[APG Public List] Ethics and etiquette question about contacting descendants of possible mutual ancestor

Linda Johnson lindajohnsongenealogy at yahoo.com
Wed May 26 17:38:30 MDT 2010

While tracing one of my ancestral lines, I've identified someone who seems very likely to be "the black sheep in the family" from a few generations past (a traveling man whose child was born considerably less than nine months after a "shotgun wedding" and who disappeared, abandoning wife and child, shortly thereafter--all this in the late 1800s). I have enough information to make a plausible case but not enough to "prove" that the target suspect is, in fact, my ancestor. At this point I've exhausted nearly all possible sources and believe the most likely--although slim--prospect for obtaining further information would be to contact descendants of the suspect's siblings by postal mail. (I'm assuming they are not Internet genealogists and haven't seen the queries I've posted to surname and locality boards and lists.) I've found contact information for some of them but wonder if it's proper to write to them. The APG "Code of Ethics" and the BCG "Code of
 Ethics and Conduct" don't address my particular concern, while the NGS "Guidelines for Sharing Information with Others" aren't as specific as I'd like in the statement that "responsible family historians consistently . . . are sensitive to the hurt that criminal, immoral, bizarre or irresponsible behavior may bring to family members."

The suspected ancestor died more than 50 years ago. He was married either two times (if he's not my ancestor) or three times (if he is mine). Trying to put myself in the shoes of his siblings' descendants, I realize I would be suspicious of a stranger who contacted me for information about a deceased family member if I was not a genealogist. And, depending on my age and background, I might well be offended by the suggestion, no matter how tactfully phrased, that one of my collateral kin possibly had and abandoned a family I'd never known about. On the other hand, it's possible that the suspected ancestor's siblings did know about the marriage and might have handed down letters, photographs, or family lore concerning it. With luck, the descendants might even be curious about it.

So, does being sensitive to the feelings of family members preclude me from contacting them? (In years past, before I'd read enough to know this was an issue I should consider, I wrote to relatives of other ancestors with predictably mixed results, ranging from no response to mutual collaboration. Those who replied were uniformly cordial, but of course I have no way of knowing how my inquiries affected those who didn't respond.)

If it is acceptable to write, does anyone have suggestions for tactfully broaching the topic of the possible third marriage and asking for any information that might help me prove or disprove the case? My inclination, if I write, is to emphasize that I'm trying to determine whether or not their ancestor is also mine, explain briefly why I think he might be, and ask for any information that could help prove *or* disprove the relationship.

Thanks very much for your help with any aspect of my dilemma.

Linda Johnson


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