Rumors, Gossip, and Little White Lies
Family stories can be as varied and far-flung as Johnny
Appleseedís orchards. They may involve an ancestor named Mulberry Melinda, a
forebear who employed Abraham Lincoln as a rail-splitter, a father and son who
battled a mammoth bear in nineteenth century Norway, or a great uncle reputedly
buried near Daniel Boone.These legends arenít always full of truth, but they
can enliven your family history. They can also offer details about
relationships, insights into personalities and environments, clues about
undiscovered lines, even potential corrections to official records.
"Before I got that story [on the Irish forebears], I didnít know anything about the background of my husbandís great-great grandfather Charles Doherty," says Kerstens. "And that one story is what led me to getting this particular line back to AD 800.
"Thatís the value of family legendsĖtheyíre a bridge to the past. You may not be able to cross that bridge with any other piece of evidence," notes Kerstens.
While she received the Doherty story in written form, Kerstens advises family historians not to reject legends simply because they are oral. "People can stretch the truth with a pencil as well as they can with their mouth," adds Freilich.
Kerstens explains that Ireland possessed two kinds of storytellersĖone type told local histories, the other told myths. "In the peopleís minds, they were completely separate types of people. There was an expectation that when the myth type of storyteller would start talking, it would be a long story and theyíd have all these pictures painted in their minds. But when the other guy started talking, they would be reminiscing on local tradition and it would be more factual and shorter." They distinguished between the factual and the mythical in their oral traditions, says Kerstens.
"If a legend had been written down a century ago, I would tend to give a little more validity to that. It doesnít mean it was a true story when it was written, but it means it hasnít been filtered through as many generations," says Allen.
While holding that oral legends can be reliable, Allen further warns that some kinds of family stories beg to be exaggerated. "When someone starts telling about how old someone was, every time the story gets told, they were older.
"My great-grandmother was telling me about her great-grandmother and she said, ĎShe lived to be 115.í Of course she didnít! The newspaper account said she was well over one hundred [when she died]. When you do the math, and you find her as a young woman in the 1850 census, she was in her late nineties." Later censuses backed up Allenís theories about her ancestorís age.
Adventure stories also expand in the telling. In my family history, we have a story about a father and son in Norway who fought a bear in about 1850. The son survived, although he was badly scarred, but the father died of his bear-inflicted injuries. My great-uncle Oswald told this story, which he had heard from people close to the episode, and he translated it from a local Norwegian history book.
Iím sure a bear fight took place, probably even at the edge of "Long Swamp west of the Randberg Range," as reported. But some details from Oswaldís translation seem suspect: "The bear now struck the rifle a tremendous blow, sending it flying, and closed with its tormentor, John [Velta], underneath and pinned. He summoned his strength and was able to reverse their positions, with the bear underneath, and brought his knife into play, but this was soon flipped from his hand." No wonder the legend describes Velta as "a rugged giant of a man!"
The legend offers sparse factual information, other than a name and location that we had from other, more reliable sources. Its usefulness appears limited. We canít confirm the story and it doesnít tell us much we didnít already know about some distant ancestors.
Legends Put Meat on Bones
"We canít get to know our ancestors if we canít understand the kind of environment they lived in," Kerstens says about my bear story. "These days, if you go to conferences or you read articles [on genealogy], the speakers and writers are trying to encourage people to put meat on the bones of their ancestors."
Freilich recounts a legend in her family that also contains few facts, but adds much color. "We have a story that Abraham Lincoln split rails on a great-great grandfatherís farm. I can only prove that they were living in the same place at that time. We havenít found any business records or ledger books to show that Abraham Lincoln was ever paid by my great-great grandfather. But I can prove from stories of Lincoln that he was in that town, and I can prove from census records that my great-great grandfather was in the town at the same time and was a farmer. And I write it that way."
Both Freilich and Kerstens recommend using local histories to flesh out thin legends. Freilich gives a lecture entitled "Grandma Told Me" in which she advises her listeners to go beyond genealogy departments and investigate local histories and old pamphlets and newspapers to support their stories.
"If you read a history of an area that somebody lived in who might have had something to do with a legend," says Kerstens, "you might find some part of the story in that history."
Allen observes, however, that if an unrelated person wrote up your family legend, that account could prove less reliable than your own family sources. "When the story is about your family, I think you pay more attention."
While all these assorted legends furnish both color and underpinnings for your familyís book, the occasional story does prove false. Can it have value?
Kerstensí grandmother told her they had an ancestor buried next to Daniel Boone (see Ancestry, November/December 1998, p. 66). "She swore there was some ancestor that she went to visit the grave of when she was a kid," says Kerstens. "I did concentric circles from Daniel Booneís grave out and never found a single person in any line that Iím researching. Then, they came out with a book on that cemetery and there isnít anybody."
In that Ancestry article, Kerstens writes, "Disproving family stories is just as important as proving them."
You can, however, include even fictitious legends in your family history, provided you explain thatís what they are. "You ought to try and see how much validity there is to family stories," advises Kerstens. "If you find thereís no validity, you can present it as a family legend that has no validity. Or, if you find itís true, then great, you give the story, and you say, ĎThis is whatís true.í"
With your family legends, explain whatís true and whatís false, whatís proven and unproven, and write down how you arrived at your conclusions. Donít mislead your readers or a future family historian, advise these three top genealogists.
"You should be very specific," says Freilich, who serves as the book review editor for Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine.
In the case that legends canít be proved or disproved, Allen recommends writing a disclaimer like this: "This is one of grandpaís favorite stories. He told it repeatedly and Iíve written it down as he told it, but I canít support it with facts.
"Or," she adds, "you can just say what the story was, who told the story, and what your research was."
Allen recommends that if you have different renditions of the same family story, record all of them and list the comparisons and contrasts. "In order to do this, you have to first write down your version so itís not contaminated by the hearing of another version. After you hear the other version and write it down, start comparing specifics about the stories."
Use Tact When Recording Legends
"We have a story that there was a shotgun wedding in the family, and it continues that so-and-so was holding the shotgun," Freilich relates. "We would not and we did not, when we wrote our family history, include the story about the shotgun wedding. Thatís taking it a little too far. There were living people to consider; you donít want to hit them over the head with it."
The family history cites the dates involved, when the wedding took place, and the birth of the child six months later. "We didnít include anything else," says Freilich. "Thatís one story that if it dies, it is not going to hurt anybodyís study of our genealogy in the future. We included the dates as they were."
"I definitely feel that the sensitivity to living people is paramount," agrees Allen. "If great-grandpa was a horse thief, itís funny. But if someoneís dad went to the penitentiary, itís not funny."
She recommends another omission when writing up family stories: sermonizing. "What Iíve seen a lot of people do when they try to write a family story, is to turn it into a morality play. At the bottom, it says: ĎAnd therefore, you should never run through the graveyard at nightí."
Just tell the story, says Allen. "In a lot of the personal reminiscences or narratives Iíve seen that people have sent me, theyíll try to write in some kind of moral to the story. And with family legends, a lot of times there just isnít one."
Once you have selected and composed your family stories, whatís the best way to organize them in your book?
If the story involves extensive lines and numbers of people, write it up as a separate chapter, says Kerstens. With her Doherty story, she says, "Itís hard to put it with one person, because there are so many people mentioned. I think it merits its own chapter. Itís interesting enough, and I think the whole thing about that story, that it came down in separate generations intact, is fascinating in itself."
Give references to the separate chapter in the narratives about the people involved, Allen suggests. "You might say, for example, they moved from Ireland, and thereís an interesting story about them: See chapter eight."
When a story revolves around just one family, however, you can include it with that familyís information.
To make the presentation of these legends more inviting, Freilich suggests including photos of related artifacts. "Itís very nice if you can tie them to an artifact in the familyĖa spoon, a picture, jewelry, whatever it might be," she says. "I think itís always good if you have something tangible like that."
By presenting and preserving your family stories in book form, you ensure their accuracy and survival. Allen concludes, "Legends can disappear in no time, or they can be altered to where they donít resemble what somebody else heard. They need to be committed to paper in some form."
Margaret Moen, a freelance writer from St. Paul, Minnesota, has written articles for Horizon Air, Americaís Civil War, Dance Teacher, as well as Ancestry.
©2011 Margaret Moen