Every family has a storyteller or two – an uncle who brings out the same old stories at every family dinner or a great-grandma who shares cherished memories of her childhood with her grandchildren. The best stories, of course, are the ones that are passed down from generation to generation: reverent retellings of an ancestor’s importance in his community, a connection to somebody or something famous, or the mischievous deeds of the ancestral black sheep.
These stories are fun and fascinating and give a family its identity, binding family members across generations, but it has been our experience that accepting these stories as cold, hard fact can be misleading when it comes to genealogy research. Although all family stories usually have their basis in some element of truth, upon closer examination it usually turns out that the true facts of the case have been embellished throughout the years via the telling and retelling of the story from generation to generation. The following three examples illustrate this idea:
The Family Castle
One of our recent clients brought a story to us about a great-grandmother whose father was very wealthy and owned a castle in Victorian England. The story went on to say that grandma had so displeased her father by associating with the Mormons, that he made her and her family live in the furthest rooms in the castle, isolated from the rest of the family, and had left these instructions in his will.
The client was confused by the contrast of the wealth indicated by this story and the records that seemed to show that the only viable match for the father was a working-class laborer. The discrepancy between family story and contemporary records was too great and seemingly could not be validated. Once she brought the case to us, we were able to prove through multiple records that the right father was indeed a shoemaker, or “cordwainer.” It was an original copy of his will, however, that revealed the grains of truth in the family story.
While a cordwainer by trade, the father was respectably well-off and owned a series of four tenement buildings that each contained two sets of “rooms” – one set on the ground floor and one on the top floor. The bottom floor rooms were specifically labeled of more value than the top rooms (and the occupants of those were therefore designated as responsible for keeping the roof in good repair). The father and his wife lived in rooms in building One, and each of the other sets of rooms in each building were handed out to each of his children or grandchildren. The supposedly wronged daughter and her family were also given rooms in building Four, which would have been furthest from her parents but certainly not at all isolated from the whole family, as they all lived side-by-side together. In fact, her rooms were on the ground floor, which would have been the nicest of the group. It’s also important to note that the father’s will contained absolutely no mention of his feelings about his daughter’s new religious beliefs, let alone a specific provision to exclude her because of them.
To say the least, it was interesting to see how the real events had been interpreted and reinterpreted as the story had been passed down through the generations. The best part was that while there was certainly no castle involved, the family had lived in an English city named Newcastle-upon-Tyne!
The Famous Ancestor
Another story theme that commonly runs through every family is a connection to a famous person. Sometimes these are proven true, but many times we find that there was a connection but not one of relationship. One family had “proved” that they were related to George Washington through his great-great-grandparents, Rev. Lawrence Washington and Amphilles Twigden. After carefully researching and documenting each generation in the family tree, it was discovered that only one link was incorrect: the client’s direct ancestor who was a contemporary of George Washington did not marry into the Washington family – but her sister did. This meant that while the client’s direct ancestors were not cousins to George Washington, they would have known his cousins and perhaps the first U.S. President himself as well.
Sometimes, of course, the full details of a story cannot be proven one way or another because no records remain. This seems to be especially true for those skeleton-in-the-closet family stories – not the ones that are told over dinner or to the grandchildren, but the ones that are passed along like gossip with a guilty glance over the shoulder or an eye-roll at the folly of our ancestors.
One client’s family lore included a suggestion that great-grandpa may have been paid off by a wealthy man to marry great-grandma. It was discovered through careful record analysis that the couple was married when great-grandma was already several months pregnant. It was also proved through DNA testing that the baby was not related to great-grandpa, but was actually the biological son of another man who was a prominent innkeeper in the community. These facts certainly lend credence to the story of extra monetary incentive to marry, but whether such a private transaction ever actually took place can never be confirmed.
In my own family, the story goes that great-great-great-grandmother creatively but firmly ensured that her husband would never take on a polygamous wife by inviting the prospective woman to dinner and putting on an elaborate show as the over-worked housewife and then declaring how grateful she would be to have someone new around to do all the work. Whether this actually happened is not recorded in any contemporary document, but certainly great-great-great-grandfather never married a polygamous second wife.
From all of this we can take away the lesson that while family stories are wonderfully entertaining, they are not always 100% accurate. As genealogists looking for factual evidence of our ancestors and their lives, we can use family stories as clues to search out the records that show what actually happened in our family’s history. No matter how complete the records, however, there will always be gaps in our understanding of our ancestors and their lives. Whether the factual truth or a version of the truth, family stories fill in these gaps and help us see our family members as the very real and living people that they were.
If you have a family story that you’ve had passed down from generation to generation, challenge yourself to dig up all the documents that relate to those ancestors in the time period that the story supposedly happened, and see if you can find the “truth” in your story. This may involve looking for local newspapers, wills, and land transactions, paying attention to occupations in census records, and many other things, but it can be so interesting! And then at your next family party, you can set the record straight and bring your documentation to prove it!