Are You Archetyping Your Ancestors?

Ancestors aren't archetypes.

Are you assuming too much
about the people in your family tree?
(Image courtesy of Vlado /

If family history is about storytelling, then our ancestors are the characters. Each and every one is a blank, a mystery. Sometimes one small scrap of information forms the basis of my entire understanding of who that ancestor was as a person. My fiction-writer’s mind makes the call: protagonist or antagonist? Hero or villain? Major or minor player?

The trouble is, genealogy ain’t fiction, and while an ancestor might be “a real character” as the saying goes, the truth is that s/he was a real person, with idiosyncrasies, conflicts and quirks. Just like me and you, they lived contradictions and didn’t always stand on their convictions. Their lives were complex, and most likely they did not choose the detail for which they are most remembered.

It’s possible that the typecasting fact is the one thing they most wished would stay buried.

Learn From My Mistakes

In view of this, let me share a few examples of how literary archetypes have colored my view of certain ancestors. (There are many lists of literary archetypes on the web. I’m using Tami Cowden’s with gratitude.)

The Chief — N. W. Heinemann built an empire in Colegrove, PA through hard work and honest dealings. That’s why it threw me for a loop when a rumor surfaced that he had cheated my great-grandmother out of his brother’s share of the fortune. Upon careful examination of the facts, this story does not appear to be true, but something fueled the rumor, suggesting unknowns that may not ever be uncovered.

The SwashbucklerHamilton Cornell spent 40 years making his way west from Troupsburg NY to Anaheim CA. Whether driven by the thrill of adventure or a touch of gold-fever, I have to guess by his three wives that he was a Charmer, as well. A fun character–until you contemplate the seventeen (or so) children he fathered, many of whom predeceased him. At least a few of his surviving kids never knew him at all.

The Matriarch — Sophia Tremaine Loop was a former schoolteacher when she became Dr. A. M. Loop‘s second wife. Her own sons–both of them–went on to become doctors, but her stepson (and my g-g-g-grandfather) William Loop couldn’t even read as an adult. Then again, maybe it’s wrong to accuse her of favoritism. Will had a few run-ins with the law as a young man, so it’s possible he wasn’t an apt pupil.

The Free Spirit — In one census, my g-g-g-grandaunt Irena Smith indicated “Capitalist” as her occupation. Can you imagine how quirky and fun she had to have been to say such a thing?! Never mind that she was an elderly spinster living with (probably) charitable relatives. My impulse to laugh at her occupation glossed over a life that was, at the very least, outside of societal norms, which couldn’t have been easy for her.

The Nurturer — Close birth dates suggest that one or both of Fanny Short Cornell‘s youngest sons were adopted. Perhaps she took in an illegitimate grandchild as her own? She’d already stewarded a large family for many years by then. She also died the same year as her husband, which immediately puts me in the mind of those sadly romantic stories of couples who can’t live without each other. While I’ve found nothing that suggests Fanny wasn’t a devoted wife and mother, I’ve still sketched her whole personality from dates etched into gravestones.

Question for You

Is there a relative you’ve typecast as a hero or villain? I want to hear your stories in the comments!

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8 Replies to “Are You Archetyping Your Ancestors?”

  1. “Their lives were complex. Just like me and you, they lived contradictions and didn’t always stand on their convictions. Their lives were complex, and most likely they did not choose the detail for which they are most remembered.”

    I love these lines. They ring true. I am writing my family’s story and try so hard to remain objective, but failing to do so. Some ancestors are hard to like while others seem to shine like hero’s of their day. But when writing from now on I will remember your lines of wisdom.

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