Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Some Thoughts (and a little ranting) on Family Myths Or Why Original Records are MANDATORY in Genealogy Research

I have been researching and working on writing the story of another one of my ancestors’ lately (I have grand plans for it too…) and I have been running into a little problem. At first, I could just work around it. But I keep running into this problem in different forms and it is starting to FRUSTRATE me.

What is this little problem? There are just a few pieces of information floating around out there about this ancestor that some may call family stories but I am tempted to call family myths or legends. You know what I mean. I’m sure you have some in your family too. In fact, in my Journey Takers lecture, I make the statement that we all have these stories that have been passed down and passed around in our family. Exciting, dramatic, inspiring stories that EVERYONE in our family knows. The classics are that out ancestors are descended royalty, from Indian princesses, or the classic German one that I have referred to before: the-my-ancestor-was-a-noble-who-fell-in-love-with-a-peasant-girl-and-stowed-away-on-a-ship-to-come-America-and-escape-service-in-the-Prussian-military-story. Yeah, right. I don’t believe it. But I do continue to hear it after many of lectures. (Don’t worry – I’m polite when I do. I don’t just stare the person down and say “that never happened.”)

Not all of the family stories fall into these “classic” categories. For this family I’m researching now, they mostly have to do with important events in history that my ancestor experienced. This is suspicious enough. But even more suspicious is when the events themselves may well have never happened. In other words, the event may be a myth or legend itself. Now, you may be curious by now, but I’m sorry: I’m not going to share the family story here. The reason is simply that in its little niche of history it is a hotly debated item and my point here is not to take a stand on whether this event happened or not (although I have serious doubts).

For historians and genealogists, these family stories and even historical events can be problematic. The confusing thing is there appears to be plenty of evidence that the story is true. After all, as I mentioned before EVERYONE knows about it. It is in EVERY family history. So, it is easy enough to assume that EVERYONE can’t be wrong.

Yes they most certainly can. Why? Well, because everyone got it from the same place and that place was not correct. What often happens is that this story creeps into one branch of the family or into one family history – LONG after the event supposedly happened. From here, it makes it way outward. It might start out innocently enough with a comment like “perhaps Great-Great-Grandpa Harry fought in the Revolutionary War.” After all, he lived at the right time. It’s possible. But pretty soon the comment is “Great-Great-Grandpa Harry fought in the Revolutionary War.” So did lots of other people. That’s not a very exciting story. So maybe someone adds “Great-Great-Grandpa Harry fought in the Revolutionary War and risked his life in many heroic deeds on the battle field.” And since your great aunt heard that story, that’s what she writes down in THE family history that is passed around to ALL the cousins. It has become FACT- and if you attempt to dispute or question this, your relatives will stare at you aghast: How DARE you question Harry’s integrity and bravery. He is the family hero.

Myths creep into history in general, not just family history. You all probably know that much of the Pilgrim story is now disputed, including the fact that the Pilgrims first stepped on Plymouth Rock. (And how sad, because I have been to this rock – which is a disappointment in itself since it’s about as big as my pillow.) What is the problem with the rock story? Now, I am not expert on this, but my understanding is that there is no mention of it until two or three generations later. I believe the first evidence is in a speech by Cotton Mather. So what has happened, people now say, is that Cotton Mather created the story – and it disseminated from there. After a while, it is so removed from the source that nobody knows where the story came from – and nobody cares because EVERYONE knows it is true. Once again, a story has become FACT.

So, how can you avoid this in your family’s history? It’s simple. You MUST use original sources. You must go look in the records to see if Harry really fought in the war. Historians have to go read the accounts that the original Pilgrims wrote themselves to see if they mention this rock. Back to my original problem, my ancestor was supposedly at this amazing event that occurred in 1845. The problem is my ancestor wrote NOTHING, not one word. Nobody at the time wrote about her presence at this event. This story has simply been passed down. The bigger problem is that nobody at the time recorded this event happening at all. Not until a decade later did stories of it begin to pop up in people’s retelling of what happened. LOTS of people saw it happen – but none of them mentioned it in their diaries or none of the newspapers reported it at the time? (And some of the people who reported later that they had seen it happen didn’t even live in the right town…) Fishy, isn’t it?

The moral of the story is not that all family stories are false or that you should ignore all family stories. The moral is that you must not rely on family stories alone. You must see what the records tell you – even if it means popping the beloved family myths.


  1. Don't laugh, but the Indian princess and the stowaway myths were both true when I started to research my family. (Ok, she was a Hawaiian princess, but same idea) Also the one about the ancestor who went to the Gold Rush(they said he went off in a covered wagon named "Leonore" which really turned out to be a ship to San Francisco). All of these turned out to be very fun to research and document. It was the myths that got me started in genealogy, and kept me going. Some of these took me 30 years to document, but if they hadn't been for the fun myths I don't think I would have kept plugging away at it for 30 years.

  2. I'm glad to hear the myths did some good in your family. And I'm glad to hear your documented them! (Your ancestor was really a noble who stowed away to escape the miliary and fell in love with a peasant girl? If this is the case, you've got to contact me by email!)

  3. He was the son of a fourth generation Whaling sea captain in Holland, who stowed away on board a boat loaded with hemp and headed for the ropeworks in Salem, Massachusetts. He ended up marrying the daughter of the Salem ship captain! The 2nd story, which took me 30 years to prove, was the son of a Boston sea captain who was raised in Hawaii, and ended up marrying Queen Lili'uokalani. (well, she was only a princess when they married, but that counts for the princess story!) The sea captain's wife was my 3x great grandmother's sister. Long, long, long story there, but it was true in the end. I can't tell you how many times I told my grandfather he was full of it when he told this story! I wish he was still alive to see how this one turned out. Now I investigate EVERYTHING I hear. Keeps me busy.