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Avoid These Mistakes When Analyzing a Family Legend

Vintage Gentleman with title Avoid These Mistakes When Analyzing a Family Legend

Family legends can lead you down the wrong trail when doing genealogy research. How do we remain cautious while recording and interpreting family legends?

A family legend and an internment record point to the origin of my Townley ancestor who settled in Cincinnati in the early 1800s.

When I was a young genealogist, I would accept the family legend and the name on the burial card as substantial evidence that the information people write about their family trees are accurate. In so doing, I would fall victim to some rookie mistakes.

But no more, let’s talk about the rookie mistakes and how avoiding them helps me tackle a mystery on my Townley family.

Mistake #1: Believing all Family Legends are Accurate

Family legends are fun stories, and some of them are factual. However, many of them have alterations that introduce errors or complete falsehoods. We also do not know how family stories start or understand the purpose of misleading legends.

In my Geiszler line, a handwritten paragraph details the demise of my German immigrant ancestor.

Upon closer scrutiny, many of the specifics are inaccurate or not plausible. Why would my relatives pass along a false story? Someone had to explain how a young man died and his wife remarried three months later.

The widow had a 4-year-old, 2-year-old, and a 4-month-old, which would explain a speed remarriage, but apparently, that did not suffice. My German ancestor died in Ohio as a 30 something with a young family. His death could have been an illness, self-inflicted, or caused by someone else.

Could it be possible that he had been carousing and met a tragic end? Would the family also want to tie the time of his death to the Civil War and thereby engrave his passing on their memories?

All of these are plausible reasons for the story breaking apart under closer inspection, though a full story remains unknown.

Mistake #2: Believing a Unique Name is Enough Evidence to Support a Relationship Without Direct Evidence

Many beginning genealogists think that a ‘unique’ name is enough evidence to claim that one relative is recording in a document or connected to a particular family tree because of that unusual name, excluding all other facts. That’s not the case.

You’d be surprised how common some ‘unique’ names can be. I erroneously thought that Effingham was an unusual name. Perhaps it is by 2010s standards, but not in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

In one investigation I found four Effingham Townley’s from Elizabeth, New Jersey. If I don’t pay attention to additional details about each individual, I could make relationship mistakes.

Mistake #3: Failing to Seek Out Additional Proof

Newbie genealogists often think only about birth, marriage, and death records. These records can build a foundation of evidentiary support for an ancestor, but they are not the end of the case.

The next set of records to investigate should include census records. However, after the vital documents and the mass accounting every ten years are scoured, then what? Then it’s time to dig deeper.

City directories, newspapers, land records, wills, and probates are more accessible than ever before and should be consulted to validate family legends and trees that are shared without supporting evidence. Many of these records will not directly reveal relationships, so you have to piece together clues for a mystery and use a bit of logic to make sense of the small bits of information.

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My Townley ancestors' research case involves a ‘three brothers’ story. Actually, it’s two brothers (George and Major Townley) and a cousin (John Townley). Oh, but wait! John is possibly a second cousin, not a first cousin, and the leap to the conclusion is based on indirect clues and negative evidence.

The family legend talks about George, Major, and John moving to Cincinnati, Ohio in 1826. The problem with the story is the paper trail does not support this date. A paper trail confirms the move of all three men ten years later.

Additionally, the story suggests that John Townley moved with two children, one of whom was a male infant. Based on the paper trail, John moved with three children and the baby was a female.

Is the story is breaking apart?

No definitive paper trail connects John Townley to the brothers George and Major. Given the time period, birth, and death records will not be helpful, and census records do not provide enough relationship data to crack the case.

An interment record indicates that John is the son of an Effingham Townley from New Jersey but does not identify the mother or provide any further clues.

Effingham Townley Elizabeth New Jersey

Who recorded the story?

Someone whom I have never met recorded the Townley's origin in Cincinnati story in a database and passed it on to others. I cannot review his methodology or source materials.

  1. Who told him the legend?

  2. When was it told to him?

  3. Why would that original person know the story?

  4. How is the hearer or the storyteller related to John, Major, or George Townley?

You should have similar questions when analyzing an often repeated family legend, regardless of it is in oral or printed format. Heck, a story in stone can be false, as is the tale of Annie Moore, the first passenger who registered at Ellis Island. If historians can mess up such a famous person’s life story, our family can make mistakes as well.

Is there additional evidence?

Rumor has it that a Townley family Bible supports the family legend. How delightful! However, gossip is not the same thing as evidence.

  1. What does the Bible record?

  2. Does it record the relationships with me?

  3. Does it connect John to George and Major?

  4. Does it connect John to a specific Effingham Townley from New Jersey?

  5. Does it not record what people say it records?

My attempts to view or see scans of the rumored Bible continue to remain fruitless. In my approach to genealogy, I cannot believe hearsay that the Bible supports any truth or story. I cannot accept a family legend to be accurate without proof. I can not agree that John’s suggested father’s unusual name is enough to connect him to George and Major. I need to build a case the old-fashioned genealogy way

What evidence can I uncover?

Following the interment record clue to John’s parentage, a search of Elizabeth, New Jersey turned up some Effingham candidates. Using biology, I can rule out several sets of possible parents for John Townley, son of Effingham, based on the age of the Effinghams (and their wives) in the year John was born. Only one man seems plausible – Effingham b. 1759 and married Rhoda.

There are no definite records linking father to so, only negative evidence. But, what if the internment record is wrong? What if John is not the son of Effingham? Those who bury a relative have been known to suggest the wrong family name.


In Cincinnati city directories, George and Major are clearing close relations as they live together for a time and then work together in the same business. George seems to have arrived first (around 1830, not 1826) and then Major after that. John migrates to Cincinnati shortly after George.

George, Major, and John do not live close to one another in the city of about 25,000 residents in a period of 157% growth. The brothers George and Major have a lumber yard, and John is a bricklayer. One city directory points to all three men originating from Elizabeth. They are relations at some point, given they have the same surname from the same town in Jersey.

Are these details combined with the family legend enough to substantiate the family legend, though some details are slightly skewed?

If it does, I can add it to the chart above. George and Major are grandsons of Effingham Townley who married Jemina Earl. Thus, John and George, and Major would be second cousins. A close enough relationship to follow each other to new lands, but not necessarily close enough to want to live next door.

Your Take-Aways:

  1. When you encounter a database of names, don’t assume everything is accurate.

  2. When you hear a family legend, don’t assume everything is accurate.

  3. Don’t assume unusual names are enough evidence to establish identity.

  4. Seek out additional evidence where ever it may be found.

  5. Sift through all evidence, the direct, indirect, and plausible theories.

Photo of Henry Townley with caption evaluate family legends

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