It had something to do with a funeral—or so we were told. But within the documents buried away in the Library of Congress lay a much larger story as to why we had not talked to the other side of our family in over 100 years. And it was something I wanted to find out.
My paternal grandfather never really talked about his father. His father (my great-grandfather), named Oliver, moved from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania when he was about fifteen, leaving behind a brother and sister who tried to maintain their farm and their family store during The Great Depression.
But while my great-grandfather’s brother and sister in Harper’s Ferry never had children, there was another brother that was seldom talked about. A brother who left the family and moved out to Ohio. No one knew why this brother left home and what led to the division between him and my grandfather and his other two siblings.
The study of genealogy has been around for generations (no pun intended). And with the growth of the internet, the availability of digital databases, and websites such as Ancestry.com, we have more resources available to research our family histories than ever before, including family secrets.
A 2013 Wall Street Journal article Sue Shellenbarger interviewed Megan Smolenyak, genealogist and author of “Hey, America, Your Roots Are Showing” about the process of unlocking family secrets through genealogy and what it means for us today.
“The black sheep, the skeletons in the closet these days are celebrated, if anything because we have become more open-minded and flexible.”
There are a lot of free resources through the Library of Congress and websites such as Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org help connect users to these archives more easily, users of these sites must dedicate a great deal of time to looking through census records, birth, marriage, and death records, military records, and other databases.
While the process can be time-consuming, it can be emotionally challenging at times too. For some, doing ancestry research will uncover answers as to why there were painful family divisions, separations, and tragic events that were never fully explained to them. And for those who are descendants of populations of people who were enslaved or oppressed, looking through documents of their ancestors takes an emotional toll on them during their research.
There are also feelings of frustration and regret which come from doing genealogical research. For myself, now that all my grandparents are gone, I find myself wishing I had asked them more questions even though many stories they shared omitted details because of the pain which was associated with them. And there is also a feeling of frustration, wishing that more had been written down about the lives of those for whom all we have are just a name with a date of birth and a date of death.
However, there is also an opportunity for emotional healing, family reconciliation, and a chance to be inspired by the perseverance of our loved ones through genealogy research as well.
First, uncovering tragedies our ancestors faced yet seldom if ever acknowledged allows us as their descendants the opportunity to share these stories with our relatives so we can emotionally process it for them, bringing emotional completion even if it happened well before our time.
I also discovered siblings of my great grandparents on both sides who died young from typhoid fever, which was rampant in the late 1880s and early 1990s. Discovering this allowed my cousins and me the opportunity to reflect, discuss, and even lament a pain our great grandparents carried silently—even if we never witnessed or were told about this loss.
Secondly, we can re-ignite our ancestors’ perseverance to help us overcome our own challenges of living through economic instability, social injustice, and a global pandemic, knowing that our family members overcame many similar challenges over a century ago. For me, knowing that my great grandparents survived not only the 1918 flu pandemic, but also The Great Depression, financial insecurity, personal heartbreak, and two world wars, has provided me with a sense of perseverance.
And finally, genealogical research provides an opportunity to connect with family members we have never known, and perhaps go beyond sharing information to find reconciliation that our ancestors never were able to achieve.
Despite my hours upon hours of searching for the reason my great-grandfather and his two siblings had a falling out with their distant brother (which not only led to him, from what I discovered, being written out of their wills but severing their relationship with him for the rest of their lives), I was able to find descendants of another brother through my research, allowing me to connect with this side of the Schilling family we haven’t spoken with for over 100 years. While neither I nor this other side of the family knows what exactly caused the split in our families, we decided it was time to at least put it behind us and if anything—share information to fill in the gaps.
“The love of the family, the love of one person can heal,” writes Maya Angelou. “It heals the scars left by a larger society. A massive, powerful society.”
Even though it can be time-consuming and not all your living relatives will share your interest in it, genealogical research does provide the opportunity to find answers to some of your family questions. But perhaps, more importantly, it provides an opportunity to find relatives you never knew, and the chance to acknowledge, reflect, and finally bring healing and reconciliation to the pain of your shared ancestors.
Additional Genealogy Resources: