A code of ethics

Happ naturalization formDisclaimer: If you are a member of the Happ family of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, please read no further.

I think I’ve done something bad. I may never be invited to another Thanksgiving dinner. I’ll never be allowed to see my family again.

I think I just discovered that my family has ties to New York City.

Now before you close your browser window and write me off as being too dramatic, allow me to give you some background on my family. My mom’s family, the Happs, are very passionate people, and if there is one thing that we Happs are passionate about, it’s who we are and where we come from. And that “where” is southeast Pennsylvania. As far as the Happs are concerned, the center of the universe is Doylestown, Pennsylvania, the best (and worst) professional sports teams are the Eagles and Phillies, hoagies are a gift from God, Yuengling should available at all family functions, and when we say “the City,” we mean Philadelphia.

There is also one other minute ideology that most of the Happ family subscribes to: a severe dislike for New York City and everything that goes with it – the people, the overall “vibe,” and especially the sports teams. This is why, when I learned that the Happ family immigrant ancestor, Heinrich Happ, not only possibly arrived and was naturalized but also lived in New York City for a few years, I had a bit of an identity crisis. I had always been told that Heinrich left Bavaria and came to Philadelphia, where he lived, married, and eventually moved to Doylestown; the Happ family has been there ever since. But this new piece of information, the possibility that Heinrich came into New York rather than Philadelphia, is a bit of a game changer. I have put in a request to receive Heinrich’s naturalization record from New York City. On the one hand, I am hoping that I have found the wrong Heinrich Happ and that my family’s Heinrich actually did come into the United States via Philadelphia. On the other hand, from a genealogist’s perspective, I really hope that this is the correct Heinrich.

So here is the $100,000 question: do I tell my family? Well, the answer is, of course I am going to tell my family. New York City was a completely different place when Heinrich arrived in the 1880s (after all, those despicable Mets didn’t start “playing” baseball until the 1960s), and although my family does not like New York City, they are always open to learning more about the Happ family history.

But this got me thinking – is there a “code of ethics” to genealogy? Sure, finding out that the Happs have a connection to New York City is not exactly the biggest bombshell in the world, but what if I were to uncover something a bit more scandalous or even disturbing about one of my ancestors? What if I discover some piece of information that contradicts what my family has always known (or thought) about our ancestry? Or are there secrets that were made, and kept, by past generations meant to be kept in the past?

I suppose there really isn’t one general answer to these questions. Every family is different, and every piece of information discovered about an ancestor may have a different effect on family members. Personally, for now, I am going to go on a case-by-case basis when it comes to learning new information about my ancestry. As I had mentioned earlier, I am going to tell my family about this sticky New York City situation. But to err on the side of caution, I think I’m going to wait until I’m actually sitting at the Thanksgiving dinner table to tell them the bad news.

Laura Brown

About Laura Brown

Laura earned a B.A. in History from Boston University, where she focused her studies on 20th century American cultural and military history. Originally from Stockton, New Jersey, Laura completed internships with Historic Newton and Antiques Roadshow before joining the NEHGS staff.View all posts by Laura Brown