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

Kate Foote kate at comm1net.net
Wed May 26 18:16:08 MDT 2010


You indicate that the suspected ancestor was married 2-3 times, but you 
didn't mention whether there was any issue from these marriages other than 
the one you are reasearching? Is it just that you don't know yet? Contacting 
siblings or, at this stage, descendents of siblings can be very different 
from contacting direct descendents, especially if any are alive and may or 
may not have a sibling they were unaware of.

I believe I would start with a very basic inquiry, i.e.: "I am researching 
the Smith surname and wonder if you would be interested in discussing a 
possible relationship?" I would not jump right in and say you think you have 
a connection with a relative who abandoned his wife and child. If the 
contact person sends a positive reply you can then say who you have as an 
ancestor, give names, places, and dates, and gently allow them to draw the 
conclusion themselves; or you can, on the second contact, descretely say 
that the man you are researching may have had a wife and child that they did 
not know about. You can judge the reactions and decide if you should, or 
can, proceed from there.

These situations are becoming less of a scandal than they were even 
twenty-five years ago, and this information is important to you, so I think 
you should go for it. As long as you remain sensitive and respectful I 
believe you would be within our respective codes of ethics.


----- Original Message ----- 
From: Linda Johnson
To: apgpubliclist at apgen.org
Sent: Wednesday, May 26, 2010 6:38 PM
Subject: [APG Public List] Ethics and etiquette question about 
contactingdescendants of possible mutual ancestor

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 

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

Linda Johnson

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