Ancestry I’m not so proud of…

Like many multi-generational mormons and former mormons, I have mixed feelings about my ancestry. Because of the obsession with genealogy, I actually have an extensive knowledge about just who my ancestors were.

Hueffenhardt’s post about genealogy got me thinking.

I have many ancestors that I’m proud of. Some who crossed the plains as pioneers. One ancestress/relative was burned at the stake for “reading the bible” – according to my grandfather. I think it’s pretty remarkable that anyone had the courage of their religious beliefs to be willing to die for them. Another relative started the first saloon/bar in the Uintah basin. I think that is also pretty remarkable. Still another set of great grandparents escaped Ukraine in a hay cart and survived many winters farming on their own in northern alberta.

So I have a lot to be proud of.

I also have many ancestors who I’m not so proud of.

This is the part that not many people talk about. I have an ancestor who was a slave holder. I’m not proud of this. In fact, I’m disgusted.

Another relative used to make numerous racist statements that I’ve read – one about dating “black susie” from around the block.

I think I have relatives who participated in the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Descriptions of this massacre turn my stomach.

I can’t defend what these relatives did. They may have been products of their time. In some instances they should have known better.

I am also not sure if I can apologize for their actions. They did what they did. I wasn’t there – I didn’t make those decisions. It is true that I may benefit from their actions.

This is part of the human experience. If you go back far enough, all of us have ancestors who we’re probably not proud of. And ancestors who are worthy of praise.

I will continue to denounce some of their actions.

I will continue to talk about what happened. I don’t think it’s right that those of us in the twenty-first century not admit to the actions of some of our ancestors. Because they did happen.

As a human being, I have actions myself that I’m proud of. And other mistakes that I’m not so proud of. I did things out of ignorance or said things out of ignorance. Humans make mistakes – that’s part of life. We do the best we can with the knowledge we have. How does the cliche go, hindsight is 20/20.

I think I will also continue to be proud of the ancestors who worked so hard. My ancestors who valued education. Others who had the courage of their convictions. The men and women who valued women and who worked for women’s rights.

I’m just not certain if I can be both proud and disgusted by different parts of my ancestry at the same time.

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7 Responses

  1. Hellmut says:

    As a German, I know what you are talking about, Aerin. My grandparents were implicated in evil. Not in a big way but that’s no excuse, is it?

    Recognizing that our ancetors were human beings for good and for evil might help us to make the tough choices. It is important to discard the mothers’ day propaganda and to see ourselves for who we really are.

  2. The Sacred Sister says:

    I agree with Hellmut. I certainly have questionable ancestors, but my husband’s family history was disturbing, to say the least…
    My husband is from the south. I read a geneology book his family had a few years ago. The book had copies of paperwork regarding several slaves his ancesters had owned. The paperwork detailed what they had paid for particular slaves and the book explained why each slave was valued for various work/duties. It was horrible to read about. I do recognize there are important lessons that be passed onto my children.
    We must recognize and remember the sins of the past in the hopes that we can build a better world for our children.
    Great post, thanks for sharing it.

  3. Randy says:

    Hell, my maternal family of origin still teeters on the brink of Ku Klux Klan-dom. I suspect that’s one of the reasons they found Mormonism so attractive back in the 1950s. They’re also into black helicopters and guns and such, and I have nothing to do with them. I wrote an essay a while back on how I think the Church left them–albeit without explicitly denouncing racism and conspiratism (is that a word?)–instead of the other way around. Fortunately, I suppose, I was able to see that Hinckley’s church is not their church. It’s only been in the past few years that I’ve realized how much of the racism and other nonsense is part and parcel of that family’s very identity, so, by rejecting it, I rejected them, in their minds, anyway.

  4. Kullervo says:

    See, I have badass Viking ancestors. I’m down with that. 😉

  5. Belaja says:

    I totally get where you’re coming from having been descended from the only MMM participant who actually got what was coming to him. Dealing with that (and the fact that it was convenient in the church to lay the WHOLE thing on his head) has been an ongoing struggle in coming to terms with my own heritage. But it’s interesting to me that this post has brought up something sort of opposite for me. In my own family, I think we have some work to do in the other direction–that is “ancestors that have been slandered across the generations and who we should ‘redeem.'”

    On one line of my mother’s family we have had sort of a love/hate thing with Mormonism and a split in the family that has kept repeating itself since the days of polygamy. In this particular family, they joined the church in Dublin at a time that the 12 were in Europe denying that the church practiced polygamy and publishing their denials so that they were a matter of public record.

    So this family joined and decided to go to Utah, but couldn’t afford to all go, since there were quite a few of them. They decided to send their oldest two children first (a girl, age 17 and a boy, age 15) and bring the rest of the family in a couple years. They went ahead with this plan and arrived a couple of years later to find that not only was polygamy a fact, but their now 19-year old daughter was married as the second wife of a man the same age as her own father and having already pumped out a baby (she would eventually have 15. FIFTEEN!).

    Of course, they were horrified and essentially left the church right there, though they maintained family ties (she was a very, very beloved daughter and sort of the apple of her father’s eye). The propaganda from the TBM family down the years has been that this part of the family were all lost, darkened, confused, dissolute “heathens.”

    There has been a sort of weird repetition of that split in every generation since of our particular branch of the family–we were the TBMs growing up amongst the “heathen” cousins when we were kids (who we were encouraged to proselytize) and it is repeating itself now with me and some siblings heading out and others staying in.

    But when you look at the history of that part of the family without the propaganda blinders on, they were actually quite amazing people–they pioneered in several other western states, were sort of artists and bohemians for their time, had college educated women BEFORE the turn of the 20th century. They were quite amazing people–adventurous, accomplished and talented. And all we’ve heard is how lost in the mists of darkness they were and (and the current generations of apostate/heathens are) and how it was our job to bring them back to the fold one way or another. Oy. I have one sister in particular who’s made it her mission to “redeem,” if you will, the story of those people.

    Anyhow, this stripping away of the “rose-colored” stories of the past has an interesting effect for me. I feel like my story has been liberated from the huge weight of the church-imposed narrative and I can understand it (and hopefully more of who I am and what truly went into making me) on its own terms–warts and all.

  6. Hellmut says:

    Thanks for sharing this fascinating story, Belaja. We should post it in its own right if that is OK with you.

    I am feeling for your ancestors. Having to find their oldest daughter as a plural wife must have been horrifying. I guess that puts some of our problems in perspective but I think nonetheless that the missionary program remains just as deceptive as it was in the old days.

    One thing that I find fascinating in that context is Mitt Romney’s behavior who cannot pass an opportunity to score a point with a half-truth although he ought to know that he will get caught for it. It’s like a compulsion.

    If one experiences a full time mission and the adulation that members extend to Mormon leaders then it is not surprising to understand that Mitt suffers from the mistaken notion that he could get away with fairy tales.

    Only today I heard a journalist who had reported on Mitt’s father’s presidential campaign. The journalist said that back in those days you needed a key on your typewriter that said: “The Romney campaign corrects the following statements.”

    Unfortunately for Mitt, he is now in a situation where his opponents have an interest in uncovering his inconsistencies. That’s not how Mormon celebrities get usually treated.

  7. Belaja says:

    Thanks, Hellmut. Let me write it up all “purty” (and maybe talk to my sister who knows a lot more about the details) and I can submit it more formally.

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