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

Monday, September 3, 2012

Don't Believe All That You Read or Watch

Fortunately, almost every family has traditions and stories. Unfortunately, some of those stories and the basis for some of the traditions, may not have been completely or accurately transmitted from generation to generation. Some of those stories and traditions find there way into published family histories and genealogies. My family has several such traditions and stories. One of them even became a general release commercially made motion picture about my Great-great-greatgrandfather, John Tanner. If you would like to see the movie, you can, it is posted online in two parts.

The movie is very moving and is a wonderful example to the family. But is it historically accurate? I don't want to criticize the movie, I like it too much. But, the point is that popularized and contemporary portrayals of our ancestors might not be exactly accurate. Does that really matter? It does if you are a genealogist and need accurate information to extend your family line.

One of the most common problems I encounter is the origin story. Oh, my ancestors came from Poland or Russia or Germany. The challenge is that the story might be true or not, but often I find that the real place of origin was in part of Germany that was previously Poland or Russia or whatever, depending on the political boundaries of the time. Sometimes people are really surprised to find that their ancestors came from Russia when they had always heard they were from Germany or vice versa.

In the movie, Treasure in Heaven, The John Tanner Story, John is represented by an actor who looks to be in his mid-forties. John Tanner was born in Hopkinton, Washington, Rhode Island on 15 August 1778. The events in the movie take place, beginning in 1830 and continue in Kirtland, Ohio in the 1830s. The Kirtland Temple was dedicated in 1836. OK, so what's the problem. John Tanner was 58 years old, very old for the time, when he lived in Kirtland and by the time he lived in Nauvoo, he was ten years older or in his late 60s. Not faulting the movie, but the point is that traditions are not always transmitted accurately.

Another venerable story from our Morgan ancestors was recently researched by my daughter who found that only portions of the story were accurate. Interestingly, both the John Tanner story and the Morgan story are codified in several books, magazine articles and, like I mentioned, even a commercially made motion picture.

Family stories and traditions are a good place to start your genealogical research, but they are a bad place to stop.


  1. A lot of 'family lore' was compiled by poor Family Historians in the 1910s-1930s, not passed down from several earlier generations. Some was also seemingly made up on the spot when someone was being interviewed for one of the published mug-books, or asserted as a matter of political viewpoint. For a published sketch of one distant cousin, whoever was talking to the book compiler could not get the name of his paternal grandfather right, but somehow 'knew' that the paternal-line family was one of the original Jamestown settlers -- more comfortable for a West Virginia family than Delaware origins. No actual connection is to be found.

    For another cousin's 1916-published sketch, the teller got the paternal grandfather and great-grandfather sort of right, but went on to assert paternal-lineage back to Lord Baltimore's original expedition to MD. The raconteur evidently had not seen a list of passengers and crew on the Ark and the Dove, which included no one by this paternal-line surname, and no known ancestor of the family in any event.

    Diligent searches for some antecedents for these stories have failed to find any possible sources.

  2. I haven't run into this too much with my family tree. My brother-in-law's La Grange's are a different story.

    They came to New York (settling in the New Amsterdam area) in the mid-1600s. His ancestor is said to have come to New York with his father and a couple of brothers. Some of the online work and information in books says that he was born in 1625 and died in 1731 at the age of 106. The earliest reference I have found for him in New York is 1666.

    While it is possible that he lived to be 106, I find it unlikely given some other facts about his life. He would have been about 35-40 when he arrived with his father and brothers--those brothers being unmarried, too. He married about 1663. They had their first child in 1665 and their last in 1692. If I'm to accept his birth in 1625, then he fathered his last child at 67 years old. Not that strange today, but how likely in 1690s? Also, his wife was born in 1650. There would have been 25 years between them.

    For me, it doesn't add up. I'm more likely to believe that he was born around 1645-1650 and that a typo was made somewhere. That would make more sense with all the other data. It makes far more sense than a 40 year old man coming over with his father and unmarried brothers and then living another 50-60 years.

    I've had my debates with researchers over the inconsistencies but they are unyielding. I am sure the story is recorded in many places online and in print. But is it really true or how much of it is true?