Now, let me just say that I don't think your ancestor, family member or cousin is a liar for saying that you are related to that famous person or somehow connected. I think these stories happen for a lot of different reasons. Maybe your great-great great uncle was named after Robert E. Lee. Pretty soon this story becomes "we're related to General Robert E. Lee." Or maybe the story has a kernel of truth in it and over time, like the childhood game of telephone, the fact starts out one way and then ends a totally different way. One cousin of mine told me proudly one day that he was related to Edgar Allen Poe. I mentally struggled thinking of how I could have missed such an important connection. But then going over my PAF database I figured out that his ancestor's family had been from Poe County, Indiana.
It's only recently that we have had so much information at our fingertips; our ancestors didn't receive half the information that we have available in their lifetimes. But even with our information we sometimes get the story messed up. Just think of those forwarded e-mails you get that aren't quite true but keep getting passed along like they were fact.
So what to do about those family stories? I have three suggestions:
1. Research the person in question, your ancestor. Develop a timeline for their life. Figure out what they were doing during different time periods. Ask yourself as you research, could the story be true? Is it the right time period? Was your ancestor in the right place? Are their ways to confirm the story?
2. Research the famous person. The good thing about famous people is that a lot is written about them. Check out books by historians and bibliographers. See if there are any archival collections with information about them whether their own documents, or the documents of a bibliographer or some person who knew them. Check out the newspapers of the day and remember that a famous person isn't just written up in their local regional paper but in papers all over the country. Do some genealogy on the famous person that can help to narrow information linking your family with the famous person.
George Morgan in his article, Researching Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors, points out some of the documents that might detail a famous persons' life. The following is an annotated version of his list:
• Newspapers (Remember that these can usually be borrowed through interlibrary loan or may be available online through a genealogy service or a state digital newspaper project)
• Illustrations of him/her (might be available although an online digital archive like the Library of Congress or through a museum or library)
• Correspondence (museums, libraries, universities, special collections/manuscript collections)
• Legal Records (depending on the person this could include court records, jail records, etc. Don't forget that they could have been sued by people they came in contact with for a variety of reasons.)
• Biographies (done by historians or those who knew the person. Use the library or an online bookseller to find even rare or out of print editions.)
• Local. state, regional and/or national histories (These could be found microfilmed at the Family History Library or digitized through sources such as Heritage Quest, Ancestry or Google Books.)
I would also add that neighbors, ministers, community members and family members may have written about the famous person before, during and after they were famous. That's where using NUCMC, PERSI, or a university manuscript collection can be helpful.
3. Research the time period. This can help you figure out the story and whether it is plausible. For example, I was told that my great-great grandfather had been a Pony Express rider. When I started to look into that story I realized that there was no way this could be true. I looked at the who, where, when and why of the Pony Express. Who was the typical Pony Express rider? Why were they chosen to be riders? Where did they ride and most importantly when? Just answering a few of those questions led me to realize that this was simply a family legend and not a family fact. Start your research by asking yourself, could this be true, does it make sense? And then go out and research it to confirm or deny its validity.
Sometimes confirming or denying family stories means more than just looking up some census, military or vital records. It can mean acting as a detective and checking out the story and all those involved.