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  • Writer's pictureDevon Noel Lee

How to Handle False Family Legends in Family Histories

As genealogists, we often reveal skeletons in the closet but also bust myths that persist in our family lore. A viewer named Matthew Friend asked, “How does one deal with family myths that are simply not true? I know I can dismiss it, but nobody else seems to want to let it die off.”

Matthew’s question is one that we should all consider so that we can know how to handle the false legends in our family tree.

Do Family Legends Have a Place in Genealogical Books?

When I took my children to Washington, D.C., I mentioned a historical legend that I heard about Abraham Lincoln. I believed that he wrote the Gettysburg Address. Apparently, my understanding of the myth is mistaken because others thought he wrote it on the back of an envelope.

As it turns out, neither is true because,

“ Lincoln spent many weeks carefully drafting the speech he was to give at Gettysburg on 19 November 1863. He had an invited to speak as early as August. He thus had plenty of time to devote to writing the speech, even discussing drafts with associates.”

A history of the Gettysburg address should detail when and how he wrote the speech without including false myths. But, what’s interesting about the story is when someone takes the time to discuss how myths developed around the various legends.

For instance, apparently, “the myth dates back at least to 1866 when Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote that she had seen the president jot down the speech ‘in only a few moments.’”

Now, we have a story with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s and Andrew Carnegie’s participation in the spread of the story. The story takes on a new life and involves more context of the time.

One has to wonder why the two legendary figures would falsify their story. Additionally, why would Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews publish the myth in “The Perfect Tribute” without validating its authenticity?

That being said, what do we do with our family stories when we’re writing a book?

The Case for Including Family Myths

Family myths tell you much more about what your family wishes to pass down to future generations. I invite you to read a fascinating article about “Family Myths and Their Effect.”

According to the article, the purpose of family myths includes protecting, defending, and organizing the family structure; keeping family secrets safe; and defining who is the “black sheep” or the “role model.”

Most myths will reveal the

  • image the family has of itself

  • cover up a reality the family refuses to accept (which could be negative or simply boring)

  • how the family relates to culture.

Finally, the article suggests family myths fall into three categories: harmony, apology and reparation, and salvation.

This article is a great read, and I hope I’ve given you enough details that you’ll read it.

However, take all of these points into consideration. Then, perhaps you’ll see why including family myths, no matter how small, may capture the essence of your family’s beliefs and desires through their stories.

As genealogists, we want to set the record straight, but there is a place for the facts and the legends. The only question is, "how do we do it?"

How to Handle False Family Myths in a Book

Before we can determine whether to include or exclude the family myth from our genealogy books, we must first analyze the legend.

While we can not speak with the originator of the family stories, we can consider

  • When did the myth begin?

  • Who might have started the legend?

  • What was their objective in telling the story (harmony, apology, salvation?

If we can analyze these questions, we will know how to handle the myth.

Then we can take one of the following approaches:

  • Ignore it.

  • Include, but dismiss within the story.

  • Include the myth, and its refutation, in an Appendix.

Each option has its merits, so there is no hard and fast rule on this topic.

Ignore It

Many genealogists will choose to ignore a family myth, particularly if it is simply a minor factual error.

Suppose family members believed their great-grandfather was J.T. Smith, but he was actually J.P. Smith. You discovered the mistake stems from a census transcription error. In your story, use the correct name and ignore the error.

Or perhaps your relative was born in Cut And Shoot, Texas, not Conroe, which is a neighboring town. Just mention the correct birth location in your story and ignore Conroe.

However, in that case, you could say that Cut and Shoot is 6 miles northeast of Conroe and 45 miles north of Houston. That’s not exactly ignoring the ‘myth,’ but merging the myth into a setting description.

The simpler the myth, the easier it is to ignore, but what about this one from Legacy Tree Genealogists?

In the article, Do Family Legends Have a Place in Genealogical Research?, professional researchers debunked a story that mentioned

“a father was very wealthy and owned a castle in Victorian England. The story went on to say that grandma had so displeased her father by associating with the Mormons, that he made her and her family live in the furthest rooms in the castle, isolated from the rest of the family, and had left these instructions in his will.”

In actuality, there was no castle. The father was a shoemaker who owned four tenement buildings. There is no evidence that the father excluded the daughter from his will due to her religious beliefs.

If we were to write this story, we could ignore the family legend entirely about the castle-owning father who disowned his daughter. But, of course, we better include all the source citations that support the research and debunking of the family myth.

However, perhaps including the myth would convey the legend's aspirations or the apology functions. Thus, you might wish to utilize the following two approaches instead.

Sarah Orne married Paul Revere, but not that Paul Revere
How would you handle this one?

Include, but dismiss within the story.

The next option is to make mention of the family legend but dismiss it within the story you’re writing.

Matthew, who originally posted the question, said he learned that his great-grandparents’ four children died in a tragic event. Family members insist they died via a ‘choking on popcorn’ story f. While he said, “I will write [this story] with those facts in mind but will not mention the family story,” I have another suggestion.

[Please note the dates and names are fictional to protect the family but share a clear example.]

Family members believed that Janice, Sarah, Michael, and Darryl died from choking on popcorn while at the movie theater, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. According to an article in the Houston Chronicle on 13 March 1913, the four children came to a more tragic end. The article goes on to detail what happened to the young children…

According to Christine Bassett, she has a story about some changes in her heritage that other family members will need to know.

My great-grandmother was an Irish Catholic who married a French Jew. Apparently, he watched her walk by where he worked, was attracted, and wondered where she was going. So he followed her and found she was on her way to church. Long story short - they married, much to the disappointment of both religious families. But they seemed to have lived happily ever after!

However, sometime after their first child was born, my grandfather changed his name to sound less Jewish. Therefore, the remaining children have a different surname.

Christine says it’s difficult to research their Irish/French/Italian family history without knowing this information. She is correct.

The only thing I would do to make this story more compelling is to wrap these details into a chronological sharing of the story rather than a two-paragraph summary.

Now, I am not suggesting she hasn’t done this already.

I’m advocating you reveal these details as you write about the family being displeased by the couple's marriage. Then the birth of the first child takes place with his Jewish surname. Then discuss the second child's birth and why that kid (and further siblings) have different surnames.

This approach refers to a previous post that discusses how to “Show, Don’t Tell” us a story. Then at the story's conclusion, hopefully, we can see that the couple lived happily ever after.

Include the myth, and its refutation, in an Appendix.

If you have a more complicated family myth, you may want to leverage the Appendix section to debunk the story.

For instance, my immigrant great-grandfather Joseph Geissler has a family legend about his death recorded in my great aunt Margie Geiszler Wasson’s scrapbook.

Story of Joseph Geisslers death

Henry's Father (Joseph) was on horseback and rode into Ft Hayes. Guard yelled Halt. He only spoke German and, as the story went, didn't understand. So the guard shot him and he died.

There are a couple of problems with the story, not the least of which the work for “halt” in German is “halt.”

In addition to debunking this myth, there’s another suggestion that Joseph was an unnamed stabbing victim in a newspaper story about Carl Beisner. My cousin found this story when he discovered Carl was buried the same day as Joseph.

Burial record for Columbus Catholic Church in July 1863
Could Carl and Joseph be connected through this story and their same-day burial?

Within the book's main body, I mention Joseph’s death within the context of the time.

He died four days after the battle of Gettysburg. The day before his death, bulletins arrived in Columbus. The news items stated that the Union Army should receive high praise and honor, but the scope of the loss created great anxiety in Columbus. Additionally, he died three days after Confederate General Morgan’s raid started its assault on Ohio, which added to the tension in the city.

However, I placed the discussion of his death ‘myth’ in the Appendix section of the book to walk readers step by step through the analysis of the family legend.

Use Appendices to debunk family legends

While Joseph may have died outside an army barrack, soldiers did not shoot him because he didn’t understand the word 'halt.' It’s also possible he was the unnamed man in the Carl Biessner stabbing article. I also tackled that in the Appendix and shared where current research stands.

Recommendation for Matthew

Thus, I recommend that Matthew’s second story implement this strategy for his second example. He says, “this family myth is all over the internet, like a raging fire in a dry forest.“

A sea captain brought his family from England to America. This captain and his wife had thirteen children. The family left England on his ship and came near their destination, but it wreaked nearby. The family story insists that the captain died saving his family, who all lived, and his widow took care of her family alone.

At the turn of the 21st century, many researchers invalidated the story because they found no connection between the widow and the sea captain.

Instead, the father was Swedish and came to America in the mid-17th century, married, and had thirteen children. He died in his late 60s with 1000 acres of land to his name. However, he only gave the land to his wife, not his children. As such, after his death, his wife sold off and divided the land among her children.

Matthew believes, “whoever wrote that English sea captain story was trying to cover up their true heritage.”

If I were writing the story, I would start with the entire life of the Swedish father. When I reached the section on his death, I would proceed to discuss his death and then the probate information. Readers will know that this man is Swedish, had the acreage, and died in his 60s. I wouldn’t mention the sea captain’s story within the main text.

In the Appendix, I would have a section called “The Myth of the Sea Captain.”

If the story ranges far and wide, discuss it in the book's Appendix. Add an analysis of why this story isn’t true after including it. You’ve explained the insight into the myth, debunked it, and presented an accurate version of the man’s life and death.

Which Option Works Best For Your Family Myth?

Hopefully, you now have enough insight into the options for handling false stories in your family tree.

The more involved, widespread, and complicated the myth, the more you lean towards the Appendix option. The fewer persons who know of a legend and the easier to refute, the more you can ignore it.

But remember,

family myths have a purpose, otherwise they wouldn’t persist.

Determine what the purpose is and you’ll capture more of your heritage, even if you have to be the one to tell your relatives the myths are false.

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