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

Thursday, October 24, 2013

A Model Research Effort Investigating a Family Tradition

One of the challenges of genealogical research is trying to reconcile family traditions, passed down through stories, with the historical facts uncovered in the process. Sometimes the stories are verified and sometimes not. My daughter Amy posted an excellent example of the process with a conclusion as to the veracity of the story on The Keepapitchinin Blog in a post entitled "Eminent Women: Caroline Blake Hardy."

The story was quite detailed and contained some very uncomplimentary details about the subject's life. Both fortunately and unfortunately, the facts were quite different than the tradition. Neither were very positive, but the tradition, believed for many years, was less flattering than reality.  This is often the case. As stories are passed down, they take on a life of their own and become the "new" reality. The documented history is usually more complicated and, if anything, more mundane than the traditional story.

It has been my position for years, both as an attorney and as a genealogical researcher, to doubt most of what I am told by my clients, the opposing parties and their attorney. The reality usually lies somewhere in between all the different versions of the "facts." Sometimes, it is easier to believe the client and proceed, but that course always has a element of danger. The danger lies in being too believing until all of the facts have been discovered. After years of experience, I got a lot better at detecting unsupported facts. That made my life a lot more difficult because of the number of cases I had to turn down.

My own ancestral family has some pretty well codified stories. It would be easier to believe the stories and let the story control the present. But I cannot do that. Could my opinion be wrong the story be right? The issue here is that the stories seldom have source citations. Some of the conjectures in the stories cannot possibly be true, given even a modicum of factual investigation. In some cases, the entire story is speculation or fabrication and research fails to reveal any relevant facts.

Amy has carefully documented her version of the story. So what actually happened is much more likely closer to her interpretation than the traditional story. I think that most investigations end up in a similar manner, if the researcher is careful, insightful and meticulous.


  1. Thanks for the mention. In the case of this story, there were luckily some very detailed court records that preserved the facts at the time.

  2. The story is very interesting. My husband was told a traditional family story about two brothers who had a big fight halfway across the plains on their way to Salt Lake City from Iowa. They sawed the wagon in half right there on the plains, and parted ways, never to speak again. However, about 10 minutes worth of research by my husband showed that the brothers were in different wagon trains, in different years. So much for the family story.