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

Monday, February 9, 2015

Folklore, Oral Tradition and Genealogy

Folklore and oral traditions are peculiarly persistent. Many persistent oral traditions have passed into folklore and are maintained as the common memory of a community. The overall category of folklore includes many diverse issues. Much of the time, the origin of the folklore or oral tradition lies in some major event. Here is a list of some of the different ways folklore and oral traditions have been categorized:
  • urban legends
  • myths
  • oral history
  • legends
  • ballads
  • counting out rhymes
  • recipes
  • fairy tales
  • ghost stories
  • fairy tales
  • jokes
Genealogists have a tendency to encounter all of these categories, sometimes without knowing that they exist. Here are some links that discuss the basic concepts of oral traditions and folklore:
In the past, I have written about genealogical myths and even listed some of the more common ones. But what I am writing about here is much less obvious than three brothers who came to America or an Indian princess. The challenge here for genealogists is separating the oral traditions and folklore passed down to you from your ancestors to determine some semblance of real historical fact. In this regard, sources do not necessarily help establish historical reality because the oral tradition and/or folklore may be ingrained in the sources themselves. 

Sometimes, these oral traditions get started from a particularly dramatic or traumatic event in an ancestor's life. On occasion, the oral tradition may arise as a result of a particularly important event that happened at the time your ancestor lived and the ancestor becomes associated with the event through a process of transference, i.e. the ancestor lived at the time of the event therefore the ancestor must have been a participant in the event. This type of situation is particularly prone to occur when participation in the event carries some sort of notoriety. 

I have an example in my own family. One of the more dramatic events associated with the Mormon pioneer movement across the American continent is the tragedy of the Willie and Martin Hand Cart Companies. Essentially, these two pioneer companies were using hand drawn wagons to transport their belongings across the Plains to Utah. Because the left Missouri too late in the year, they were caught in an early snowstorm and many died from various causes. One of the oral traditions handed down to me was that one of my ancestors participated in this unfortunate and tragic company. This oral tradition was tucked away in my memory and surfaced from time to time when I heard about the handcart pioneers. 

The only problem was that the information I received about my ancestor's participation was mostly false. He was not a member of either hand cart company. He did participated in the rescue operation but was not one of the hand cart pioneers. See Pioneer Members of the Rescuers for the name of my Great-great-grandfather, Samuel Linton. 

This is the type of oral tradition that is rather easy to verify. Some traditions are more persistent and defy correction even if the "true" history can be discovered. Again, in my own family, there is one oral tradition about one of my ancestors that apparently originates in one history written by a descendant who was born long after the event occurred. There are nearly contemporaneous accounts that place the ancestor at the the time and place but do not either confirm or deny the later account. 

Some of these stories become so entrenched in a family's collective memory that debunking the story would serve no useful purpose. The oral tradition has become folklore and has a life of its own. Documenting the origin of such stories and "making historical corrections" becomes an almost impossible task. I had such a story related to me recently from a person who had was entirely unacquainted with the origin or even the details of the original story. Some of these stories have become important parts of the lives of the family members and will probably survive as long as the family survives. 

From the standpoint of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we have an excellent example of the power of an oral tradition in our own scriptural accounts contained in the Book of Mormon. The protagonists and antagonists of the account are the Nephites and the Lamanites. Much of the conflict of these two groups is based upon an oral tradition handed down from generation to generation by the Lamanites. For example, see Mosiah 10:12

Whatever the origin of the oral tradition, these types of family stories can pass on for generation. A family fight that originates between two or more family members can persist for generations as the children are taught either by precept or example that they do not associate with certain family members. As I have done family research, I have discovered several of these issues in my own family. In fact, I was confronted with one of these situations in my own family when we were contacted by a distant relative who challenged our account of an incident based on a family feud I had never encountered before. 

It is my impression that the only genealogists who become aware of the fact that an oral tradition exists in their family are those who delve into the history and social context of their family much more intensely than merely recording what they have copied from other members of their family. 

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