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I about Y

Judy Russell – aka The Legal Genealogist – recently wrote a blog post about the “push-pull questions of family history”. In this post she asks herself why Ida Agnes (Geissler) Oettel stayed in Germany. Many of her siblings emigrated to the United States. So, why did she not?
This blog post made me realize that many of my clients have such ‘why-questions’. Here are a few examples of such questions:

  • “Why did my grandparents leave the Netherlands?”
  • “My grandfather collaborated with the German occupiers during the war. Why did he do this?”
  • “Why did my great-grandmother have three children before she married?”


In many cases I have to tell my clients that answers to questions like this are hard to find. We cannot look into the minds and souls of our ancestors. We do not know what their thoughts were or what they felt. Unless we find documents that express their feelings, that give the reasons for their actions. In those texts we can hear ‘the voice of our ancestors’.

What kind of documents can help us? Historians call these ‘ego-documents’. Those are diaries, personal letters and travel reports. And memoirs are also ego-documents. The Center for the Study of Egodocuments and History refers to the historian Jacques Presser. He defined ego-documents as “writing in which the ‘I’, the writer, is continuously present in the test as the writing and describing subject.”


Let me give you an example from one of my client projects. Christiaan lived in Amsterdam in the 19th century. He was married three times, had a couple of children, and was barely able to support his family. In 1899 he was accused of theft, was found guilty and was sentenced to one year in prison. Christiaan ended up in a psychiatric hospital in Medemblik (north of Amsterdam), where he wrote a letter to the director. Was this part of his therapy? Was it an attempt to convince the director to let him go? The why-question is difficult, again.

The beginning of Christiaan’s letter (Medemblik, 1899)


In his letter Christiaan writes about different stages in his life. He starts with his education: “I studied at the city school for the poor. That is all I can tell. When I was 13 years old, I passed the city school for the poor with honours.”
As a young boy he already had dreams: “I always desired (and still) desire a life as a seaman, but my father needed me for his work. He told me to keep his books and to work with him. That way he blocked my plans. In the end my father agreed and I could do what I wanted.”
Christiaan worked on a ship, where he was bullied and abused by one of the officers, who was “a mean man, too dirty for a person to tell”. The man “asked me several times to come to his hut, but I always refused.” One day Christiaan was sexually assaulted by this officer. When he informed the captain of the ship about the incident, he was beaten up. Christiaan was in hospital for five months and he never worked on a ship again.

Married life

In two paragraphs Christiaan writes about his three marriages. He meets a young woman, “who conned me that she was pregnant of my child.” At the age of 19, Christiaan married this woman. The marriage does not end well: “after 8 months I got divorced because this woman lived as a whore in the city of Hamburg at the Zeedijk […] After a while she had made a fortune with this whore money and she thought she could please me with it, but I had an aversion to this woman”. His second marriage ended in a divorce as well. Both marriages were childless. With his third wife Christiaan had several children, which caused him problems. How could he support his family?

Criminal activities

Life was against Christiaan again and again. That is how he got on the wrong track and tried to earn a living with theft. About the incident, which ultimately led to his arrest and to imprisonment, he writes: “After more than six weeks away from home I thought I had taken my own cart. From the public prosecutor I heard it was my neighbor’s cart. I wanted to sell the cart in the Jodenhouttuinen for the amount of 14 guilders […]. As I did not eat properly in 2.5 days, because I did not have the courage to ask for bread, I wanted to close this deal.”

Zwanenburgwal in Amsterdam, to the right houses at Jodenhouttuinen. (credits: Amsterdam City Archives, document 010186003026)

Assessment of ego-documents

It is difficult to assess the veracity of Christiaan’s life story. If it is true, he had a tough life and a lot of bad luck. We use many different types of records for our genealogical research. We need to assess the information that these sources provide us. How reliable is the source? Who provided the information?

It is no different with ego-documents: we also have to test them. Do the letters or diaries contain facts that we can check in other sources? If more facts turn out to be correct, we can also attach more value to the rest of the text. Yet we must be on our guard: our ancestors did not always speak the truth. Or they twisted reality a bit in their favor. And how good was their memory really?

In the case of Christiaan, we certainly have to pay attention. The doctors at the hospital in Medemblik and later in Bloemendaal established a diagnosis: senile dementia. But then, how reliable is such a diagnosis at the beginning of the 20th century when little was known about the disease?

Final words

As genealogists we often are stuck to the bare facts: something happened, or not. For what reason, we can only guess. And that is what we – as good genealogists – should never do: guess or assume. Better stick to the dry facts, than create juicy but false stories.