I just got a chance to watch the latest episode of Who Do You Think You Are, featuring Blair Underwood. I learned quite a bit about research areas I’ve had no need to investigate. I also saw a great example of why in researching your family scratching the surface is not nearly enough.
What struck me the most was the story of his ancestor Sauney Early, a former slave. The research found that by 1900 Sauney had been institutionalized in a mental hospital. Subsequent research found newspaper articles from the 1870s and 1880s which seemed to show an angry, super-religious nut who kept getting into serious trouble with his neighbors that lead to him being shot several times—once in the face by his own weapon.
If they’d stopped researching there, Mr. Underwood would have been left with a negative impression of his ancestor. While mental illness isn’t anything to be ashamed about—and I’m sure we’ve all got relatives who’ve suffered from it somewhere in our family trees—the newspaper accounts are only one side of the story.
And the story looks very different from another vantage point.
In one newspaper account Sauney reportedly stole a cow from a neighbor and killed it, then argued with the neighbor and tried to shoot him when he came to inquire about the cow. Sauney was shot instead. Paints Sauney in a bad light, hmm?
However, the researchers found a deposition from Sauney’s landlord that stated the neighbor’s cow had trespassed onto Sauney’s land and into his corn. The impression I had was that this wasn’t the first time his neighbor’s cows had done so and the neighbor wasn’t too concerned about the damage his cows were doing. However, to Sauney it was huge. The corn was the means that enabled him to feed and care for his family and the cows were destroying it. His actions seem quite justified now, don’t they?
Another article described another argument—this time with another neighbor—about cutting down timber. This time the neighbor shot Sauney three times. The shooting was deemed self-defense and the neighbor was released from custody. According to a subsequent article, the black community was outraged.
If Sauney was truly an angry, violent, crazy man would his community have supported him and been outraged on his behalf, would his landlord have defended him? Probably not. The story of Sauney Early now looks like that of a man who was trying to take care of his family, raising crops and cutting down firewood, who got into disputes with his neighbors and was vilified in the press—most likely because they were white and he was black.
But Mr. Underwood would never have known this side of the story if the research had stopped with the newspaper articles.
The Sauney Early story showed me very clearly the need to do more than just scratch the surface when researching the story of our family. When we grab the low hanging fruit and move on, we may be revealing only part of the story and distorting our view of that ancestor.
If our goal is to know who we are and where we came from only the full story will do. The genealogical proof standard calls for a “reasonably exhaustive search for records that contain pertinent information.” While you may not require your research to meet professional standards, I’m sure you care about knowing the truth about your ancestors. Digging as deep as you can into the records is the only way to make sure that the full story is revealed.