Ask Ancestry Anne

Question: My middle name is Lee for General Lee, a rumored relative of my paternal grandmother. I’m also said to be related to Martha Washington, but I can’t find a connection to either. Which way should I work – forward from the legend to my family or backward until I reach the legend?
-- Martha Garstang Hill

Answer: The short answer is start with your own family. Family legends are often a mixture of a fact or two with some wishful thinking thrown in, so trying to trace from the famous to the modern day is very much like searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack.

Instead, start with your paternal grandmother. Who were her parents? Document each one then focus on her grandparents. My guess is you will find the evidence you’re looking for in either your great-great-grandparents or your great-great-great-grandparents. Remember, since you’re trying to prove if a legend is true, the best and easiest place to start is with what you know and systematically work your way back. That way you’ll be sure you’re discovering your family, and if you happen to find Robert E. Lee along the way, that’s even better.

Be skeptical of all family legends no matter how attractive they are.  Skepticism will lead to better research on your part. My own family always claimed that we are related to “Bigfoot” Wallace. I’ve never found any facts to support this, but I’ve found plenty of other great family stories that are supported along the way.

As you research your own family, pay particularly close attention to any males born between 1818 and 1846 to see if they served in the Civil War and, more specifically, if they served in the Army of Northern Virginia. If it turns out that your family isn’t related to Robert E. Lee, this may turn out to be the source of the legend – your ancestor may have served under Robert E. Lee instead.

Also, look into history to see if it can lead you to answers. Robert E. Lee’s wife was Mary Anna Randolph Custis, the great granddaughter of Martha Washington and her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis. Robert E. Lee had seven children, but only two of them had children – William Henry Lee and Robert Edward Lee. A quick Internet search on both of these gentlemen will probably tell you if either could be in a direct line of your own ancestors.

Remember to focus first on finding your own family. That way, whether you watch their lives unfold in history books or census records, you’ll always know that you’ve uncovered the moments that matter most to your family tree.

Happy Searching!

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