The good, the bad, and the ugly of family history work

Hall of Fame   •   June 25, 2019

By Allison Peacock

We don’t get to choose our ancestors. This is a fact. We have to take our ancestors as we find them. If we choose to, I believe there is always something to learn from the most negative of circumstances.

On the other hand, there are often delights and treasures to be discovered.

One of the things that sets the Family History Detectives™ team apart from the conventional genealogical or family history publishing company is that we’re focused on the transformational potential of this work. This is not to say that transformation has to be our client’s motivation. It does mean that we dare you not to be moved when you meet your ancestors!

We have seen our share of messy histories, because the other truth about genetic genealogy is this — we will all find traumas in our family tree.

Sure, we all know that this is a part of life. But did you know that it’s a part of your life? Did you know that your ancestors’ traumas may have literally been passed down to you in your DNA?

I learned about this and saw it every day in my former work in integrative family medicine. So it was the first thing I began researching when my client Andrew was preparing to walk 100 miles to a Texas prison to forgive his mother, an infamous Texas murderer. My hope was that doing some focused research on her genealogical history would yield insight into what made her tick. I’ve seen firsthand over and over how simply witnessing what our ancestors went through before we were born, and coming to realize that it had nothing to do with us, can sometimes help with understanding ourselves and our families. So I hoped the research would give him something to think about as he walked.

Behind the scenes of our collaboration with ZCreative Media and motivational speaker Andrew O’Brien on a documentary about family transformation and forgiveness. FHD Media Founder Allison Peacock directed.

Imagine my surprise when I just didn’t see it. I simply could not hone in on what might have formed the basis for her pathological behavior. I’d listened compassionately as he told me of the strain of his abusive childhood and his post-military suicide attempt. I truly wanted to tell him something that would help it all make sense.

And then it hit me — do you know what I did find?

Resilience. Over and over in his family tree.

From his great great grandfather Morris, who at age 6 set off from Slovakia with his older siblings; to his 4th great grandfather John, who left Ireland as a young man; to his great great grandfather Joseph, as a 14 year-old laborer in Cosenzo, Italy…each of these ancestors took a step of faith into the unknown and crossed an ocean on a ship. Each of them thrived in a country where they arrived not knowing the language. And each had many, many children grow up and have families of their own.


Suddenly the personality of a man that could walk more than 80 miles, much of it on an ankle that looked like this, made so much sense to me. This is one kind of delightful surprise that makes some of the more unpleasant discoveries in historical research all worth it.

At the end of a long day walking 20 miles in the Texas heat motivational speaker and forgiveness activist Andrew O’Brien looks out over the beautiful scenery of Stillhouse Hollow Lake. Credit: Jonathan Williams for ZCreative Media/Family History Detectives™

I’m currently writing about one of the more unpleasant type of discoveries in another “Good, Bad & Ugly” Hall of Fame blog post coming next week about Bob The Criminal. 

Yet there is another kind of surprise that many a die hard genealogist finds, too. And that is that your family is connected to something fun, or even important in history.

I discovered just such a story early in my near obsessive research on my mother’s family during a valiant attempt to forget the fact that my life was crumbling down around me about 15 years ago. (Late night hours of research and discovery are great medicine!)

While researching the corporate history of J. L. Williams & Sons, an Arkansas saw mill owned by my great grandfather and his father, I discovered that they milled the floors for President Harry Truman’s massive renovation of the White House in 1952. A behind the scenes glimpse is illustrated in this post’s featured photo above.

J.L. and his son, my maternal great grandfather are dear to my heart even though I never met either one them. Both died tragically and too young in dangerous industrial accidents around the mill. My father’s family was heavily involved in timber as well. I sometimes like to think that this begot my need to be in the woods on a regular basis.

The finished flooring in the Blue Room at the White House, Post-Renovation, July 15, 1952, left; Daughter-in-law of lumber mill owner J.L. Williams at the mill with her one year old daughter, my grandmother in 1916, right.

That said, finding out that some of the wood from trees cared for and grown by my family ended up in the White House was an exciting discovery. It’s only now, more than a decade later that I had the time to go looking for images.

The cherished image on the right is one I’ve adored for years. In it, my grandmother and her mother are sitting casually on a log at the mill. Mommie, as my great grandmother was known, always dressed elegantly. And I’ve been assured by my aunt that she never wore pants a single day in her life!

It boggles the imagination to wonder if the tree she was sitting on might have ended up on the floor of the White House, doesn’t it?

Those who know me understand I had to know.

Alas, this photo pre-dated the beautiful floors by about 40 years. A good researcher looks for facts – like the fact that my grandmother was only a year old in this photo.

Oh, well, it still makes a nice blog photo collage, right?

Primary Post Photo: Carpenters lay the quartered white oak flooring in a herringbone pattern in the State Dining Room on January 23, 1952. A massive renovation by President Harry Truman changed the White House after Depression Era neglect left it crumbling.  Thousands of feet of flooring for the project were shipped by  J. L. Williams & Sons of Sheridan, Arkansas, a mill owned by the author’s ancestors. Credit: Abbie Rowe for National Park Service.