Pop quiz

Research Problem 1

Courtesy Groton.org

After tracing your family line as far back as possible, you have run into the inevitable brick wall. You should: (a) persevere in your research and hope for an eventual breakthrough; (b) claim that you are a direct lineal descendant of Alexander the Great or King Arthur, acknowledging that your evidence is open to differing interpretations; or (c) give up and accept your failure as a genealogist.

ANSWER: (a), unless you’re like 27 percent of the amateur genealogists posting family trees on the internet, in which case the correct answer is (b).

Research Problem 2

You’ve discovered that one of your late seventeenth-century New England ancestors was hanged for bestiality. You should: (a) dutifully record the unsavory details of the embarrassing episode in your family history manuscript; (b) acknowledge that your ancestor occasionally “clashed with local authorities,” without providing any details; or (c) simply record the date and place of your ancestor’s death and say nothing about the circumstances.

ANSWER: (a), unless your wealthy great aunt (and self-appointed keeper of the family flame) is still alive and you’re counting on an inheritance from her, in which case the correct answer is (c).

Research Problem 3

Over the course of her colorful life, your great-grandmother was married nine times and had children with at least 15 different men. You should: (a) hire a professional genealogist to begin the mind-numbing task of sorting out all of her legitimate and illegitimate offspring, numerous stepchildren, and hordes of descendants; (b) pray that your daughters didn’t inherit your great-grandmother’s genes; or (c) abandon genealogy and take up gardening.

ANSWER: all of the above. 

Research Problem 4

You suddenly find that, through no fault of your own, the genealogical data files on your computer have reformatted themselves into a font resembling Cyrillic or Martian. You should: (a) devote the next eighteen months to retyping your files; (b) beat on your hard-drive and monitor with a tire iron; or (c) call one of your grandchildren for assistance.

ANSWER: (c) – although (b) will be immeasurably more satisfying.

Research Problem 5

At large family gatherings, your spouse enjoys pulling out the old family genealogy and entertaining everyone present with amusing descriptions of your various ancestors who were horse thieves or military deserters. You should: (a) smile indulgently and make a feeble joke about hoping you didn’t inherit your ancestors’ DNA; (b) cut the “amusing” entries out of the genealogy with scissors when no one is looking; or (c) consult a good divorce lawyer.

ANSWER: (c).

About Michael Grow

Michael Grow, a retired history professor at Ohio University and a longtime NEHGS member, is the author of John Grow of Ipswich, Massachusetts and Some of His Descendants: A Middle-Class Family in Social and Economic Context From the 17th Century to the Present (Amherst, Mass.: Genealogy House, 2020).

32 thoughts on “Pop quiz

  1. “If you can’t get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.” GB Shaw, Immaturity, 1930. I have this quote on the title page of my genealogies along with a graphic of two skeletons shuffling off to Buffalo. I rather enjoy dragging out all the skeletons. Thanks for this little article. I’ll save it. It made me smile this morning. With regard to question 1 on brick walls, I just write up what I know and what the issues are and leave it at that and hope the relative who considers herself the expert in family history actually gets off her fat butt and solves the problem.

  2. Michael,
    I love your ‘wicked’ sense of humor on how to deal with some of our relatives ‘wicked’ revelations!

  3. Re. Problem 2, the unnamed reference to my ancestor, William Potter (hanged in New Haven in 1662 for bestiality) was interesting to see. I have not only documented it fully, but I’ve shared it with family members who are interested in the family history. He was hanged almost exactly 2 years after another ancestor, Mary Barrett Dyer (hanged in Boston).

    When NEHGS researchers unearthed William Potter for our tree, I know that there was some hesitation about how to best introduce the topic, but that there was never a consideration of not fully sharing the information – just how to broach the topic!

    We take the good with the bad in our histories – that’s our role as family historians! Thanks for a fun quiz.

    1. Actually, there probably were several such incidents. Just last week I read a late 1640s court case in Stamford, CT, regarding a trivial legal matter, but my eye caught on the records for the preceding case, bestiality. Of course I had to read it. In this instance, it seems the accused denied, relented, denied, then pleaded guilty. The judge indicated that if he had stuck to a plea, he might have gotten off, but forgiveness can’t be given to a man who doesn’t repent. The report includes details of the hanging — and of how they used a sword to kill the involved sow.

  4. This quiz was great fun. Thanks for the spot of humor in my day. However, I disagree with the answer for Research Problem 4 — although (b) and (c) certainly are valid. You see, I experienced such a computer disaster a few years ago, using my Family Tree Maker program for Mac. I simply clicked “Sync” to Ancestry, then my world turned upside down. Every single Note on my 2,000+ person pages was infected by lines of computer coding interspersed throughout!
    I stared at the garbled mess in shock, considering (a) giving up genealogy altogether, thereby wasting countless hours over years, or (b) starting over.
    I chose (b), created a brand-new tree and went through my people one-by-one, cleaning up the garble for each and, while I was at it, improving the recording of my sources. It was a 2-year project. During the process, I found errors and fixed them. In the end, I’m glad I did it.
    (By the way, no one I’ve talked to, even the Ancestry help line associate, has EVER heard of anyone else having this problem.)

    1. I’ve had this happen to me, but not in my family history. Things like this do happen. When they do, I open my backup drive and overwrite the bad file with the last good file.

  5. I’ve discovered records of ancestors who were bigamists, kidnappers, and bootleggers and relatives who were canonized saints, performers, politicians, and cannibals. Name the category, and you too might find relatives.

    1. A cannibal — excellent! If I write a sequel, I’ll be sure to work in a cannibalism reference.,

  6. # 2. Descendant of William Potter (hanged for bestiality at New Haven, 2 June 1662), reporting in! Yes, I have done option a. I have had discussions with other descendants turn awkward when I point out his details. I have also been in discussions with other descendants about forming a descendant group. — Nat Taylor, Barrington RI.

  7. My favorite great something grandfather was stabbed to death on a hanging day in Thomas County, GA. He got into a bar fight and both men were thrown out. He later accosted the same man on the street and was killed. The killer ran away disguised as a woman.
    The scalawag was different than other family members but maybe not. The others may have been notorious but not written up in the county histories! Who knows?

  8. In regard to question 4, have you never read Dick Eastman’s blog, “It’s the first day of the month, BACK UP YOUR FILES”? Lots of copies, keeps stuff safe. So, when the inevitable crash occurs, I merely copy over from one of my backups.

  9. Have no children nor grandchildren to help me when I have a computer issue. I begin to search the information sites. Hope it works when I need it.

  10. Thanks, Michael. You have just described the last 30 years of my life in a single page. Thanks for your very informative posts. My ancestors were in Ipswich in 1634.

    1. Thank you, Charles — and my apologies if I’ve dredged up 30 years of family-history nightmares. FYI: there are a couple of references to Jonathan Wade in my JOHN GROW book. (And did I see some of his business records in PEM’s Phillips Library?)

  11. One of my 5x great grandfathers was a student at Harvard University in the 1700s and was “rusticated” and expelled for his participation with several other students for keeping a “local woman” in the living quarters. After this transgression, he went on to become a Rev War soldier as well as prominent physician in Pittsfield, MA.

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