Family Tradition

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 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:

  • 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 royal descent.

    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 can't.

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