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.
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.
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.