Genealogy Myths

Family stories are a wonderful thing. They often give you insights into the lives of your ancestors. However, beware! Not all family stories are true. Many such stories are fictional. Yet, even the stories that are either entirely or part fiction may contain clues to facts. Good genealogical practice requires that we admit the fiction. But the next step the genealogist takes separates art from science. Before we discard these stories altogether, we need to mine them for nuggets of truth. Let’s look at a few of the more common “family legends” to see which ones you can mine for real gold.

Myth #1: Our name was changed at Ellis Island.

Fact: No evidence whatsoever exists to suggest this ever occurred. In fact, Ellis Island had rigid documentation requirements. Anyone who arrived at Ellis Island without proper documents from “the old country” proving the person’s name and providing other required information was sent back at the shipping company’s expense. In fact, the shipping companies obviously knew this and always checked for proper documentation before allowing any passengers to board the ship in Europe or the British Isles.

Many people assume that there was a language barrier at Ellis Island and that millions were admitted under different names because immigration officials could not communicate with the newly-arrived travelers from many lands. This is also a fallacy. Ellis Island hired a small army of interpreters. The interpreters spoke the required languages fluently. Most were either prior immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants who learned their mother tongue as children. No immigrant was ever admitted until after answering multiple questions, usually through an interpreter on the Ellis Island payroll.

Italian Interpreter Fiorello La Guardia at a desk at Ellis Island circa 1908

One interpreter at Ellis Island was Fiorello La Guardia, who would later become famous as the mayor of New York City, responsible for cleaning up the corruption of Tammany Hall. He worked at Ellis Island for an annual salary of $1,200 from 1907 to 1910 and helped thousands of Italians and other immigrants enter the country. Perhaps your Italian ancestor was admitted with the help of Fiorello La Guardia.

Thanks to the documentation verification conducted at the port of embarkation in Europe, your ancestors’ names were known and proven before arriving at Ellis Island and were never changed there. A very few exceptions were made in 1945 and 1946 as refugees from the war-torn areas of World War II were sometimes admitted without documentation. Looking at Ellis Island records will almost always show the original names as first recorded in “the old country.” Of course, you will find major spelling variations, as many illiterate immigrants could not spell their own names even in their native languages, much less in the still-unlearned English language.

Even so, I suggest you ponder these family stories a moment before you categorically discard them. They may hold a nugget of truth that you can use to track down your immigrant ancestors. Many family names were changed in the months or years after arriving at Ellis Island. As immigrant families settled into their new neighborhoods, many adopted “Americanized names.” Teachers, clerks, and neighbors sometimes found the original names to be difficult to pronounce; so, they frequently called these people by traditional American names. In many cases, the new immigrants or their descendants adopted the new names. Therefore, you might find yourself checking immigration records for name variants, based on clues in the stories passed down to you.

Myth #2: All the records were destroyed during the war.

Note: there are many variations of this one, such as “all records were destroyed in the flood,” “all records were destroyed during the fire” and many others.

Fact: In short, it is essentially impossible to destroy all records in any catastrophe because records typically are stored in many different places. Census records are kept in one place, tax records are stored in a different location, and military pension applications are stored in a third location. One fire or one flood or even one war never destroys all the records. If you hear this myth, don’t throw in the towel: search on!

Myth #3: There were three brothers who came to America. One went north, one went south and the third went west…

Fact: This is an excuse used by lazy genealogists who cannot explain why the same surname exists in different places. In fact, the families probably are not related at all. It is interesting to note that nobody ever seems to know the first names of these “three brothers.” I find it amusing that nobody ever mentions “four brothers” or “five brothers.” There were always three. This one is a red flag; ignore any claims of three brothers.

Myth #4: We are descended from a Cherokee princess.

This is NOT a Cherokee princess!

Fact: Sorry folks, but North American Indians did not have royalty. There never was any such thing as a Cherokee princess or anything similar in the Navajo, Apache, Pueblo, Abenaki, or other tribes. When Pocahontas went to England, the publicists of the seventeenth century claimed she was a princess in order to create publicity. However, the title existed only in the imaginations of the early promoters. P.T. Barnum was also known to apply the word “princess” to some of his female Indian performers but, again, you shouldn’t believe everything that P.T. Barnum claimed. There has never been a princess in the Cherokee tribe or any other North American tribe.

If you have an Indian princess in your family tree, she must have been born in India.

Myth #5: Our family always spelled the name as …

Fact: The moment that you insist your surname was always spelled a particular way, you have just labeled yourself as a beginning genealogist. Name spellings have varied widely and, in fact, have only become standardized in the past 100 years or so. The people who created earlier records often were census takers, town clerks, tax collectors, clergymen, and others, who wrote down what they heard. In the days when most people could not read or write, many did not know how to spell their own names. When a clerk asked, “How do you spell that?” the most common answer was, “I don’t know.” A census taker late for dinner on a long, hot, dusty, summer day may not have cared whether a name was spelled STUART or STEWART.

For instance, my mother always spelled her maiden name as Deabay. In old records, I have found my ancestors listed with the name of Dubé, Dube, Deabay, Deabey, de Bay, du Bay, Debay, Dubey, and other variations as well. My grandfather spoke two languages fluently but could not read or write either one. He never went to school and didn’t know how to spell his own first or last names. Three of his sons (my uncles) have since adopted three different spellings of their own last name. When speaking English, my grandfather always called himself Mike; but, when speaking French, he would tell you that his first name was Maxime. Some people called him Max. Every census takers spelled his names differently.

Even William Shakespeare signed his own name in different ways:

(a) From 1612 deposition: William Shackper
(b) 1612 Blackfriars deed: William Shakspear
(c) 1612 Blackfriars mortgage: Wm Shakspea
(d) His 1615 will, page 1: William Shackspere
(e) Will, page 2: Willm. Shakspere
(f) Will, page 3: By me William Shakspeare [often questioned as by a different hand]

Note: there is some controversy as to whether or not all these signatures were actually written by William Shakespeare. However, assuming that he was literate, we could assume that he at least dictated the spelling.

My favorite story is the man who wrote his own will in the 1600s on a large piece of parchment paper. The will was several paragraphs long. In his own handwriting, he wrote his own name three different times on the one piece of paper, using three different spellings of his own name!

Myth #6: Our ancestors came over on the Mayflower.

Fact: If every claimed Mayflower ancestor actually was on the Mayflower, that ship must have been bigger than all of today’s cruise ships combined! In fact, William Bradford of Plimoth Plantation recorded the complete list of all 102 passengers in 1650. His hand-written list has survived and has been digitized. You can find it on the web in many places, including at http://mayflowerhistory.com/mayflower-passenger-list/.

About half the passengers died in the first year at Plimoth. In order to claim Mayflower ancestry, you must be able to document descent from one or more of the surviving passengers listed at http://mayflowerhistory.com/mayflower-passenger-list/.

Myth #7: Our ancestor arrived on a later voyage of the Mayflower.

Fact: Sorry, folks, but the Mayflower only made one trip to Plimoth.

Myth #8: We are related to Robert E. Lee.

Fact: If all those claims are true, that must have been a very large family! In fact, the name Lee was common in Virginia and elsewhere with many different, unrelated immigrants of the name. There were tens of thousands of Lees in the U.S. by the mid-1800s, and most of them were not related to each other. Robert E. Lee was a hero of the Confederacy, and many Southerners perhaps wished they were related to him. In fact, very few were.

Myth #9: A town in England, Norway, Germany, etc. is named for our family.

Fact: Names of towns Europe and the British Isles were generally created long before people started using family names (surnames). If your ancestors came from the region in question, it is more likely that your ancestor adopted the name of the town, not the other way around. The good news is that such a story may give you the name of a town that you can check for records of your ancestral family.

Myth #10: Our ancestor was a stowaway on the ship.

Fact: That’s a romantic story but rarely true. If a stowaway ever was found, he normally would be sent back in chains to “the old country” on the ship’s return. Very few ever escaped and became residents of the New World. Yes, undoubtedly there were a few exceptions but not nearly as have been claimed in recent years by various families. If you hear such a claim in your family, try to prove it. I doubt if you can.

Myth #11: Our ancestor was burned at the stake as a witch in Salem, Massachusetts.

Fact: No accused witches were ever burned at the stake in North America although that did happen in Europe. Nobody ever started a fire for that purpose in Salem. All of the accused Salem witches were hanged, except for Giles Cory (also spelled Corey or Coree), who was pressed to death, a particularly cruel and painful way to die. You can find more information about poor Giles Cory at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giles_Corey.

Not all family legends are false

Family legends may provide clues, even when they are not completely accurate. For instance, when I was growing up, I was told that our Eastman ancestors came from Salem, Massachusetts, and participated in the Salem Witch Trials. After researching the family tree for a while, I was disappointed to learn that there were no families named Eastman in Salem during the time of the witch trials. Apparently, the story was false. But wait a minute; there is more to the story.

It seems that the original immigrant named Roger Eastman and his wife Sarah did live about 25 miles north of Salem. Several of the Salem witch trial victims came from their town and, indeed, both Roger and Sarah dictated depositions telling how they believed one of their neighbors was innocent of the claims made against her. The depositions presumably were later read aloud in court in Salem. So, yes, these ancestors sort of “participated” in the Salem With Trials, but only as witnesses.

Another ancestor, named Goodale, did live in Salem during the witch trials, and his descendants later married into the Eastman family. So, indeed we did have ancestors in Salem, but they were not named Eastman. Also, our Eastman ancestors did contribute a bit to the Salem witch trials, although apparently not in person.

While the original family legend told to me turned out to be false, it held at least two nuggets of truth confirmed with other research.

Finally, I have to list one “semi-myth.” There are many variations of this, but generally, it is something like this: “We are descended from royalty.” Another variation is, “Our ancestors were rich and famous.”

Fact: This story is probably true, even though most people who make these claims have no idea of who those ancestors were or when they lived. In fact, you have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, sixteen great-great-grandparents, and so on in a geometric progression. If you go back 300 years, you have roughly 3,000 ancestors. Going back a thousand years results in theoretically billions of ancestors, more people than ever lived on the face of the earth! In reality, the same ancestors will show up in multiple places in your family tree as you have multiple lines of descent from many of these people.

The odds are that at least a few of these millions or billions of ancestors were members of royal families or had money. If we could create complete family trees for thousands of years, every person on the face of the earth probably would find royal ancestors some place in the family tree. The odds of royal ancestry are overwhelming.

Almost everyone is descended from kings and queens. Your challenge is to find your royal ancestors and to document your descent from them!

Family legends are a fascinating part of who we are and where we came from. Many of the storytellers who passed down these tales surely believed them, and even those who didn’t must have had a strong sense of family pride. Why would your ancestors repeat these stories if not to preserve their family’s history? Be aware, however, that many family legends are false or perhaps only partly true. Ferreting out the nuggets of truth can be a fun exercise that enriches your family tree.

37 Comments

“. …North American Indians did not have royalty. There never was any such thing as a Cherokee princess or anything similar in the Navajo, Apache, Pueblo, Abenaki, or other tribes.”
About twenty years ago I lived next to a Pacific Northwest Indian reservation. There were five tribes represented there. A friend of mine was said to be a princess of her tribe. It wasn’t the same type of royalty we associate with Europeans, but “princess” was her designation by her tribal family when speaking to whites like myself; probably because of the connotation that the status is given in the American lexicon, she carried that kind of standing among her own people. It was a sign of respect accorded to her.

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Spoilsport. All our dreams destroyed. Well I still have my Mayflower descendants. No native Americans, Salem Witches. I don’t think my family ever went north of Plymouth. LOL

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As a professional genealogist, I get the greatest satisfaction in sorting fact from fiction in old family stories that I am asked to investigate. A recent US client possessed a detailed Family History notebook compiled by a great-uncle who interviewed his grandparents in their twilight years to record their family lore memories before they were lost forever. In one section, an old lady born in England in 1878 recounts what she knew about her own Irish-born grandparents. She claimed that grandpa Martin was a renowned veterinary surgeon who traveled around the west of Ireland, mainly treating horses belonging to wealthy gentrified folk. He possessed a “Biankini” which was reportedly his bag of surgical implements, and he married Mary, a daughter of the Burke family of Galway, akin to royalty in Irish society. A romance in the posh stables? There was a 20 year age gap between this couple, so the Burkes disowned their daughter for marrying “beneath her status.” This latter declaration did not ring true, to me. A top vet or surgeon would be an eligible partner for the young daughter of a wealthy 19th century Irish family. Research uncovered the facts. The age gap was actually 22 years, and Martin was employed as a Groom (so he did work with horses). I eventually deciphered that the Biankini was a Bianconi, a form of Irish stagecoach. So Martin traveled the West of Ireland as an operative on a very early public transport system, and he would have carried a bag of tools to carry out running repairs to the horses’ hooves and carriage wheels as his Bianconi thundered along poorly maintained rural roads. The parents of Mary Burke may well have frowned upon their daughter eloping with the much older Martin who was basically the humble local bus driver, regardless of their personal wealth. This example of a recounted story ot pre-Famine life in Ireland contained many clues to the facts. I agree with you – mine the stories for nuggets of truth. They’re in there, somewhere.

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Family story 1: There had to be a squaw back there somewhere because of our dark eyes and hair. Sorry Granddad, virtually all your ancestors are accounted for and no squaws were found.
Family story 2: Our family came from Chateau Richer in Canada which was named for a town in France. Yes Granddad there is a town in France called Chateau Richer, but your father’s family were from Saint-Pascal, Quebec.
Family story 3: There was royalty back there. No Granddad, your family came over as peasant farmers and stayed that way for generations.
Family story 4: My grandmother was a gypsy. Yes, Grandma, although your cousin lied to my face about her being blonde and blue-eyed, a picture of her shows that she had a very dark complexion and a thin face which keeps the door open for this to be true. DNA testing has not bourne this out yet.

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“Great Great Grandpa was killed in the battle of Vicksburg”–not exactly–he died in the Regimental hospital of “flux”. His widow’s pension application papers were a gold mine of family history.

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Family legends can resemble game of telephone we played as kids: the word heard by the last person in line is nothing like the word that started the game. Leaving aside the Mayflower, Ellis Island and Indian princess whoppers, sometimes it’s possible to peel back layers of myth and exaggeration to discover the real story. (No, my ancestor was not part of a celebrated outlaw gang. He was a petty thief in another part of the country.)

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My surname escaped an attempted change with my grandathre and his older brother. The brother was the 1st born and when his birth was recorded in Killingly, CT in 1883 he was Louis A Fisher, son of Arthur Fisher. instead of Louis Arsene Frechette, son of Arsene Fisher. The original was later corrected in the town records, (differnt ink, differnt “hand”). In 1888 my grandfather was recoreded in Putnam, CT as John Eugene Fisher, son of Arthur Fisher instead of Eugene Joseph Frechette son of Arsene Frechette.

Their mother’s maiden name has shown up in all sorts of variations. Patra, Patro, Patron, Petrin, Petrane. The challange is what is correct as the variations show up on birth records, census, cemetery records etc. Eventualy I found the cemetery plot in Putnam- different story- and there are stones with the names. The biggest twist? Although the cemeter lists the burials as Petrin—-The stones (which were carved using French as the language) all show the surname as PETRAIN.

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Really enjoyed this article. My father teased us about two brothers who were stowaways on the Mayflower.

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Well in my research several of your MYTHS have provided TRUE and both the historical evidence and DNA have proved them TRUE. A couple of examples. 2nd great grandmother STEWART claimed to be a descendant of the Royal Stewarts and received an inheritance of $3000 and a book on the History of the Stewart Family. At least the descendant of the Royal Stewart Line is True as YDNA proves descent from Sir John Bonkyll Stewart.

The Three Brothers Myth. This Myth persisted in my MOSER/MOSIER family. Well it was more than TRUE it was in FACT 6 BROTHERS and one married Sister that immigrated to America from Germany. All of their baptisms have been located in Germany. They arrived in two different sailings over several years. Later YDNA testing proved them all related as well. Back when I began my reserach none of this was known there was just some circumstantial evidence that a couple of the brothers were related.

Third the name change at Ellis Myth. This was earlier than Ellis and actually happened sometime between leaving Norway and arriving in Chicago in 1852 my 2nd great grandmother born Aslôug ELIFSDOTTER became Anna OLSSON. OLSSON was her father’s patronym. Then when her sister immigrated some years later she also took the name OLSSON. I had written to the archives many years ago and they overlooked the correct records because the names did not match although the place and Birthdates were correct.

My best Friend growing up is a direct descendant of Robert CUSHMAN who did come on the FORTUNE and who did much of the organizational work for the MAYFLOWER and that is sometimes mistakenly referred to as the second sailing of the MAYFLOWERE. When it is just the second sailing of PILGRIMS.

I have many more examples from my nearly 50 years of research. Sometimes MYTHS are complete fantasy but sometimes there is TRUTH in them. Sometimes they are from one family and get ascribed to another, of like a game of Telephone things get jumbled in the translation. I would caution about discarding MYTHS as sometimes they turn out to be TRUE or partially TRUE.

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Myth #5: Our family always spelled the name as

Wessington Way in Sunderland a few miles to the north east of me named after an earlier version (de Wessyngton) of the Washington name

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One of my paternal great-grandmothers claimed that she was the first woman to graduate from the University of Arkansas. This claim was passed down through at least three generations. I contacted alumni relations at the university. The very helpful person I contacted researched all the records, and there was no one of her name, maiden or married, who ever attended the university, let alone graduated from it. I also checked with alumni relations at Arkansas State University, which is located in Jonesboro, where she lived her entire life. Although she was a middle-aged woman when the university was founded, I thought she might have gained admission. Nope. No records supported that either. I don’t know why she made the claim and can only speculate that it was to impress someone or to encourage her children to attend college.

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I like these and have seen all of these in one form another. In a kind of reverse myth, my husband’s last name is Randall and when I started doing the genealogy work, I hit a brick wall searching anything English. Then in a 1900 census I saw that his grandfather was listed as born in RI, but HIS parents as both being born in Italy. I originally thought, “Well, maybe the 2xGGparents were visiting italy when his Great grandfather was born?”
Several years of research later and lots of hitting that brick wall, I find out that the family name is NOT Randall but Marandola. Italian, not English. His great-grandfather called himself at various times:
Celestino Marandola (original)
Charles Randall
Charlie Mrandall
Charles Marand
and those are the ones that I have found so far.
A family myth from my side is that my grandfather’s mother was bed-bound from a stroke but was very interested in Women’s rights. When she heard that women were going to vote, she got up from the bed went to vote, and came back. Not plausible in my book, but told to me by my mom and grandmother.

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Great article. I have to watch my own tendency to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” in reference to family stories when a number of them have been proved (some by me) to be false. My “favorite” was “Matthew Tubbs who was an English fur trapper in the Rainy River region of Minnesota and had a Sioux wife named Jenny.” Actually it was Benjamin (not Matthew) Tubbs, Sr. who lived in what is now Niagara County, New York and was not a fur trapper. However he did serve in the War of 1812 as a spy and spent a lot of time away from his unit in Canada. His family later moved to Macomb County, Michigan (not Minnesota). And his wife was Olive House from Vermont. They later relocated their family to Illinois when he was FINALLY given his bounty land for his service which he had to prove and being separated from his unit was difficult to do. The real story of the Tubbs and related families Lords, Beckwiths, Hamptons, etc is much more interesting than the made up tall tales in my book anyway.

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I remember trying to run down the Cherokee Princess myth in my Mother’s family, except in her case she said it was a Blackfoot princess. No dice- DNA came back zip for NA ancestry.
After my Mom passed I learned from an Aunt that it was a story rooted in truth. While my Mom and Aunts have no Blackfoot ancestry, a line of Cousins do. The brother of my Great Grandfather took a job as a cook and camp hand with a traveling show, left town and returned years later with a Blackfoot wife that he met while with the show. They settled down and had kids, and those cousins can claim that ancestry today.
The best part- That show was Buffalo Bill’s Wild West & Congress of Rough Riders of the World. Sometimes the truth turns out better than the legend.

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Judy Penrod Purcell May 22, 2020 at 12:53 pm

A great uncle gave my mother a long rifle telling her it was a Pennsylvania long rifle owned by our Revolutionary War soldier Thomas Perry. I have the gun now and took it to the Antique Roadshow when it was in Dallas. Guess What! It was made in 1830 in Virginia based on the name on the barrel. By tracking down the Virginia county and my ancestors who lived there in 1830, I now know who it actually belonged to.

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As a child my cousins and I were told we were descended from Pocahontas. Upon research I found my ancestor Eldridge had two wives. The first was descended from her but not the second. I descend from the second. My ancestor must have believed he was a descendant since his older siblings definitely were. He named his children Powhattan, Rolf, Pocahontas. My grandmother was Paulina Pocahontas. A story of almost truth.

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What about the possibility of surname changes at Castle Garden? Were they as rigorous as the folks at Ellis Island?

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I smiled reading this since I’ve run across and proved and disproved family stories and written obits and cemetery headstones (where errors are recorded in stone) throughout 55 years of genealogy research. The journey to finding information is often more interesting than the details sought. In 1962 while doing a genetics project for high school biology class I asked my maternal grandfather where his parents came from (that class assignment detoured to genealogy research, and when I finally got a DNA test I came back to having some interest in genetic research). Gramps said they came from Trondheim (Norway – and he used the Tronder dialect pronunciation he learned from his immigrant parents). Fast forward to 2000, contact with fifth cousins in Norway, getting records from Norway. Yes…, they did embark from – “come from” – Trondheim on an emigrant feeder ship…, but they were each born and raised in a parish northwest of Trondheim in Nord-Trøndelag just off the Trondheimsfjord, as birth, baptism, smallpox vaccination, confirmation, utflytting, records from the parish, as well as emigration records from Trondhiem show. He also pronounced his maternal grandmother’s first name as Kjersti, but the birth/baptism record from Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim and utflytting, inflytting records (she moved to the local parish the other ancestors were born and raised before she was confirmed and eventually she married a local man and gave birth to their children there; she lived to age 97), census data has her name as Kirstina or Kirstine.
Lesson #1 to my young self (and anyone just starting out doing genealogy research): Be specific in your questions! Asking where someone was from vs where they were born, and where they were raised if their family moved, are all different questions.
Ancestors from my seven (known/documented) countries of origin got here between 1620 and 1892 (my Mayflower ancestor twice over is Edward Doty via descendants of two different offspring of Desire Doty and her first husband, William Sherman). Ellis Island didn’t open until 1892, but I don’t think my Swedish grandfather arrived via that route. My Norwegian and Danish ancestors apparently arrived in Quebec (cheaper fare because it’s a shorter distance to Quebec than to NY), then came overland by train to Winnipeg, and took either land (train or wagon) or water transportation via the Red River of the North south into the US where they homesteaded; fares were paid from the port of embarkation to the destination, in any case, via agents of the emigrant feeder ship companies, one of which owned a Canadian-Pacific railroad company.
The invention of the internet and putting images of documents online is still the best thing that ever happened for genealogy researchers! 🙂 I can deal with odd spellings (altho the ones by dyslexic census enumerators are confusing), interchangeable letters, nearly illegible penmanship, different dating systems, etc., in four languages…, but please, please, please, can people correctly transcribe names in legible penmanship for the sake of indices…? I don’t know if they’re newbies, prone to distractions, have dyslexia themselves, or need glasses, but certain simple and legible penmanship has been transcribed incorrectly at times, and it drives me batty!

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Another thing that may happen is that a detail about one ancestor may be transposed to another ancestor. The family story of one of my ancestors says she lived to be 100 years old. No, she died at 88, *but* one of her daughters did live to be 100 (confirmed by newspaper article about her 100th birthday, plus childhood census ages). Also, in a history of Armstrong County, Pennsylvania, the article about a member of the Fiscus family says that his grandfather was “Christopher Fiscus.” No, his grandfather Fiscus was Gerhardt Fiscus. But the article also says that this man’s father married “a Miss Aukerman.” I haven’t found documentation of Catherine (Aukerman) Fiscus’s parents, but there was only one Aukerman/Ackerman family in the area, and the person who appears to be her father was Christopher Aukerman. So the Fiscus who had the article put in the book knew that he had a grandfather named Christopher, but was incorrect about which one. I use this as part of my justification for making Catherine Aukerman a daughter of Christopher.

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Re: Myth #1. In my research I came across something that conflicts somewhat with the standard explanation debunking this myth. My wife’s grandfather was listed as Wladislaw KRUSZEWSKI on the arrival passenger list of the SS Oldenberg on 20 Nov 1906, which is on file at Ellis Island. The Labor Department’s Certifiate of Arrival Division, Ellis Island later provied him with a certificate that certified that he had arrived on 20 Nov 1906 on the SS Oldenberg as Wladislaw KRASZUCKA. Considering Walter’s own language handicap at that time I can imagine that if he had presented the Labor certificate to a potential employer the name error might have affected his name of record.

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I have learned that if two people can trace their lineage in North America back to the early 1600s – they are probably related to each other. I can trace mine to an English girl who arrived in Jamestown in 1610 – but I’ve met at least two other people who can do the same. And another trace of mine goes back to the 1630s in NY – my daughter’s husband’s lineage goes back to the same man! There just weren’t many Europeans around back then – so if you can draw the line back that far (13-15 generations) you are probably less than 6 feet apart.

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My grandfather with overwhelming German ancestry had always said he was German with a wee bit of French. Turns out he was correct. His ancestors lived near the Alsace Loraine region and did in fact marry a French girl.

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Arthur Carter Rogers May 22, 2020 at 5:26 pm

My grandfather, Albert Rogers claimed that he was the son of Captain Nelson Rogers, a Sea Captain, and a mother named Anna. He said his father was killed in a sea accident and that when he (my grandfather) came of age he traveled all over the United States until the money ran out. He said he was born in New Jersey, then later he said he was born in Wisconsin. His birthday was on January 20, 1860. That’s about all we knew about him, but naturally, records should be found somewhere.
One of his daughters started the search by looking for New Jersey records after he died. No records were found. An older grandson looked and looked but could find nothing. I took an autosomal DNA test and couldn’t find any possible links. Eventually I took a Y DNA test. No Rogers families were found at 67 markers, but there was a preponderance of close Cadys at that level. So I looked for an autosomal cousin with Cady ancestors and quickly I found one with an ancestor named Nelson Cady, a blacksmith married to Hannah Rogers who had a son born in Wisconsin, 5/12 years old in July 1860 according to census records so probably born in January 1860. The son, named Arthur Cady, and his family had moved from Wisconsin when Arthur was young and settled in New Jersey, 1870 census. In 1880, they were in Binghamton, New York and Arthur was a cigar maker.
In 1883, the treasurer of the Cigar Maker’s union, Arthur Cady, skipped town with the union’s money according to a local newspaper. Arthur Cady must have changed his name to Albert Rogers, my grandfather, settled in Missouri, and married my grandmother in 1894. The myth that the family researched for many years with some facts, some lies, and finally two types of DNA tests was solved at last.
Arthur Carter Rogers, son of Arthur Rogers, son of Albert Rogers aka Arthur Cady

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D Christine Adams May 22, 2020 at 5:39 pm

I agree that the much-repeated account of “3 brothers” who went in different directions is often a fond wish or a fable; but as genealogists, we should never dismiss any generalization out-of-hand. One of my maternal immigrant ancestors had the surname “Erdlen” or “Erdlin” with a few rarer variations thrown in. Three brothers, and only 3, emigrated to the US from Bavaria. Although they traveled to the US together, within a very short time, one moved east to settle in Philadelphia; one went as far west as Pittsburgh, and one moved to OH and died young, killed in a train accident. His two sons, upon reaching adulthood, went to Colorado, Colorado, Nebraska, etc. and the other went to Kansas, Colorado, South Dakota and California. All of this information has been verified with reliable sources. So, the 3 brothers did come to the US from Germany; and did pretty closely live out the script of one moving east, one moving across PA to the west, and one moving far west. Never say never.

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I do not have a story of 3 brothers , I have a .8 brothers in my story I do not remember who posted it or on which board but it was not posted as a joke. The story was that there was a family named Moore who had 8 sons. The farm owned by their father was not very large and if divided amongst the children would be too small to successfully support any of them so it was decided that the oldest son would inherit the farm and the 7 younger boys would build a flat boat, fill it with supplies and float the river, stopping at places which had land available and at each likely spot one of the brothers would choose to stay and start a life on land of his own whilst the remaining boys would continue onward until all 7 had chosen That all may be an elaborate myth however I do not find it difficult to believe, in fact I find it makes sense because after more than 30+ years searching and following all the rules, my 2nd Great Grandfather John Moore is still parentless. It is a fact ( in my mind anyway) that Moore’s usually follow the wonderfully unimaginative custom of naming their children in patriarchal order: 1st son after Dad’s father #2 after Moms. # 3 after Dad’s brother #4 Moms and so fortth . believe me there are so many Moore’s all over each and every territory, state in county in Colonial America. that 7sons striking out on their own is entirely with the realm of possibly. I further believe that it is very possible that all 8 of those brothers probably had 6 or 8 sons as well, there are just so dang many Moore’s in jus that one era and general area . It Does not matter that they are not alive at the same time because the records are not gone…they accumulate and cumulative totals are enough to drive a researcher to tears. Besides truth is often stranger than fiction.

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Curtis Starr Cook May 25, 2020 at 10:53 pm

A three brothers story!
My father’s father and my mother’s father’s sister were both amateur genealogists who, naturally, mostly cared about their own families. My father’s mother’s family had a kind of hazy history that Granpa briefly attempted to penetrate, then threw up his hands in disgust. What he came up with was:
As you all know, before the Pilgrims came to Massachusetts they moved to Holland for a while, but felt they were in danger of losing their language and culture (Holland was too liberal for them; far more liberal than England), so they got up a company and backed the Mayflower expedition, which landed where it was supposed to in order to keep them away from the royal government in Virginia. What you probably don’t know, but which follows logically, is that not all Pilgrims were of one mind, so a few of them remained behind in Holland when the rest sailed for America.
Time passes — about a century or such matter — and the stay-behinds had become indistinguishable from the native Dutch. Although relocating wasn’t common back then (early 1700s), especially across national borders, sometime during the wars between France and Spain which were mostly held by common agreement in Holland, three brothers of the Wolfe clan ended up in France, from which they emigrated to New Orleans (so post 1718). After some time there they began working their way slowly up the Mississippi (driven out by the great hurricane?) to its headwaters, then around the Great Lakes east to Quebec or the easternmost reaches of Ontario, mostly making their living as bear hunters. They arrived some time before King George’s War (1744-48) and pretty much disappear. Presumably they married local girls, and there’s no telling which one my grandmother descended from. Time passes until c.1900.
An entire group of Wolfes ‘come in over the ice’ to northern New York in the dead of winter, near the St. Lawrence county/Franklin county border. This is the polite northern way of saying they were wetbacks. Among this quite large group was Grandma’s mother and three (yes) of her mother’s brothers, who all had real names (Granpa never found the first names of the other three, which makes the whole thing highly suspect), but the only important one was Uncle Phil, who was a notorious card sharp (not ‘shark’). None of them spoke a word of English, although all of them except Grandma’s grandmother eventually learned. Grandma’s mother married a local Miller (who was probably actually a Mueller) and sixty years or so later I came along.
Just as with the Miller/Mueller thing, in Granpa’s family his mother’s mother’s family name is problematical. About half of that side of the family call themselves Phillips while the other half use Phelps.

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Ellis Island can be confusing. Not all names we know our ancestors by are what is listed there. In my case I knew the name of the ship and year of arrival. In searching the records of that ship I found my great grandparents with one name, their daughter listed as Svendsdater and my grandfather with a different name, none of which they were known by in America. But a story Gramps often told using those names confirmed the names of Gramps and his parents listed on his ship’s manifest.

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Another myth is “Our family has always been Baptists, Catholics, LDS so I don’t need to check any other churches.” I found the local Lutheran Church and all the records of my grandparents. mother, aunts cousins, 3 of 4 siblings (one sister was born in a different state), but no baptismal records for yours truly. I actually had a baptismal certificate for me, but no indication of where I was baptized. I assumed where and was wrong. I finally asked Mother and she told me what happened. The pastor of the family church was on vacation and they took me to another Lutheran Church. I’m sure if my life had been in danger of the death they might well have taken me to the neighboring Catholic, Methodist or Episcopal Churches (but probably no the Wisconsin Synod Church). Be especially diligent in the 19th century. People were constantly changing their minds.

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When the furtraders travelled West and met the indigenous people, they called the chiefs’ daughters princesses. The chiefs went along with this because it seemed like the white man then gave their daughters more value.

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I am still looking for 3 of 5 brothers who supposedly came to North America – two to Canada and three to the U.S. No trace of the U.S. ones and the name is so common, there are dozens of possibilities but no evidence to support the 5 brothers’ theory!

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Myth #1: Our name was changed at Ellis Island. – this one troubles me because I have the same person travelling from Eastern Europe through Liverpool and then to Ellis Island. His surname was spelled three different ways on three different records and the Ellis Island certificate uses the worst misspelling of the name – one the person never used in North America or in documents in his country.. I don’t think it was a matter of routine to change the names but they were not perfect in recording the name consistently. In my grandmother’s case, her travel documents were in Polish so her name was officially that way but she never used it herself when giving her name at border crossings and her name was misspelled in the passenger list and did not match her Polish spelling. In fact, they recorded her first name as a nickname but the wrong nickname. So this is one myth that has some truth to it. I keep hearing this is a myth but I don’t accept it as the case for Eastern European immigrants.

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Great article. Just to clarify Myth #6: Our ancestors came over on the Mayflower “you must be able to document descent from one or more of the surviving passengers”. Actually, you have to also prove that “settled” there. There are some (e.g. Gardinar/Gardiner) who were on the ship and were ship-hands, but never settled there. A thing that one can look at are the land (1623) and cattle (1627) divisions. For example, Gardinar got the one-acre plot next to Bradford but never claimed it. Governor William Bradford, writing in 1651, states that Richard Gardinar became a seaman, and died at sea or in England (actually he migrated to Maryland in 1637). Their last conclusive reference to Richard Gardinar comes in a letter written by Emmanuel Altham in May 1624.

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Also, one can look at the people (all male) who signed the Mayflower Compact which was signed during the famous voyage (i.e. Gardiner was a signer). The Mayflower Compact is considered one of the models for the U.S. Constitution. No originals of the document survive but Bradford documented it well.

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Robert Fitzgerald June 4, 2020 at 12:57 am

Re: Myth #5: The spelling problems described were undoubtedly often exacerbated in French Canada, when an anglophone census taker or other official was obliged to record information dictated by an illiterate francophone subject. As you mentioned, Dick, their only recourse would be to write down what they thought they heard.
My French-Canadian maternal grandmother was named Dolphine Poulin. So far in my investigations, I have found the surname spelled 15 different ways: Poulin, Poulain, Poullain, Pulaw, Pullaw, Poolah, Pullen, Pullan, Pullah, Pulau, Pulen, Pulin, Paulin, Pauline, and Poolak. (This last version is just an erroneous transcription of Poolah, which can be seen in the original handwritten census record.)
My maternal grandfather was James Burns. He was one of 13 siblings, 4 of whom (ages 5, 7, 10, and 14) all died of diphtheria in a period of 3 weeks in December 1884 (one on Christmas Day!). In the cemetery where several family members are buried (St. Philip Neri Cemetery in Toledo (Bellamy’s Lake), Ontario), the surname spelling differs among the tombstones – even from one sibling to another. The names here are Burns, Bern, and Berns.

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I am by no means a professional or even experienced genealogist, but I have done quite a bit of genealogy on many different families. It is amazing on all the different stories and claims one can find on the net. Which one do you believe??? For me trying to find solution to these problems is the most fascinating thing about genealogy. However the truth on these myths can most of the times not be established and it is to me the most discouraging part. I think genealogy in the past centuries was done more often than not by people hired to do it for families with better than average financial means. As a result I would not be surprised that “researchers” who came to those impasses just assumed a certain lineage or fact and usually chose a more presentable option (famous, rich, royalty etc) than lets say criminal, poor, anti christian behavior etc. To please the people paying them for their research. For this reason I try to double, triple check things on the net by verifying different posts, sites etc. However how can I be sure that they to did not do the same thing and just copied it from the same source? After all, I am sure that I am not the only one out there that does not have the time or money to go and check out all local records of every person. I have checked a relatively small number of the more than 30000 Individuals I have in my loosely put family tree (taken from reputable sites) in church records myself and found many errors on those very same reputable sites like ancestry or family search. A lot of errors are also made with using census records. Many census records are misleading as sometimes children of deceased relatives lived in a household and then people just assume that it must be the children of the head of the household.

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Curtis Starr Cook June 21, 2020 at 1:19 pm

“As a result I would not be surprised that “researchers” who came to those impasses just assumed a certain lineage or fact and usually chose a more presentable option (famous, rich, royalty etc) than lets say criminal, poor, anti christian behavior etc. To please the people paying them for their research.” — To paraphrase a comment made somewhere above, if you go back far enough everyone is descended from a king and everyone is descended from a horse thief. I guess it’s human nature to emphasize the royal ancestors and ignore the felons.

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To me you have opened a can of worms with this post. We need to examine the colonial records to see what they left out. And Native people were primarily erased – on purpose.

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