by Dawne

Family stories – you have to love them. Let’s see a show of hands for how many of you have been told that you are related to someone famous of the same surname … or have Native American ancestry (particularly a Cherokee Indian princess) … or that your ancestor was one of three immigrant brothers and of those brothers, one went north, one went south and one went west … These particular themes are very common, but even if your own family’s oral history doesn’t include one of these, chances are quite good that you have encountered some sort of undocumented family lore.

New genealogists often love these family stories and sometimes accept them as Gospel. In fact, occasionally it is these colorful tales that get a budding genealogist hooked on beginning the hunt for his or her ancestry. Last name of Davis? We must be related to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Mom’s mother was a Hatfield. Bet she was related to the Hatfields of the famous Hatfield-McCoy feud. Great-Great-Grandpa served in the Union Army. He was supposed to have been a body guard for Abraham Lincoln! Unfortunately, family stories can be very difficult to document. And when they can be tracked, often the facts don’t match the tale that has been passed down through the family.

The frustration involved in trying to pin down nebulous stories and match them with facts, coupled with the disappointment when the tale turns out not to be true (you mean Gramps’s great-great uncle wasn’t a jockey in the Kentucky Derby, but a horse thief?) can cause the veteran genealogist to become skeptical of family stories and may lead to the dangerous practice of ignoring them all together. But sometimes they are true! Or, sometimes they at least have an element of truth to them.

A family’s stories that are passed from one generation to another are retold for a reason. Often there’s an element of family pride involved, either they demonstrate pride for the family name in associating it with someone who was famous or great (or infamous!), or they illustrate some desirable trait, such as bravery or perseverance. There’s a story in one of my family lines about a woman left alone on the frontier in her cabin with her children while her husband was away, and defending the home from some potentially dangerous Indians. This tale is recounted about this woman in a published county history. A lecturer on family folklore at a conference once told me that this is an extremely common theme in family oral history that reinforces the concept of the bravery of women on the American frontier. Whether the story was true in my ancestor’s case, I have not determined.

Recently I heard once again a story about a female relative of my Bane family in Washington, Pennsylvania, who married an older, rich business tycoon in the West. She was supposed to have been my great-grandmother’s half-sister, and came back to this poor area of southwestern Pennsylvania in her private railway car to visit, then left money in her will to all of her Bane relatives. She also was supposed to have had a son who went down with the Titanic. I first heard this story years ago and did not follow up at that time. When I heard it again recently, I focused in on the fact that this woman was supposed to have been my great-grandmother’s half-sister and was extremely skeptical. I have researched my great-grandmother’s family fairly thoroughly and was pretty sure that if she had a half-sister, I would have known about it.

It turned out that much of the story was true, but some of the details were not accurate. The woman was not my great-grandmother’s half-sister, but her first cousin – the daughter of a sister of her mother. I had researched this family prior to census schedules being available online and although I knew the surname of the man my great-great-grandmother’s sister had married, I had lost the trail of that branch of the family when it moved west. The woman did marry a railroad vice president (although he was not a very old man as the story indicated; he was about 9 years her senior and younger than 30 when they married), so it is possible that she returned to Washington County in a private railway car. And her son did put his young wife into a lifeboat and go down with the Titanic!

The key is to keep an open mind. Don’t accept a literal interpretation of your family’s oral history to the point that you ignore solid facts that your research uncovers that don’t fit into the legend. But also don’t discount a family story completely just because it seems too grandiose to be true, or when a piece of it proves to be inaccurate or embellished. There may be important clues to your family history in those stories that Grandpa told!