Proving (Or Disproving) Family Tales

Although my front lawn is still sporting a fake cemetery (which my daughter promises she’ll pack up this weekend), we’ve officially moved on to Thanksgiving planning. Emails are circulating with menu items and I’m looking forward to relaxing with family, and of course talking a little family history. It seems like the stories really seem to flow during the holiday season—some true, some perhaps with a trace of truth.

Stories that stray from the truth may be due to “embellishments” that have been added over the years for entertainment, to prop up the family status, or perhaps to gloss over an indiscretion. And sometimes, they’re just due to fading memories. Whatever the reason, it falls on us to use our skills as family historians to uncover the real story behind the family tales.

Details, Details…
When a family story surfaces, gather all the details you can. The more details you have, the better chance you have of proving or disproving a story. Ask questions and if possible, try to get information from several independent sources. Aunt Lilly and Aunt Mae may remember different aspects of the event and the details they recall can provide clues as to what parts of the story may be true and inconsistencies can be more closely examined.

Does It Make Sense?
Ask yourself if the story makes sense in the context of time. There was a legend in our family that the father of one of our ancestors came over with Lafayette. Since that particular ancestor was born in 1837, if his father had come over at the time of the American Revolution, he would have been a bit old to have fathered my ancestor. So it’s highly unlikely that that is the case.

When you’re weighing whether a story is true, creating a chronology of events that includes historical events and everything you know about your ancestor can help you gain a little perspective. 
What’s Provable?
Look for details that can be proven through records. With our Lafayette story, there was one other possibility. The Marquis de Lafayette returned to the United States in 1824. If our ancestor was with him on that trip, the story is a little more plausible, but we can see from his passenger arrival record that he wasn’t among those in the General’s party.

Was he on the crew? It’s likely that we’ll never know, and since that story is one that is common among family myths, I’m not going to spend time chasing that particular tale. Instead I’ll conduct research on that ancestor just as I would anyone else and see where the trail leads without any pre-conceived notions.

Most stories aren’t as grandiose, but still may have resulted in records being created. Was the story newsworthy? Say Uncle Jerome was hit by an ice truck. That could well have been in the local newspaper. How old was he when it happened? Estimating the date will make a newspaper search easier.

With accidents there is also the possibility of a lawsuit, which would have created court records, and possibly other newspaper pieces. Did he die of his injury? In addition to the cause of death listed on his death certificate, there may have been a coroner’s inquest.

Good Story, Wrong Guy
When dates are inconsistent, perhaps your family story is also referring to the wrong generation, or even the wrong line of the family. Another of our family stories was that one of my ancestors, Thomas Tobin, who was a hatter, made a hat for Abraham Lincoln. I later learned that Thomas’ brothers were also hatters and one of them was enumerated in the 1870 census living in Washington, D.C. Was he there during the Civil War and did Aunt Olive confuse the two brothers in her story? I’ll probably never know for sure, but I can do some research in city directories and see whether George was in D.C. during the time Abraham Lincoln was alive.

Honing Your Investigative Skills
Family stories are a great way to sharpen your investigative skills. Not only will the real family stories add depth and interest to your family history, but you’ll also be able to use those skills when records don’t agree or when you’re trying to sort your ancestors from others. And of course, who doesn’t love a good story?


Juliana has been writing and editing newsletters for more than thirteen years and is now in full panic mode after coming to the realization that the holidays are almost upon us.

Other articles in the 13 November 2011 Weekly Discovery: 

> When Research Takes You to a New Place

> Family History Tip: The "Ellis Island" of New England 

> Photo Corner