Brigham Young, circa 1855-1865. Image courtesy Library of Congress.
"You know we're related to Brigham Young."
That's what my Grandma Johnson told me way back when I was first starting to show an interest in our family history. I was fairly impressed. When it came to matters of our ancestry, Grandma was always right.
Except when she wasn't.
Working With the Family Legends
Family legends, such as the one my grandma told me, can be tricky things. They can sound so awesome that we want to believe them. They can also sound too good to be true, and we end up discounting them. Both of those strategies are troublesome. If we believe them, we could be adding all kinds of falsehoods to our family tree. If we discount them, we might be missing out on something.
The key is reaching a balance between belief and dismissal. That's where analysis and research come in.
Look for Plausibility
Grandma's claim that we are related to Brigham Young has some problems when it comes to plausibility. First, there's the matter that our family has deep roots in Ohio and West Virginia, not Utah or New England (where Brigham Young was born and raised). There's also the matter that Grandma came from a long line of Methodists. So far, there isn't a whole lot of overlap when it came to geography or religion. This legend doesn't seem very plausible.
There is the matter of Brigham Young spending time in Ohio. My ancestors are from Ohio. Could there be something there' That's the next step: research.
Research the Facts
When I got a bit older, I started comparing what I had documented about my family tree with some facts about Brigham Young. My family settled in Washington County, Ohio (in the southeastern part of the state). Prior to that, they had been in present-day West Virginia, having migrated there from Scotland.
Brigham Young, on the other hand, was born in Vermont and raised in Massachusetts. In 1832, he joined Joseph Smith at Kirtland, Ohio, which is in the northeast part of the state -- approximately 170 miles from where my ancestors lived.
Even extending the research back to Brigham Young's ancestors and comparing them to my ancestors didn't lead to anything. His ancestry in England isn't anywhere near my ancestry in Scotland. (Of course, there could be something way, WAY back. But back to the plausibility factor -- how plausible is it that it would have been passed down that we're related to Brigham Young when the connection would have to be back in the 1600s' Possible, but not likely, especially considering everything else against this.)
The Kernel of Truth
The thing about family legends is that they sometimes contain a kernel of truth. The story about great-grandpa having fought with Sherman in his March to the Sea' The kernel in that story might be that great-grandpa served in the Civil War.
Could it be that one of my collateral relatives had joined the Mormons when they were in Ohio' Could that fact have changed into "We're related to Brigham Young"? So far, I haven't found any of my ancestors' siblings who became Mormon (either in Ohio or elsewhere). That doesn't seem to be the origin of the story.
Is there a kernel of truth to Grandma's story' It turns out there is... sort of. While I have not been able to find any familial relationship to Brigham Young or anything connecting my relatives to the early Mormon church, there is one tiny connection between Brigham Young and my grandmother. Her maiden name was Young. Considering all of the research, I think the origin of her statement that "We're related to Brigham Young" was the fact that her maiden name was the same.
Family legends can be entertaining and frustrating. Treat them like you would any other piece of evidence. Analyze them and check for plausibility. Research the facts and evaluate how the story holds up. The entire story might not be true, but there could be a piece of it that is true. That's the piece that you want to find.