Sidebar: Getting down to cases

Sidebar: Getting down to cases

With so many opportunities for error, either accidental or deliberate, every family legend gets distorted in a unique fashion. You have to dig into the facts to learn where on the scale from substantially true to flat-out fictitious your legend lies. Most likely it is somewhere in between. Three cases in the genealogy literature bear this out. 

This sidebar is part of an article originally published in Family Tree Magazine's special issue "Discover Your Roots" in Summer 2014.

¶ In 2013 during the lead up to the 150th Gettysburg anniversary, Marcia Hahn of Frederick, Md. submitted her family heirloom—a Confederate cavalry officer's sword that had belonged to her ancestor—for display in an exhibit. Based on the sword, the family legend was that the ancestor was a horseman and Southern officer. The experts pointed her to military pension records that showed that the ancestor was actually an enlisted infantryman on the Union side. He had probably scavenged the sword as a battlefield memento.

“My quest to discover the story of my Civil War ancestor proved to be a fascinating journey. Along the way I unwittingly refuted almost every element of the story as it had been told for generations,” Hahn told a reporter.

¶ Conversely, when Australian genealogist Lindsay Swadling set out to document an elderly relative's story about an ancestor's role in the colonial history of New South Wales, she found that the basic points of a legend passed down by word of mouth for 160 years were mostly accurate, except for modifications to conceal convict ancestry, common in Australian genealogy. Her investigation did not contradict the legend but flushed out details that yielded a richer understanding of what had happened and why.

"Our culture, unlike many others, places very little trust in oral history.…We are told that family legends are unreliable, as they can in fact be. The lesson I have learned is that such stories should not be discarded without investigation—there may be more than a grain of truth in them,” Swadling concludes in her journal publication.

¶ Most often, an investigation will reveal at least some basis in truth but with many key points distorted, as in genealogist Connie Lenzen’s detailed study of an Idaho settler family. Contrary to three separate accounts published in a 1992 “heritage book” covering a county in Missouri, the George W. Jackson that came to Idaho from Missouri in 1862 did not strike it rich as a gold miner. She found that after several failed mining ventures he left Idaho in 1870 but returned years later to support his family as a butcher and small-time rancher. Several other points referenced in the heritage book—a divorce, a snowbound accident—turned out to be inaccurate when fact-checked against other sources.

"Traditions are one of the oldest sources of family history and one of the least reliable,” cautions Lenzen. She found that the accounts in the heritage books displayed “typical errors and discrepancies — claims to descent from famous people, conflicting and incomplete lists of children, and erroneous citation of birth order.”

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