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

Thursday, August 22, 2013

More Amazing Genealogical Myths

With some prompting from a comment, I realized I had just gotten started venturing into the amazing world of incomprehensible genealogical myths. So here are some more myths to add to the list.

Genealogical Myth No. 8
The Three Brothers Myth

This is one of my favorite myths because I found it repeated in research on my own Morgan family line. The myth most simply stated is as follows:
Three brothers came to America from a another country, one went north, one went south, one went west and was never heard of again. 
The variations on this myth fit into the truly amazing category. This is one genealogical myth that really may go back to Greek Mythology. Here are some links to the three brothers variations:

I thought three examples was enough.

Genealogical Myth No. 9
The Indian Princess Myth

I guess the one thing I can't understand about this myth is why was the Indian always a princess? Even a very cursory study of any of the Native American tribes will reveal that the concept of a "princess" of the classic European fairy tale type is entirely missing. This is one of the harder myths to put to rest. Out here in the western part of the United States, it is not uncommon for people to come into the Mesa FamilySearch Library trying to prove a connection with one or the other of the Indian tribes for the purpose of claiming reservation status and get paid by the tribe. My wife recently put one of these attempts to rest by asking some pertinent questions where a pedigree didn't add up.

Genealogical Myth No. 10
The Family Crest Myth

I don't know how I missed this one on the first go around. One of the Tanner surname books has this really ugly Coat of Arms which I couldn't imagine claiming. Heraldry and Coats of Arms are a complex and very individual oriented specialty. Historically families did not have a Coat of Arms, it was entirely an individual thing. If you are really interested, start with the Wikipedia article on English heraldry. Historically, selling Coats of Arms and designing Coats of Arms for Americans was and is a big business but it has nothing to do with genealogy.

Genealogical Myth No. 11
The courthouse burned and all the records were lost.

OK, so the burnt courthouse is not really a myth so much as the part about all the records being lost is the myth. This is really a copout and an excuse more that just a myth. There are a multitude of ways to research around a burned courthouse. I suggest you start with the FamilySearch Research Wiki article on Burned Counties Research.

Genealogical Myth No. 12
The Ellis Island Name Change Myth

There is no doubt that immigrants often changed their names even before they emigrated to a new country, but the idea that the United States Government systematically changed immigrants' names is simply false. Sometimes the immigrant simply translated the name from the original version into English. Sometimes the immigrant changed the name to make it easier to say or spell. The reasons for the name changes are complex, but don't blame the government. There are a huge number of online articles on this subject, just Google "Ellis Island name change" and you will see what I mean.

Genealogical Myth No. 13
You can find you family history online

Well, to some extent this is true. But the myth is that you can simply push a button and up comes your family history. This is likely one reason why Family History Centers are now going through a name change to FamilySearch Centers.

Genealogical Myth No. 14
Famous Person Connection Myth

This is another of the myths that turned up in my own family research. This seemed to happen most with the Morgan family, perhaps because the name was exceedingly common. My own family had the myth that we were related to Daniel Boone simply because his mother's maiden name was Morgan. It took me all of about an hour to disprove this myth in my own family. Some myths are harder to dispel and occasionally it turns out we really are related to someone famous.

I guess I ran out of myths again. I will probably think of a few more, but the danger is that by repeating the myths, as myths, they get started all over again.


  1. Myth 4 (all resources for research are on-line) from the previous post and Myth 13 (all compiled research is on-line) in the current post seem very similar.
    Some myths that could be added:
    * Indexes are sufficient, so there is no need to look at the full record. (That's any easy one to dis-prove).
    * Finding records for [some foreign country, fill-in as applicable] is impossible, so the immigrant ancestor is as far back as you need to go. FamilySearch has lots of non-US records and Cyndi's list can help find resources for many countries and even specific ethnic groups.
    * Learning another language to look at original records is too hard, so it's ok to depend on someone else's indexing, transcription and/or translation efforts. This one may not be a complete myth, but every researcher can bring insights from their knowledge of the family to the record that the indexer didn't have.
    * Ethnicity and nationality and citizenship are always interpreted the same way. Censuses include this information but the answers depend on how the question was asked and historical changes previous to the census year and also the attitudes of the informant. Establish the right region from ALL the evidence.
    * A rare surname in the U.S. is also rare in the "old country", so every matching name is the right person or related.
    (My research with families that immigrated in the early 1900's is evident).

  2. How about this one James?

    "There's only one truth and so collaboration on a single, global family-tree will work?"

    There are many ills resulting from this notion. Yes, there is one truth but this will be inaccessible in the majority of circumstances. All we have is evidence for a finite number of discrete and separated events.

    The interpretation of the evidence is far from universal - even in sourced trees where some real work has been performed.

    1. Exactly. That is why we need to come to an understanding of genealogical standards so that we can at least understand what we are talking about. This is why I keep referring to the issue of the creation of a genealogical metadata, a system that can be created to talk about "genealogy" without resorting using the terminology of genealogy itself.