It has been some time since I wrote about genealogical myths. I even did a webinar on the topic back in 2016.
I continue to see a consistent stream of people who have asked me questions that indicate that they have "bought in" to a genealogical myth or two or three. But rather than rehash the usual list of genealogical myths, such as the Cherokee Princess and the Three Brothers myths, I decided to look at some of the less visible and obvious myths.
Many family traditions have been believed for so long by so many people that they have taken on mythic qualities. Few, if any, of those who tell and retell these traditional stories, have any idea of the origin or the veracity of the narrative, but so many people have told the story and believed the story that it can no longer be doubted as the absolute truth. How and when does a traditional story become a myth?
Traditional stories exist both in the written and oral genres. There are societies around the world who have established cultural support for oral histories. In the United States, transmission of oral histories is haphazard at best. Many traditional stories have been reduced to writing. The genealogical literature is full of instructions and suggestions concerning the preservation of family traditions and stories in particular. From a research standpoint, traditional stories may be key and understanding and discovering an individual's ancestors. But in some cases, traditional stories either block or mislead research. This is especially true when the traditional story has taken on mythic characteristics.
A traditional story becomes a myth when careful research discloses that the basic facts in the story are either unsupported by any contemporary sources or inaccurate when compared to contemporary sources. The traditional story does not need to be an extensive narrative it can merely be the identification of an individual with a particular artifact or event. For example, a family tradition may be that a remote ancestor fought in the American Revolutionary War. When subsequent genealogical research conclusively shows that the ancestor did not participate in the Revolutionary War, when the persistent tradition that the ancestor was a participant continues to be reported and believed, the traditional story has become a myth. By the way, one definition of a myth is a widely held but false belief or idea.
In my own genealogical research experience, I have encountered several extremely persistent myths in my own family lines. One example is the "photograph of John Tanner." This myth concerns and obviously old daguerreotype. Family tradition identifies the image as that of our prominent ancestor, John Tanner who was born in 1778 in Rhode Island and died in Cottonwood, Utah in 1850. I am not going to reproduce an image of the daguerreotype for the simple reason that it is being copied as an actual image of John Tanner despite careful research which shows the actual identity of the individual assumed to be John Tanner. Reproducing the image would simply add to the proliferation of the myth. For a detailed explanation of the historical analysis of the image see the following: "The Tanner Family Daguerreotype: Man at Left — Options." This blog post contains links to a nine-part series analyzing the photograph.
Despite almost heroic efforts to publicize and debunk the mythic origin of the photograph, individuals still continue to attach the photo as an actual image of John Tanner.
Another of the Tanner family myths also revolves around the conversion of John Tanner to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The story has been published in several books and has also been represented in a movie made about the life of John Tanner. There are essentially multiple versions of the story. The most cited version is contained in the following book:
Tanner, Maurice. 1942. Descendants of John Tanner: born August 15,1778, at Hopkintown R.I., died April 15,1850, at South Cottonwood, Salt Lake County, Utah. [Place of publication not identified]: Tanner Family Association.
The account as contained in this particular book has been republished dozens of times in different books and articles. What is interesting, is that at the end of the biography of John Tanner in the book there is the following statement:
This sketch was written by Nathan Tanner, Jr., Son of Nathan Tanner, who was the son of John Tanner, the subject of this sketch.Since there are no citations other than the statement, the facts contained in any "biography" are unsupported. The events purporting to relate to John Tanner's conversion date from 1832. At the time of the events, his son Nathan Tanner would have been approximately 17 years old. Nathan Tanner's son, also named Nathan Tanner Jr., was born in 1845 and was about five years old when John Tanner died. Unfortunately, there is no date associated with the writing of the account printed in the book but Nathan Tanner Jr. died in 1919. If someone has the original manuscript that information has not been disclosed in the book or in a subsequent publication. In short, what appears to be the only and original story was possibly written as long as 87 years after the event. However, it should be noted that Nathan Tanner Sr. died in 1910. But there is no reference in the story that Nathan Tanner Sr. witnessed or participated in the event.
Two of the individuals who could possibly provide additional details about the event have only recorded brief references to being present at the event. No details have been provided.
One of the key factors in creating a mythic tradition is that the basic facts cannot be either proven or disproven. Essentially, we have to take the word of the originator of the story as to the accuracy of the details. Notwithstanding the lack of substantiation, I am certain that there are hundreds perhaps thousands of Tanner descendants that can relate this story and others from memory. The oral recitals of the story often omit many details but also include conclusions that are not contained in the original story.
My purpose in using these two examples is not to cast any doubt or aspersions on the contributions of John Tanner but to illustrate how a historical event can become a myth. In the case of the photograph, there never was any basis in fact for the conclusion that the individual was John Tanner. In the case of the book, many of the incidents are collaborated by contemporary historical sources but those stories which have been passed down through oral history have lost some of the historical context and details.
What part do these traditional stories play? The answer to this is that they are fundamental to creating the connections between the researcher and the ancestor. The researcher can learn from the stories how the life of the ancestor affected all of his or her descendants. The damage comes when the myth competes with the reality as supported by historical records and becomes the reality to the denigration and refusal to accept the historical records.