeant lived in a medium-sized community in a midwestern state. His son and grandson were attorneys in the same county. His great-grandson was an attorney and a judge there.

My correspondent, a son of the judge, left for a small town (population less than 300) in a western state that is a hotbed of militia activity. The town apparently consists mostly of house trailers, dilapidated late model pickups, propane tanks, one bar, one liquor store, and a church. He commented multiple times in a local online discussion string, making anti-semitic comments, using the “C” word, referring to “faggot liberals,” and inviting people to fight. Another person on the string implied that he might be a meth addict.

In response to his email saying that he would keep me informed about his rank and confirmed kills, my initial impulse was to reply as follows, tongue planted firmly in cheek:

“In the impending civil war, you need to watch your six — because there is a descendant of Captain Chamberlain out there looking for a descendant of the sonuvabitch who stole his service pistol.”

My better angels vetoed the idea.

On that note, I’m outtahere. See you on down the road.

Robin

 

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