One of the first lessons I learned in genealogy was to count on surprises, to "expect the unexpected." Life is all about the unexpected — the good, the bad and the crazy. I have found many unexpected bits of information in my own research, such as the following examples:
Shortly after my mom's death in 1997, I was interviewing one of her childhood friends. At the end of the interview, I was presented with a scrapbook she had kept on her friendship with my mother over the years. It included cards, photos, news articles and much more.
When I was researching the life of a stepfather, I uncovered the fact that at one time, he had been a member of the New Jersey Mafia and was forced to leave the state when a contract was placed on his life. One clue led to another, and I finally found family connections in New Jersey.
I had been told of a family rift over the "stealing" of land and water rights during the 1920s. After investigation, I found the land was lost due to taxes not being paid. Another family member bought the land for the cost of the taxes.
In a diary of a relative, I found accounts of abuse and deep sorrow that were never discussed openly or known by anyone other than in the lines of the journal.
Managing the unexpected. When you find the unexpected, it may take some getting used to. The unexpected usually happens when we move beyond the dates and explore court and land records, newspaper clippings, journals, letters and other more personal records.
An article published in Family Tree Magazine by Carolyn Campbell reminds us how the unexpected aspects of our family members' lives came to be little-known facts in the first place. In the article, Campbell interviews genealogist Joyce Parsons for her perspective.
"These days, when news travels at Internet speed, it's hard to imagine someone not knowing about a close family member's marriage, childbirth or major life event, such as serving a prison term or suffering a serious accident. Remember, Parsons says, that in past generations, family members lived far apart and were unaware of day-to-day happenings miles away. And personal lives were more private than in today's wide-open, anything-goes world," the article states.
"Whatever news was passed on to the rest of the family went through a 'public relations' clean-up to make it sound better," Parsons said.
The basics of handling the unexpected are simple: Sometimes the information will be used to help you in your research or to tell a story, but sometimes it may be best kept a secret. Be respectful of the living and their wishes, especially if the information is sensitive.
In my own case, I can only think of one unexpected piece of information that I chose to keep secret. It had no value to the living or the dead, to genealogy or a good story.
So enjoy your research and the unexpected information that will turn up along the way!
Editor's note: The original version of this story posted on Jan. 11, 2014, failed to properly attribute all source materials, which violates our editorial policies. The story was revised on March 17, 2014, and attribution to original sources were added.
Barry J. Ewell is author of "Family Treasures: 15 Lessons, Tips, and Tricks for Discovering your Family History," and founder of MyGenShare.com, an online educational website for genealogy and family history.