Everyone knows the story of Romeo and Juliet, star-crossed lovers immortalized by Shakespeare, separated by family feuds. Most of you have also heard of the Hatfields and the McCoys, Appalachian clans who took potshots at each other.
Family feuds have played a part in history. And sadly, many of us know of families where the feuds were internal. We are aware of siblings who no longer speak to each other. I’ve heard from readers who’ve told me of newly discovered relatives, entire branches of the family, who refused to communicate because the reader came from the “wrong” part of the family.
So what can be so serious that families split apart? Causes can be jealousy, religion, politics, and economic prosperity among others. Sometimes parents contribute to the problems by blatantly favoring one child over another. Others play their children against each other. Sometimes a split occurs when a newly married husband or wife is abused by the family.
Quite often feuds occur when a parent dies. People have come close to blows over who gets Grandmother’s pearls – they were promised to me! When there’s no will, sometimes one of the children just takes everything, leaving others with pure hatred and anger in their wake.
While much of this may sound petty I assure you it runs in all families and it is not unusual. Sadly, parents who have split from their siblings often pass their dislike to their children. This is how generational feuds can exist for hundreds of years.
So what’s a genealogist to do? Prejudices are tricky at best. All you can do is communicate but not in person, not on the telephone, not by e-mail. If at all possible communicate through a short letter or note. I advise explaining who you are, that you aware of a rift in the family but you have no part in that, you want to learn about the family’s roots, education, health issues, whatever is most important to you and that you are sorry and saddened that you didn’t have the privilege of knowing all your family while growing up. Give all the ways the person can reach you, mail it, and be patient. Will it work? Sometimes. If there’s no reply the door has been slammed shut, locked, and the guard dogs placed on alert.
I’ve had to navigate some of these dangerous waters myself and I’ve found most younger generations aren’t interested in decades-long feuds. Older people sometimes cling to their prejudices. This is a broad statement and not necessarily always the case.
When you’re facing hostility, remain polite even if you get a drop dead note back and an invitation to a duel. The door may open in the future. There’s not much you can do to force someone to talk to with you, give you information, or share what they know about the family. It’s not a happy situation but it happens more often than we like to admit.
Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft. Nancy holds an MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. Reader emails are welcome at email@example.com.