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

Friday, November 21, 2014

Moving Beyond Myths

Some issues just keep making the rounds. I can't even begin to imagine how inexperienced genealogical researchers can know so little about sources and repositories and yet can repeat, verbatim, every one of the genealogical myths. Of course, I have written about this subject before, but since during the past couple of weeks I have heard a reference to a good handful of myths, so I decided it was time to fire up the jets and take on the issues one more time.

Why do people believe myths? Why is it so much easier to believe something such as the three brothers story, than it is to examine the historical facts from reliable sources and determine a more probable course of events? I'm not talking about the complex belief systems such as Greek Mythology, but the just the ordinary false ideas that seem to get passed around as facts. Genealogy is not at all unique in this regard. I would guess that every human activity has its core of myths. It is just amazing to me how the genealogical ones seems to persevere despite the lack of any rational support.

I guess a stranger question is why don't I believe the genealogical myths? No one had to tell me that the descent from an Indian Princess was a myth. But is is true that some myths are so persistent because they either have or once had a basis in fact. Take the burnt courthouse story for example. It is a historical fact that courthouses do burn down. What is not necessarily true is the conclusion drawn from that fact. Not every courthouse fire occasioned the loss of every record in the county and some of the destroyed records had to be reconstructed as rapidly as possible after the fire. What is frustrating is when a researcher substitutes the myth for the reality and uses the myth as an excuse to stop searching. What is even worse than that is when the myth is accepted as reality without a shred of evidence to support that conclusion.

Some myths are not universal. Every family seems to have a story or tradition that defies verification. Some of these stories when proved inaccurate or even false, defy refutation. They persist in face of overwhelming evidence that the claimed event or document is not accurate. I have such a myth in my own family involving a photographs of a remote ancestors.

Here is a screenshot showing the first of the myths:

This image shows the Memories page for John Tanner (b. 1788, d. 1850) in the Family Tree. The arrows show three identical copies of a daguerreotype purportedly showing John Tanner seated on the far left. My daughter Amy and I examined this photo and reported our findings in an extensive analysis published on TheAncestorFiles Blog. By the way, there are five more copies of the same photo attached to the same Memories page in's Family Tree. The analysis boils down to historical facts but the myth persists.

Here are a few historical facts about the daguerrotype process and the life of John Tanner.

1778: John Tanner born in Hopkinton, Washington, Rhode Island.
1837: Louis Daguerre invents the Daguerreotype process in France. At this time John Tanner is 59 years old.
1838: After joining The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, John Tanner moves to Far West, Missouri. John Tanner is now 60 years old. John Tanner is mobbed in Missouri. Here is the account:
The mob had come up to Father Tanner in his wagon, and Captain O'Dell pointed his gun at him and pulled the trigger twice, but it refused to go off. This enraged him, and with a fearful oath, he took hold of the muzzle and struck Elder Tanner over the head with the breech of the gun. This blow would probably have killed him had it not been for his heavy felt hat, the double thickness of which saved his life, but he had a large, ugly gash on his head which bled profusely. "His skull was laid bare to the width of a man's hand" above the temple, and "from the bleeding of his wounds he was besmeared from head to foot," and "the blood ran into his boots" according to various accounts (this incident was mentioned in several affidavits which the Saints wrote up of the wrongs which they had suffered in Missouri, and submitted to government officials. They emphasized Father Tanner's age, that he was an unarmed farmer simply returning home from the mill, and that he was hit over the head for no reason at all). See Troubles in Missouri from the
1839: John Tanner and family reach Illinois after being driven from Missouri.
1841: Albert Sand Southworth opens the first daguerreotype studio in Boston, Massachusetts. John Tanner is now 63 years old.
1841: The Tanners are living in Montrose, Iowa across the river from Nauvoo, Illinois.
1844: John Tanner is called on a mission for the Church to the Eastern States.
1845: John Tanner returns to Nauvoo. He is now 67 years old.
1846: John Tanner and his family begin the Exodus from Nauvoo, ultimately to the Salt Lake Valley where he dies in 1850.

So the real questions are when did daguerreotype studios open in Western Illinois and more importantly, is the man in the proposed daguerreotype about 65 to 67 years old? Here is a link to our conclusions concerning this issue: The Tanner Family Daguerreotype: Conclusion.

Notwithstanding our conclusions, the daguerreotype will continue to proliferate as a photo of John Tanner.

Now to the second photo.

This is another photograph attached to David Shepherd (b. 1760, d. 1832). This is even more interesting since the supposed subject of the photo died almost seven years before photography was invented and the photo is of a child.

Myths are basically irrational, emotional and almost impossible to disprove or eradicate. Good luck if you have one in your family. You might as well enjoy the story and ignore the facts.


  1. I found a similar thing for one of my ancestors that I inadvertently had a part in. I made a blog post about an ancestor and her husband. I could not find a picture of him but I did find a picture of the man who murdered him. It is a long story []. Anyhow, I was on the husband's FamilySearch page because I use the follow feature and saw an image had been uploaded. When I looked at the image it was a copy of the image, same cropping and everything, of the murderer and not the husband. I double checked my blog and to me it seemed perfectly clear that this image was not of the husband. I wonder how many times I will have to clean this up in the future.

    1. It might take you a while. They are still not to the point that you can delete or edit a photo you did not submit yourself.

  2. Excellent points James. In my family, the biggest myth I can think of is that we descended from Pocahontas. I heard that all my life, and that we had American Indian bloodlines. After extensive research over the past 11 years and DNA testing, I have found NO PROOF whatsoever that those myths are true. But, that line of the family did live in Pocahontas County, Virginia. Therein probably lies the root of the myth. If I ever find it to be true, I will apologize to my grandmother and all the others.........when I eventually meet up with them. LOL!

  3. Interesting. I have had some irate people contact me to tell me that Benedict Yuckly was not my ancestor. I think they are right but am at a loss to find the correct ancestor. Yet, on all the trees for Yeakley, this continues to be considered correct. The myth is two brothers came to America, one of the Benedict but once here, there is no mention of the other brother who apparently is my ancestor. I wish I could clean up all the other trees so people will start looking for the other brother instead of leaving it as done. Great post!