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

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Fact or Fiction?

This week I was reminded, in working with a patron at the Mesa Family History Center, of the difference between fact and fiction. In telling me about his family, a very sincere researcher related that in his ancestral line there were three brothers in Europe who had come across to America, one went west, one went south and one stayed on the coast. Since this was a passing conversation, I did not have time or the opportunity to question this further but I immediately recognized, what is classically called, "The Three Brothers Myth" from genealogical folklore.

Here are a couple of references to explanations of the myth: Genealogy, The Three Brothers Myth
Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter, There Were Three Brothers And...

Interestingly, years ago, I found exactly the same myth repeated almost verbatim in my own family research. The myth is referred to as fact in the surname book,

Richardson, Arthur M., and Nicholas G. Morgan. The Life and Ministry of John Morgan: For a Wise and Glorious Purpose. [S.l.]: N.G. Morgan, 1965.

Probably the next most common myth. I encounter. is the "Grandmother was an American Indian" story. I have never been able to determine if this is something the researcher is hoping to prove or not. But I regularly get this story related without a shred of evidence. However, I did relate recently about an investigation that proved that the grandmother really was an Indian.  All of the others I have investigated have turned out to be false or unsupported by any evidence.

Another myth, often with a lineage to add credibility, is descent from royalty. One of my 3rd Great-grandmothers was reported to be the illegitimate half-sister of the Queen of England. A minimal amount of research showed that this was not only implausible but impossible. The myth probably arose out of a vague resemblance between my Great-grandmother and Queen Victoria.

Common myths also claim relationship to some prominent person in the past. As I mentioned, one of my family surnames is Morgan. Merely for that reason, there was a often repeated myth that our family was related to Daniel Boone's mother, Sarah Morgan Boone. It took me all of about two hours or so to disprove this story. It was also easy to learn, years ago, that Morgan is one of the most common surnames from Wales. 

Genealogical myths are convenient beliefs when finding out the truth can be very difficult. There are several high profile myths going around the genealogical community just as there are in almost every area of human interest. Unfortunately, myths can become institutionalized and impossible to refute. I was driving up the Pike's Peak road recently and there was a regularly installed highway sign that said "Caution Big Foot Crossing." Some myths will just not die.

Most myths, unlike the one related in the Morgan surname book, are transmitted orally from generation to generation. If one remote ancestor, even a cousin, married an Indian then the idea that there is an Indian in the family line can get entrenched and applied to any number of female ancestors. Refuting the myth can be impossible especially when records are lacking.

All of these examples of myths are persuasive evidence for a thorough genealogical education. Without the perspective of realizing that certain types of claims are common myths, you may accept the stories as true simply because of their antiquity and repetition.

Another more persistent myth is that years of unproductive research indicate a lack of genealogical sources and information. But that is another post for another time.


  1. Good post.

    To avoid such traps, generally I categorically reject all stories/claims/etc. until they have been proven to be true or at least very likely. Until there is substantial evidence that an event occurred, I don't add it to my family tree, nor do I spread the rumor.

    I wish more people would do the same. We need a mantra like, "If you have no evidence, stop talking."

  2. My family does not have a "three brothers" (or sisters) myth. My husband's family makes up for it. Years ago, my father-in-law, now deceased, told me that in his mother's line, six brothers (including my husband's great-grandfather) came from Alabama to Florida after the Civil War. I have yet to determine the number of brothers my husband's great grandfather had. I think note should be made somewhere of these family legends so that they can be investigated and cleared up, but never should they be presented in any genealogy as fact. Unless they happen to prove true, that is. And here, "prove" is the operative word.

  3. So true! My grandfather was born in 1891 and was the youngest of 11 children. These were the "facts" he told me about the Swann family. (1) Three brothers sailed from England, one went West, one stayed up North, and one came South. (2) Swann was ALWAYS spelled with two N's. (3) ANYONE spelling their name with two N's were related to our Swann family. Research has proved all of this as untrue, but I must admit it was a very fascinating story to hear as a child. :-)

  4. My mother's side of the family has the Cherokee Indian Princess story. When I told my mother I could not find any evidence of a Cherokee Ancestor, she became a little angry and told me that her Grandmother told her this and her Grandmother would not lie. Once I witnessed a conversation between my mother and a first cousin about family history, and he stated that he had never heard of Indian Ancestory in the family. Both felt they were right. So, which one is right? As for me, I need proof, but can find no proof.