Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Psychology of Our Ancestors

As a genealogist it is not our job to judge, but rather to remain impartial. Like a reporter. Our ancestors lived in a different time, and usually a different place. Each time period had its own code of conduct, social expectations, and laws. Having said that, sometimes as you are studying a document on your computer it's hard not shout out at the screen, "What were you thinking!??!" In fact if you watched Friday night's episode of Who Do You Think You Are? Reba McEntire, went through that emotion a couple times.

Recently, I was at the Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA) researching my four times great grandfather, James Churchwell Luttrell, who was from Knox County, Tennessee. I was on a limited time frame so I really needed to stay on task and not get tempted by other nuggets of information. Hard to do. When searching through the deed index, I couldn't help but notice deeds listed involving William Luttrell, my five times great grandfather. Many of them were land deeds but the ones that caught my eye were deeds for slaves. It's a sobering dose of reality. I didn't have time to look at these deeds, but plan to on my next research trip to TSLA.

It's hard not to judge William Luttrell. He was born in Virginia in 1760 and died in Knox County, Tennessee in 1813. During this time slavery was an accepted practice. Without having studied in depth his slave owning practices, I can say that on the surface, William was living within the social parameters.  However, I can't help but wonder if he really thought it was okay to own a person, and then treat them like the rest of the farm inventory. I have trouble wrapping my head around it.

As you research you may discover things about your ancestors that do not make you proud, or that you just don't understand. However, there are some things that your ancestors may have done that can't be held up to today's standards (aside from murder.... I don't think that was ever okay). So try not to judge them, instead try to understand their time period and psychological mindset. It will fill out their story and give you a better snapshot of the world they lived in.


  1. Thank you for that, Cinamon, I have run across this in my research and it just makes me sad. But, as you say, social norms were different then and I can only hope that my ancestors were kind and gentile and not the arch-typical slave owners we often hear about. But again we will probably never know.It is sad to read about how the British treated the Irish and Scots, for instance, and don't even start on how Americans treated Native Americans. I sometimes think when I read about these histories that it is amazing I'm here at all.

    1. David, I often think it pretty amazing the world is as populated as it is. Given war, disease, regular illnesses, and accidents it's a wonder we have survived.

  2. In my case, I could not understand why my gg grandfather moved around the USA so much, having children in the different places, before finally just disappearing. I thought well he was just a travelling worker, and loved his family very much. Then I was provided with a book written by his niece who described him as the "bad sheep of the family", and that he killed neighborhood cats as a youth. So this tells me he had an antisocial personality disorder. And the reason for moving so ofteh was he probably skipped town after not paying the rent. Finally, he may have been a suicide in the end, and can't be found due to social stigmas to the family admitting to it. .