Family Tradition

by Sue Roe


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 brother.

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:

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 can't.

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