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

Monday, July 21, 2014

Family Stories -- Helpful or Misleading?

It seems like the old, traditional genealogy myths keep turing up in different forms, time after time, as I talk to people about their genealogy. Proving or disproving a traditional family story can be complicated. This is true not only from the historical perspective but also because disproving the story can lead to bad feelings and in some cases, extreme antagonism. Unfortunately, I am speaking from personal experience. In some cases, even the accumulation of a mountain of facts, cannot dissuade a believer from repeating the story online or disseminating the falsely identified photograph. I have written about this issue before, but like everything else in genealogy, it keeps being thrown in my face from time to time.

I am presently investigating a complicated family story for a friend. I have already found facts that seem to contradict parts of the story, but so far, the core story resists either proof or disproof. In this case, the core story has one of the classic elements of genealogical myth, the three brothers story. However, the facts here have two brothers and a sister. It also involves orphans, name changes and other classic elements of a good family story.

The classic genealogy myth collection usually involves a vaguely identified ancestor who is distinctive in some way but substantiation is missing and of course, there are no sources that can be verified. Here are a few of the traditional themes:

  • The Three Brothers Myth -- Three brothers come to America from somewhere in Europe or elsewhere, one goes north and makes his fortune, one goes south and one goes west and is never heard of again. The variations on this story are rampant, but it usually revolves around the number three. 
  • The Indian Princess Myth -- This is one myth that can sometimes be proved or disproved. I have had some notable experiences helping people prove their connection to Native American ancestors, but never an Indian Princess. I am not sure that there is any documented evidence of the existence of Indian Princesses. I suspect that this story is related to the true history of Pocahontas, who ended up married to an Englishman, John Rolfe.
  • The Name Change -- It is undoubtedly true that many immigrants to the U.S. or North America or elsewhere, changed their names for a variety of reasons. But I hear the story that the ancestor's name was changed by the government or whatever over and over. The U.S. Government did not have the policy of changing names at Ellis Island or elsewhere. I am aware that Native American children who were forcibly enrolled in Boarding Schools had their Indian names changed to Anglicized names. But virtually all of the name changes originated with the immigrant. In my own family's history, the name change occurred before the immigrant left Europe. 
  • Relationship to a famous person -- These types of claims are usually the easiest to dispel. For some reason, people seem to feel more important if they are related to someone important. I have mentioned before a story in my own family, based solely on the same surname, that I was related to Daniel Boone. That story took me all of about an hour to disprove. Despite the ease of disproof, these can be amazing persistent stories.
  • Back to Adam -- No not again. Is it really time to mention this horrible example of lack of historicity again? Oh well, if you believe your pedigree goes back to Adam, there is not a whole lot I can do to help you. 
  • The Ethnic Myth -- This is another myth that is very persistent and sometimes hard to prove or disprove. Most commonly, the myth claims that the family came from some particular place. Since everyone came from somewhere, this is a difficult issue to confront. Most of the time, this myth originates in a lack of accurate information about the location of the family's origin as it existed historically. Usually, this myth takes the form of claiming that the family came from "Germany" at time when Germany did not exist as a country or some other variation on this theme. 
  • My Family has a Coat of Arms or Crest -- This myth is just plain silly. Proving entitlement to a Coat of Arms or Crest is very involved and requires strict documentation. If it makes you feel important to have a Coat of Arms, I suggest you read up on the subject before making any public claims. 
  • The Burned Courthouse -- Well, courthouses, like other buildings, do burn, but the conclusion that there are no family records available subsequent to the burn is more of an excuse than a consequence. The existence of a burned courthouse is an open invitation to do real genealogical research. 
  • Descent from an Identified Group -- In the U.S. this is usually the Mayflower passengers, an ancestor who fought in some war or another type of organization that requires so degree of genealogical proof for admittance. I usually see this when the researcher is certain there is a connection but has one or more missing links that need to be verified. 
Until you have personally confronted a myth that you have disproven and seen the reaction of your family members to this situation, you have no idea how unpopular you can be. There are other myths that have to do with the way genealogy works or whether or not all of genealogy can be done online and such, but these are not really family stories. I suggest that family stories can be a marvelous motivation for people to get involved in genealogy, but they can also short circuit the whole process and prove to be a boat anchor for accurate research. 


  1. Mr. Tanner:

    A GREAT article. It is not only true but so well-written and interesting to read. Thank you.

  2. My Mother is a Bonham and the family story was that they were related to James Butler Bonham of the Alamo. So one year when I visited the Alamo they had geneology research on the major players including James Butler Bonham. He does have Mayflower roots. That started me on my geneology quest. We are a distant cousin but he had no children so not a direct ancester. In this case that family story started a passion for me.