Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Thursday, May 3, 2012

What of family tradition?

My Great-grandfather, Henry Martin Tanner, was a polygamist. He had two wives and fathered seventeen children. He lived in a small town on the Little Colorado River which is now called Joseph City, Arizona. I was aware that one of his wives had testified in court in Prescott, but none of the accounts of his life mention a prosecution for unlawful cohabitation.

After the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887, there was pressure from anti-Mormon forces to prosecute any individuals of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who were participating in the institution of plural marriage. Although the practice is commonly referred to as "polygamy" the Church refers to the practice as plural marriage. For the current position of the Church on the subject, please refer to
Polygamy (Plural Marriage).

The common story told in the family about Henry Tanner was that he was never prosecuted for unlawful cohabitation. Since no prosecution had ever been mentioned, I had not investigated this issue at all. However, my daughter, a excellent historian, has found a contemporary journal account of Henry's arrest and an allusion to his prosecution. See The Ancestor Files -- Henry Tanner and the Edmunds-Tucker Act.

Now this post isn't so much about polygamy as it is about the validity of family traditions. Especially when there is some association with a taboo or proscriptive social practice, family traditions may have the tendency to gloss over unpleasant details or ignore such unacceptable incidents entirely. In many instances, explanations to difficult genealogical issues are simply something the family, "doesn't want to talk about." I may have mentioned this before, but I have a distinct memory of my mother saying she was grateful that "we didn't have any polygamy in our family." This was said even though her own grandmother was a polygamous wife and her Great-grandfather was arrested, convicted and jailed for unlawful cohabitation.

I certainly have no negative feelings about my Great-grandfather or anyone else who practiced plural marriage. This is simply a non-issue with me. But I find that the transmission of family traditions is certainly a rather unreliable source for information about family events. The benefit of investigating this type of story is that the truth may be far more interesting than the fiction. 

One of the most common family traditions I have been dealing with recently is the one where an "ancestor" usually the wife of someone back a few generations, is supposed to be an Indian. Not surprisingly, some of these stories turn out to be true. Occasionally, the investigator is trying to prove a relationship to obtain membership in one of the many tribes across the country. The question then is more trying to prove that so-and-so was an Indian so I can get tribal benefits. Unfortunately, this type of inquiry is usually without merit or the interested individuals are unwilling to spend the time and the effort to do a proper investigation that will be accepted by the particular tribe.

In the past few weeks, I have listened to quite a few such family traditions. Most of the stories turned out to be false or badly transmitted, but there were some notable exceptions. In one instance, the story of Indian ancestry proved to be true, despite my initial doubts. Don't believe all that you hear, but use all that you hear to investigate the facts. 

1 comment:

  1. I love your last line - someone should make it into a poster or tee-shirt!

    I had a great-uncle George who was quite the storyteller. I have a letter from him in which he refers to someone's father as "an important professor at Edinburgh University" - EVERYONE in our family was "important" or "famous" when Uncle George told the story. In this case the man was actually a school teacher in the local village but there was a grain of truth there when I investigated it.