Family Legends: Facts or Fiction?

Today I read a delightful article, People Share The Biggest Twists In Their Family History, written by Eric Spring and published in the web site at It was “delightful” because it listed all sorts of stories about ancestors, stories that have been handed down in various families through the generations.

As much as I enjoyed the article, I must say I was very disappointed the article never mentioned the word “accuracy.” I have no way or proving or disproving any of these stories but they certainly will look bogus to any experienced genealogist.

Even without any sort of proof, I have to say that all of these stories are “questionable.”

Here are a couple of examples:

“Interesting, if not incredibly sad. I had a great great grandma (or aunt, can’t remember) who had 13 children out of wedlock, all by different men. She was nicknamed notoriously loose Julie by her town.”

“Also one of these women (either my g-grandma or my g-g-grandma) was involved in the first car wreck in her city as a teenager when she stole her parent’s car and drove it into a horse-drawn buggy. A legend.”

I wrote about the many myths in stories handed down in families over the generations few weeks ago at If you are interested, you might want to read that article.

If you are looking for some amusing, although questionable, stories, grab a salt shaker, open it, take a few grains of salt, and then read People Share The Biggest Twists In Their Family History at You probably will also want to read the comments at the end of the article.


Family legends are both fun and frustrating – fun because they reveal a need to add spice/adventure/justification to what might otherwise be a boring and undistinguished family history; frustrating because they often contain a crumb of truth hidden among the exaggerations and glorious fictions.
It’s no different in my family, where there are al least two versions of the adventures of my paternal 4ggpa, who (maybe) arrived in North America sometime circa 1750, maybe somewhere along the Gulf Coast or, well, possibly “back East” somewhere; who spoke no English on arrival and whose first English word was “door”; who was captured by and escaped from an Indian war party, by knifing their dogs and swimming a raging river and who served as a scout for “Mad” Anthony Wayne during the Revolutionary War.
A fun story but utterly unproven. Yet there’s that germ of truth somewhere in the story – maybe the Gulf Coast arrival, maybe the “back East” arrival in one of the German settlements, maybe neither. For all I know or have been able to prove, 4ggpa might’ve been an alien from outer space whose space ship crashed here, marooning him among us


I started my genealogical research with a legend that turned out to have plenty of kernels of truth. According to the story, my ancestor was the son of King Victor Emmanuel of Italy (there were three King Victor Emmanuels, by the way) who changed his name to Manuel after he married “a woman from the Islands” and was booted out of the royal family. It turns out Luther Manuel, who was born in Maine, married a woman from Maine’s Malaga Island, which was populated by a mixed-race group that was forcibly removed by the state in 1912. The story originated with one of my grandmother’s aunts who wanted so much to “whte-wash” the family.


Our family legends are what got me started in genealogy and,eventually, two degrees and a career as a historian. On one side we were descended from a pirate and on the other Ethan Allen. Actually, the pirate turned out to be a privateer on Long Island Sound during the Revolution and his ancestors had come in 1631 as part the great Puritan migration. The Ethan Allen story was a bit closer to the truth as my mother’s ancestors marched with Allen on Ticonderoga.


My interest in family history started with visits to my grandmother, a real pioneer lady. I would run to her and say, “Grandma, would you tell me a story about the olden days?” And she did. Many of them. Almost all of her stories were true in their broadest sense. Details, such as dates, were often accurate or very close to true, as I discovered later. Broader stories of migration and life were found to place ancestors in the middle of important movements in American history. Only the story of an ancestor who was a “German princess” was found to be deeply fanciful. Many other stories gave me a point from which to start research, and a context to connect with history. Without those stories and traditions, this quest for ancestors would not be nearly as much fun, and less rewarding.


Even the most outlandish “legend” might have some tiny kernel of truth. On the other hand, a 2c1r of my husband actually built a paper trail for the family leading back to five Mayflower ancestors. Yet that connection to legendary history was unknown to my hubby’s part of the family. So it’s important to continue telling the stories and keep them alive through the generations!


I don’t think any information should be ignored, but clearly stated. Some people only want to record “Facts”. If some of the stories I list as “Family Lore” were not known, the facts would never have been found. I might not find the fact to match the family lore now; but, what is to say that someone in the future might be able to..


My great-grandfather was a bricklayer in St. Albans, north of London. The family legend had it that he had died when he fell from a scaffold at the second story of a building he was working on. I recently discovered a newspaper account of the coroner’s inquest that said he slipped and fell from the peak of the roof of the building. It was still a work-related accident, but the details got changed.


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