Focusing on Those Legends, Lore, and Lies in Genealogy and Our Family Histories
As lovers of genealogy and family history from time to time we all encounter and contend with the legends, stories, and lore passed down and around in our families. Some of these stories swirl and churn in our memories for decades. Some we have heard since our youth. Others are newer stories that often begin with the delightful words “Did I ever tell you…?”
I’d like to begin by saying that the vast majority of these stories come to us as oral history. Some of these stories come to us directly from the person who experienced them, but as we delve farther back in time and farther afield in our family trees we begin to get these stories second or third-hand. Some are from longer ago than that and have become more the stuff of legend and lore than an actual retelling of an actual event.
As youngsters many of us participated in the party game of ‘Telephone’. It’s the game where everyone sits in a circle with one person beginning the game by whispering a sentence into the ear of the person next to them. Each person in turn repeating the sentence with the end of the game being when the original ‘story teller’ repeats what is finally said to them. Rarely, if ever, is the end product accurate and at times it is hilariously different. All in the space of just a couple of minutes and all with the same people in the same room ready to listen as closely as they can.
In the January 8, 2009 edition of Scientific American magazine there is an article titled “Why Science Tells Us Not to Rely on Eyewitness Accounts”. This article contains some fascinating statistics on the unreliability of eyewitness accounts in courts of law, but at the same time how often they are believed. One such statistic comes from the Innocence Project. They report that since the 1990s and the introduction of DNA testing that an astounding 73% of the 239 convictions overturned due to DNA evidence were based on eyewitness testimony and not just of one eyewitness, but two or more!
I was introduced to this type of mistaken first-person accounting within my own family. The first time I recall was when I was 9 years old. My parents decided that the five of us (my folks, my two sisters, and I) would take a family vacation to Europe. While we were there my mother asked us why we thought we were there. Even though my sisters and I had all been a party to the same discussions regarding our trip we each had a very different idea of why it was we were ‘really’ in Europe. I might add that none of the three answers we gave were anywhere close to the truth.
Much later in life I was in a family counseling session as part of my father’s battle with alcoholism. The counselor asked my sisters and me a question and to relate our view of an event in our family’s life. It revolved around an event we were all present for at the same time, the same place, and with the same people. When we were done relating what happened at that event, I remember thinking to myself ‘What’s up with this? Were we all someplace different?’ The observations of each of us was so vastly different that I was quite taken aback. When I returned home I couldn’t shake this memory from my mind so I did a bit of research and found that many scientific studies on memories and false memories.
I say all of this not to disparage family stories and lore, but to simply caution each of us who love our genealogy and family history to treat these stories with a good dose of healthy skepticism. We can use them as leads, suggestions, ideas, and options to follow in our research, but they should not be used as the full basis for our ancestry work.
Recently I was researching and writing an article on America’s favorite uncle, ‘Uncle Sam’. Now here is a fellow that everyone knows, knows what he looks like, who he is, etc. One of the national symbols of America with his own ‘Uncle Sam Day’ (Sept 13th). But I discovered one thing as I researched good old Uncle Sam…we don’t know!
He seems to have come into being around the time of the War of 1812. At first he appeared with a beaver hat, boots, clean-shaven, and not at all the whiskered, star-spangled top hat wearing, finger pointing fellow we all recognize today. Plus it seems to depend on where you live as to who you think the ‘real’ Uncle Sam was. There are competing stories that he was from Connecticut, Texas, Indiana, Delaware, Massachusetts, and New York. You might think that the issue was actually resolved when the United States Congress established September 13th as Uncle Sam Day, but in reality it seems that the people of Troy, New York and the New York Congressional delegation simply out maneuvered the folks from Indiana, Connecticut, Texas, and elsewhere and the rest of Congress simply followed along.
Even the truth of where ‘Uncle Sam’ called ‘home’ is quite foggy. Some insist it was Samuel Wilson of Troy, New York, but there were two Samuel Wilsons in Troy at the time. Additionally some say it was actually Native Americans out West who coined the term from Government Issue rucksacks. Others say it relates back to the insignia on the caps of a group seen in a parade. So it seems that no one truly knows the origins of Uncle Sam even though Congress and often the newspapers of the day reported it as though someone actually did.
Please don’t get me wrong. Stories have an important and rightful place in our genealogy and family history work. As I said earlier many of the first-person stories are accurate and incredibly meaningful. Others, passed down from generations earlier may not be quite so accurate. I well recall my grandfather’s stories about his youth in Cornwall changing just over his lifetime and then there was the fact that he simply never, ever admitted that he had a brother. It is important to remember that for many families there were certain topics that were taboo and never discussed. They might be an illegitimate child, a divorce, a ‘black sheep’ relative, etc.
Many others while sketchy, may provide us with extremely valuable leads to discover, document, and record the lives of our ancestors. One example of this that comes to my mind is about my maternal great-grandfather, Joseph K. Vicha. He disappears from all the records in 1909. Luckily my mother greatly enjoyed sharing all she knew about her mysterious grandfather. The stories had many parts. One part was that he was very influential in the early Bohemian community of Cleveland, Ohio, which we discovered was true. Another part of the story was that he moved to Chicago, a claim we have been unable to verify to this point. Another portion of a story from Mom was that when she asked her uncle if he ever wanted to look for his father, the uncle responded ‘why would I? I might find him and discover that he owes people money.’ I had always thought this was merely a cute, but unimportant response until a recent discovery. In an old copy of the Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH) from October 19, 1901 was a column of court cases. One of these cases reads “76192 – D. H. Tolman vs. J. K. Vicha. Appeal.” I hardly paid it any mind, but decided to research the D. H. Tolman and found that he was one of the worst loan sharks in America and ended up serving penitentiary time for usury. Now I am waiting for the court files from the Cuyahoga County Archives to learn more, but perhaps my great uncle knew more that he was actually saying in his response to my mother all those years ago.
We all pride ourselves on genealogy being based on as many facts, figures, and data as we can discover. So be sure to use your family stories as guideposts in your genealogy, but remember even the best of them are just that…stories. So my advice is to always go deep in your research to prove or disprove them – and always write them down!