by Sue Roe
REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION
Before I talk about Family Tradition as a pitfall in genealogical research,
let me say this... Family Traditions can be wonderful and valid and true. Even
those that prove to be not quite true can be good clues, but we need to exercise
caution. Many family traditions are greatly exaggerated or completely
fabricated. Therefore, it is best not to accept them without proof -- lest we
fall into a pit. I wish someone had told me this when I first began!
My ancestor, Oliver Hartwell Cook, gave rise to two traditions that proved to
be untrue. The family always said that he was named after an ancestor named
Oliver Hartwell. His father was Ralph Cook and his grandfather was Elijah Cook.
I traced them back to Putney, VT, and found a record of Elijah Cook's marriage
to Laifa Hartwell. I also found records of the births of all of their children.
So far, so good. The family said her father was named Oliver Hartwell. There was
a Joseph Hartwell in Putney, but no other Hartwell men of an age to be her
father. So I began to look in the surrounding neighborhood and beyond for an
Oliver Hartwell. I found several, but none the "fit" as a father for Laifa. In
the course of time, I got in touch with a Hartwell family "expert" who told me
that Laifa was an nickname for Relief and she was a daughter of Joseph Hartwell
of Putney -- which proved to be true. I had fallen into a pit! I believed what
the family said and didn't look beyond it. After all, didn't we have a whole
bevy of descendants named after Oliver Hartwell? The family was wrong --- and
believing what they said caused me to not even consider the most logical person
as her father. If it hadn't been for this tradition, I would have looked at
Joseph Hartwell right away and saved myself much time and effort. The truth is
that Joseph Hartwell had a brother named Oliver who died in the war, leaving no
descendants of his own, and my third great grandfather was named after this
Another family tradition said the Oliver Hartwell Cook was born in Oswego
Co., New York. He eventually migrated to San Diego Co., California, where he was
mentioned in a history book as having been born in Oswego Co. So I began a
search for his father in Oswego Co. I gathered information on every Cook family
in that county and didn't find a single clue. Eventually, someone said to me,
"You know Oswego and Otsego sound a lot alike and have been confused before. Why
don't you try looking in Otsego Co.?" I did and I found his father immediately!
Here is a case where a family tradition got into print and, as a beginner, I
thought anything in print must be true. So I went off on a "wild goose chase"
that could have been avoided if I had looked at the census index for the entire
state of New York instead of looking only in Oswego Co. for Ralph Cook.
There are some very popular categories of family traditions that very often
prove to be untrue. Here are a few of them:
- DESCENT FROM A FAMOUS PERSON. It is particularly popular to claim descent
from a United States President or from European royalty. If your family makes
such a claim, look out! There are a whole bunch of bogus genealogies in print
that claim various American immigrants are descended from English royalty --
and most of them are unproven and untrue. Use caution when trying to prove a
As far as descent from a US President is concerned, I
can give another example from my family that will make the point. I have an
ancestor named Martin Van Buren. He was related to President Martin Van Buren.
My branch of the family never claimed that he was the President but, sometime
after I had his lineage all proven and had even joined the DAR on his service,
I received some family records from another branch of the family. These
records showed birth and death dates for him that I knew were not correct. On
a hunch, I looked up the birth and death dates of President Martin Van Buren
and, you guessed it, they were his dates. Families just love the idea of being
descended from someone famous!
- DESCENT FROM AN AMERICAN INDIAN. This is another popular one -- in fact,
it seems to be growing in popularity. Many people will claim it without a
shred of proof. If your family tells you that you are descended from an
American Indian, don't accept it until it is proven. The fact is, there
weren't all that many intermarriages back in the early days, not nearly enough
to account for all the people who claim such descent.
- DESCENT FROM THREE BROTHERS. For some reason, there are an excessive
number of stories where a family claims that three (not two or four)
immigrated and the family descends from one of them. No one knows why three
brothers are more popular than another number. All I can say is that you
shouldn't assume that any persons were brothers without proof. Even if three
(or another number) men of the same surname arrive in a town at the same time,
you cannot assume that they are brothers.
- DESCENT FROM A HESSIAN SOLDIER WHO CAME DURING THE REVOLUTIONARY WAR. It
seems that many people of German descent make this claim, whether or not it is
true. If you believe you have German ancestry, you need to do some research to
find out who the Hessian soldiers were. Not every German who came, even if he
came during the Revolution, was a Hessian soldier. There are records both here
and in Germany that can be used to find out if your ancestor was a Hessian
soldier. Don't assume it without proof.
These are just some of the popular categories and examples that come to mind
-- enough to give you the idea, I'm sure. I recommend that you enjoy those
family traditions that you can prove and be quick to let go of those that you
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