What you know (and can prove)

Penny at podium_cropped“Write down what you know” is the first step in family history research. For many of us, what we know includes family stories that have been passed down from generation to generation. But sometimes those stories can be misleading – or just plain incorrect. For example, my stepmother had always heard that she was related to Ralph Waldo Emerson and General William Tecumseh Sherman. I have a set of notes written by her aunt, Minerva McGee (1897-1972), which begin like this:

General Sherman — younger brother of Catherine Sherman

Ralph Waldo Emerson — younger brother of John Emerson

John Emerson — Catherine Sherman, My Great Grandparents.

Unfortunately, Aunt Minerva was wrong.

Not only were Catherine Sherman and William Tecumseh Sherman not siblings, but they appear to have had only two things in common: the name Sherman and residence in Ohio. And rather than being the writer’s older brother, John Emerson was his fourth cousin, having in common a great-great-great-grandfather, the Reverend Joseph Emerson.

Aunt Minerva was born only six years after the death of General Sherman and fifteen years after the death of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Did she make assumptions based on family stories she herself had heard? Who knows? Fortunately, her notes of more recent generations were generally reliable and allowed me to trace the families back to the immigrants. Although I had to eliminate the close connection to luminaries, I did learn that my stepmother had deep and interesting New England ancestry, and that she was descended from many of the founders of Rhode Island.

Family stories have also proved unreliable in my husband’s family. He grew up hearing detailed stories of the Strattons: they’d lived on a small plantation in South Carolina; his great-great-grandmother was the granddaughter of Revolutionary general Francis Marion; his great-great-grandfather and great-great-great-uncle  died at Gettysburg. The apparent teller of these stories, Frank Stratton, my husband’s great-grandfather, specified which Confederate regiment he himself had been in. None of it is provable, and some we’ve disproved: Francis Marion, for example, had no children. Again, it seems that very quickly stories were embroidered or created out of whole cloth.

As wonderful as these stories have been, their failure to hold up under standard methods of genealogical scrutiny makes me question other family lore I encounter. Yes, it’s wise to start with what you know, but perhaps we should reword that advice: start with what you know and can prove.

About Penny Stratton

A veteran of the book publishing industry, Penny Stratton retired as NEHGS Publishing Director in June 2016; she continues to consult with the Society on publications projects. Among the more than 65 titles she managed at NEHGS are The Great Migration Directory, Elements of Genealogical Analysis, Genealogist’s Handbook for New England Research, and the award-winning Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts. She has written for American Ancestors magazine and is a regular poster on Vita Brevis. With Henry B. Hoff, Penny is coauthor of Guide to Genealogical Writing: How to Write and Publish Your Family History; she is also the author of several Portable Genealogists on writing and publishing topics.

7 thoughts on “What you know (and can prove)

  1. I’m writing a family history and including many stories that no one could prove at this stage in the game. I think they’re important to indicate the kind of thing parents or grandparents told their children as they were growing up. I make sure to identify every one of them as family folklore, not history. For example, my father told about the awful fear that gripped his family and his small Iowa town when a boy he had been playing with was diagnosed with polio and put in an iron lung. It’s in a section of the book that tells the kinds of illnesses that killed many family members then, but could be easily prevented or cured now. The boy didn’t die then, but he died before I could confirm Dad’s story. I have a quote from an Iowa newspaper about the level of fear that polio inspired, and I have BMD on the boy. I hope that will be sufficient to allow this telling vignette to remain.

  2. When I started researching family history I had several family stories to follow. Most of them were useless that only made me spend time proving them wrong instead of following real leads. A couple were interesting but, other than that, useless.

    The family name spelling is one of the most common stories I hear. Most of the time the real answer is that it got that way as our ancestors became more educated. At some point someone told them to spell it one way so they did. No mean clerks at Ellis Island or wherever.

  3. Relying on what has been passed down can be a blind alley! We had always been told that my third great-grandmother’s name was Adeline Tripp; this was even the name given for mother on her daughter Adeline Mann Farrington’s death certificate. After many years of searching, I decided to look into the data that kept turning up about one Hannah Tripp — bingo! Everything matched, and allowed me to trace the Tripps back many more generations. Through this line I discovered “six and a half” Mayflower passengers — George Soule, Francis and John Cooke, Richard Warren, and William, Susannah, and Peregrine White — the “half would be Peregrine, who made the voyage in utero!

  4. I ‘m stuck!
    I found my 3x grandmother in only one census. Then she disappears.
    The census says she is from Massachusetts and I can’t find a birth certificate or a marriage one either for her. Only a birth certificate for her daughter born in Rhode Island.
    The only thing I have to work with is her maiden name. PHANUEF.

  5. Matthew Beckwith sailed to Saybrook Connecticut in 1635. His son Joseph Beckwith 1st of Lyme joined other Connecticut towns of Militiamen who participated in the Woodcreek Expedition, which is about 10 miles south of Lake George. There mission was to repell the French and Indians, that wanted to take over parts of New England. A British ship was suppose to provide them with supplies, but headed to Spain, instead. The Militiamen, became very ill due to dysentary and Joseph Beckwith died. His son Joseph Beckwith 2nd and his brother in law, The Justice of the Peace, Thomas Lee 2nd, held a meeting at their Church. They picked Joseph Beckwith 2nd as the mediatory and appointed Freemen which included Justice of the Peace Thomas Lee. The town historian informed me it was the first Basic Civil Government of America. The Thomas Lee House was built in 1660 and it is one of the oldest houses in America.

  6. One of my Pierce ancestors (unclear to me who perpetrated this) concocted a fake family tree which claimed that a) an early Harvey ancestor was the daughter of Dr. William Harvey, discoverer of blood circulation (he never had any children) b) that a Pierce widow married for the second time the brother of General Edward Braddock, of French Indian wars fame and c) that a Pierce ancestor in Devon was hanged at the “bloody Assizes” by Judge Jeffreys in 1685. A Peironnet ancestor, in this telling, became a count, and his wife, Esther Moreau, became the sister of General Victor-Marie Moreau. Not only that, but this fake tree, deposited BTW, at the LDS library, had a long line of descent going back to 1562, giving names of Pierce ancestors and their spouses. After countless hours and many $$ expended chasing these will-o-the-wisps, I realized that all of this is hogwash, and that the revered ancestor who did this merely took the names of ancestors he knew and attached them to the most illustrious person of that surname. Sometimes I think that this was an elaborate hoax, in the interests of reflected glory by a family who had recently become quite prosperous, and sometimes I more charitably believe that the person who did this didn’t know any better and/or talked himself into believing this farrago of untruths.

  7. My great uncle, Hans Hugo Diedrich Storm, was named after three of his uncles who immigrated from Holstein to Washington State. Fortunately these ancestors were of the self-documenting kind, see: http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=30035964 … Theodore/Hugo, Hans/Johannes/Gustav, and Franz/Frank/Diedrich, listed in the third picture, were his uncles. Years of scouring Washington genealogical circles eventually paid off.

    Of course, we were also told that the name Theodor(e) was used (repeatedly) in our family because we were related to Theodor Woldsen Storm, the famous German poet, like our own Longfellow. That has still proven to be a red herring, but for the fact that the poet’s father-in-law was the Mayor of the city of Segeberg during the same years that my uncle’s father, their first-listed brother in Germany, was fulfilling his military service there. So that too may yet pan out further.

    Now I do sometimes wonder if I could trade in some of my more common, enumerationally-challenged, ancestors, for more of these, of the self-documenting kind. But where would be the genealogical fun in that?

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