Mean ancestors and what to say about them

April 12, 2012

What should you say about the mean ancestors you find while researching your family? That’s a good question. I found one reference on where a researcher listed her ancestor as “a drunk and a womanizer.” The article went on to tell what a cheat and unsavory person this man was. This woman was just being honest about the stories she’d been told about certain family members. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Public records and family bibles

While you’re not defaming an ancestor’s character by putting their temper or other bad deeds out in the open, you’re also not doing their descendents any favors by bringing up the past. My grandmother always told me people did the same things a century ago or more that are done in the time we now live in. There just wasn’t a way to network it in the days before phones and the internet. People also kept information more to themselves instead of flaunting any wrongdoing they were up to. In other words, no family is perfect. Mean ancestors are out there and chances are that someone from your generation will someday be referred to as “the mean one in the family.”

Personally, I’ve found the stories about my mean ancestors to be an asset in my research. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” certainly appears to relate to the temperament of my Taylor line. It also proves entertaining to swap stories with descendents I run across on the Taylor line of my family.

I’ve also found that temperament does seem to run through the bloodline. It doesn’t matter whether these relatives were raised around each other or thousands of miles apart. A very serious anger issue was present in all of them, regardless of where they were raised. I believe there’s something handed down in our DNA, in much the same manner as memory genes are passed from generation to generation.

I’ve tip-toed around the topic of mean ancestors since I was a preteen. My grandmother was well into her eighties when I was growing up and she had lots of tales of her husbands side of the family. They were the Taylor line who settled first in Newberry County, SC then moved upstate into Pickens County. Half of them took off for Texas during the latter part of the 1800’s.

I always pictured my great great grandfather as the “boogeyman.” The story of my great great grandfather, John Robert Taylor, tying his wife to the bed was the first family story my grandma Taylor ever told me. The family is probably lucky he took off to parts unknown after the Civil War.

At first I thought she was over emphasizing a slight temper problem suffered by most members of the family. She told of her father in law who would chase after people he didn’t like with his rifle. Even my granddaddy was accused of doing unmentionable things to newborn puppies involving burlap sacks and the nearby Seneca River. Grandma told me of one occasion when he placed a handful of rocks in a bag and watched as she jumped into the river after it. Granddaddy had tricked her into believing the bag was full of puppies. He did this on more than one occasion. Grandma always jumped in after the bag, too terrified to leave it to chance that no puppies were being drowned.

I decided to ask mama about her thoughts on granddaddy and his temper. Part of me always found it hard to believe this sweet old man I sat and talked to for hours was the devil incarnate. Mama told me granddaddy would beat a mule into a ditch just to have the pleasure of beating it back out. She also told me when she was a young girl, if she missed getting a whipping one day, she could expect two the next.

Mama had a mean streak at times. It didn’t bother me too much since I was always able to outrun her when I got into trouble.

As I grew older, I was accused of having that famous “Taylor Temper.” My family always made it sound more like a deadly affliction than a character flaw. Personally, I’d like to clear the record by saying I don’t have a temper. I’m just bullheaded. All right, I do have a temper when I get upset. I’ll admit if anyone harms an animal in my presence, there’s a good chance I’ll kill that person. Or at least end up in jail.

My daughter Laura is also a terror when crossed. I’ve only seen her temper on a couple of occasions since she grew up. She reminds me of the Tasmanian Devil cartoons on televisions where the little devil spins in circles. I get an urge to vacant the building whenever she gets really mad at something.

That makes five generations who display some form of the “Taylor Temper.” From what I’ve learned through my research, this phenomenon of mean ancestors is also occurring on the lines who moved out of state.

I really hated to bring up the subject of mean ancestors at the beginning of my genealogical research. Now I use it as an ice breaker. My first question is usually “who was your meanest ancestor?”

Several years ago I had the pleasure of speaking to one of the Texas Taylor descendents and learned the men in that line also had a fondness for chasing people they didn’t like with rifles. Sometimes those being chased were family members.

Even the women in that line had a bad reputation. My great great great aunt Julie Taylor settled somewhere around Mississippi after leaving upstate S.C. I emailed one of her descendents about a year ago and quickly received an answer. The descendent remembered Julie from when she was a young girl. She told me Julie was so mean, her entire family was afraid of her.

I’ve searched for John Robert Taylor for more than 35 years. He wins the prize as my meanest ancestor and is one of the very few I haven’t found. He was born in Pickens County, S.C. around 1838. He disappeared and reappeared a few times over the years. I believe he was a wanderer, as he joined the confederate army in Virginia instead of S.C. I’m convinced he changed his name and started a new life, possibly in Rabun County, Georgia.

The first stories grandma told included the information he ran off with another woman after coming back from the war to find his wife had remarried. That’s what happens when the army lists a soldier as dead when they’re still alive. I imagine that happened a lot during the Civil War years. I have it on good authority that some of Robert’s nephews visited him there during the 1880’s.

There’s also a family tale of a dentist in that area named Taylor who enjoyed causing pain to his patients. Hmmm…Or Marion County, Florida, as the family Bible, states he died there in the summer of 1869. It gets confusing on who to believe and where to continue my search for him.

I believe there’s an entire line of Taylor relatives out there where the men are tall and slim, with dark hair and blue eyes. They’re also meaner than the devil. I’m just not sure where Robert eventually settled after leaving S.C. or who his descendants might be.

The elusive Mr. Taylor has kept my interest in genealogy alive for more than 35 years now.

My advice to those of you who are unsure of how much to divulge about a mean ancestor is this: if you won’t be disowned by your family, tell the story. It makes us all more human to admit our faults. In this case, it may also help find leads to ancestors on the same lines you’re researching.

Just keep in mind how YOU may be described for future generations.


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