Genealogy Today, by Betty Lou Malesky, CG
Handling Sensitive Family Information
If you do family research long enough, you are bound to wind up confronting sensitive issues. As King Solomon once wrote, "Nothing is new under the sun." We all have skeletons in our family closets, and must decide what to do with them when we compile a family history.
Do we keep them locked in the closet, ignore and cover them up? Or do we confront and defuse them? Some issues of the past are not as shocking today, but we need to consider how revelation may affect living descendants. Usually, honesty with a touch of compassion is the best policy.
A recent issue on a genealogical email list has been illegitimacy. A question was posted asking what surname to use for a child who was living with his mother and a man not his father. The 1880 census listed the man, then the mother with her husband's surname and her several children with her same surname. Births were not officially recorded at the time and place in question.
The mother's relationship to the man she was currently living with was "concubine," so it was apparent they were not married. Her husband had left and never returned before any of the children were born. The man and the mother did marry 35 years later, perhaps after the death of her husband.
In colonial days illegitimate, bastard, or "out of wedlock," often appeared right on the birth record. Illegitimacy was considered a crime with bastardy laws in effect in several states into the 1900s. In some states a pregnant woman was brought into court, examined under oath and asked to name the child's father. He was then served a warrant and required to post a bastardy bond. If the woman refused to name someone, she, her father or some other interested party would be required to post the bond. The big concern was not to protect the child, but to protect the state from having to support it.
My third great grandmother, Sarah Bly appears in her father's home on the 1850 New York census at the age of 16 with a one month old baby. Chautauqua County registered births for a short time in 1850; this birth is recorded with the father's name blank.
Sarah married in 1852. In the 1855 New York state census and ever after Sarah's son Edward bears her husband's surname. He used that name all his life despite there never being a formal adoption. When she applied for a Civil War Widow's pension, however, she correctly did not list her eldest son as one of her husband's children. I doubt anyone but the immediate family knew the whole story.
Would Edward's descendants today be shocked or offended to read the details of his birth? As family historians we need to be careful neither to distort records of the time nor to change their meaning. It certainly is a fine line and the readers' feelings should be considered when it is appropriate, but not at the expense of intended meaning or accuracy. After over 150 years have passed, it seems time alone should have defused the issue.
To put the subject into the context of today, in 2005 a record 1.5 million births were recorded in the U.S. to unmarried mothers, and only 24% of them were teenagers. Nearly 1/3 of all births were technically illegitimate. In 2008 unmarried women accounted for 1,726,566 live births, 41% of the total for the year.
Now to return to our original problem: The surname to use for an illegitimate child. In this case as he grew up, the surname the child himself used should be used in the family history. Perhaps he continued to use the first husband's name or began using the name of the man living with his mother, or perhaps another name.
Should her children all be designated illegitimate? The simple answer is, "Yes." We can't impute a father when none is known. A less confrontational handling might be, "Documentation was not found to identify his father." As historians, we need to conscientiously report the facts without being judgmental.
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17 October 2011