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What Amelia Earhart Can Teach You About Family Mysteries

Recently released declassified documents on Amelia Earhart illustrate several valuable lessons for any genealogist who is attempting to unravel their own family mystery. If you have ever made any of these statements to yourself while researching a family legend, keep the mysterious case of Amelia in mind.


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The recently-released movie Amelia, starring Hilary Swank and Richard Gere, has revived interest in the mysterious disappearance of famous aviatrix Amelia Earhart, who vanished in 1937 during an attempt to circle the globe. is providing free, temporary access to a declassified file from the early 1960s regarding Earhart's disappearance, as part of the Reports of Deaths of American Citizens Abroad collection of documents. has digitized the collection in conjunction with the National Archives and Research Administration. You can find the files at http://

Does this file contain the secret to Earhart's mysterious disappearance? No, but it does illustrate several valuable lessons for any genealogist who is attempting to unravel their own family mystery. If you have ever made any of the following statements to yourself while researching a family legend, keep the mysterious case of Amelia Earhart in mind.

"This story definitely happened" or "This story could never happen"

An outlandish story may have a grain of truth in it, or may be totally false or completely accurate. If the story is compelling enough to you, it's worth the time to follow leads and see what you can confirm. Earhart's file on deals with one of the theories surrounding her disappearance - that she and navigator Fred Noonan crashed on Saipan, a Japanese-held island in the Pacific, and were imprisoned and/or executed by the Japanese.

Other theories include that Earhart crashed into the Pacific, never to be found, that she landed on a deserted island and died, and even that she was secretly rescued and smuggled back alive into the United States under a new identity. While some of these ideas seem ridiculous, no leads can be taken for granted when you're starting out with nothing. Everything deserves a follow-up.

"I have an oral tradition for this story. That's good enough."

While oral tradition can give valuable information to a genealogist, it doesn't conclusively prove a story. The rumor that Amelia Earhart had been imprisoned on Saipan seems to have been popular amongst U. S. servicemen stationed there after the war, but that in itself doesn't prove that she was there. Several servicemen spoke of island natives who described a white woman and man crashing on the island, but language barriers, the natives' unfamiliarity with Earhart, and the eagerness of Westerners to believe could have started that story. Language and cultural barriers, as well as the eagerness to believe a story, can influence your family legends as well.

Oral tradition can give you good leads and may be a clue that bolsters more evidence, but it can't stand on its own. This can include eye-witnesses as well. According to the records, in 1960 the San Mateo Times interviewed U. S. Army Sergeant Thomas E. Devine. Devine claimed an islander took him to the unmarked grave of Amelia Earhart on Saipan, and offered PFC John R. Boggs as an eyewitness.

Boggs, however didn't seem to remember much at all. "Boggs said that he does not recall the conversation," the paper reported. "I probably just stood by and ignored them," he told the Times.

The Earhart files reveal that both the newspaper and the military felt Devine was trustworthy and sincere. But even good, truthful witnesses can have inaccurate memories. If you're lucky enough to have an eye-witness to your story, ask many questions that you can verify in other ways later.

"There are documents on this story. That proves it."

There are 73 documents in the online report about Amelia Earhart. Many are repeats, and most simply report Devine's claim about finding Earhart's grave on Saipan. Documents repeating someone's claim don't prove that it actually happened, however.

Besides looking for documents which provide more proof than oral tradition, be sure to read the original document yourself, when unraveling your family legend. Innocent and not-so-innocent misunderstandings add up quickly when you haven't had a chance to peruse the original document. Tracking them down might take time and resources, but its well worth it.

"I can't prove this story at all. What a waste of time."

A family legend that is false or can't be confirmed still has value to your family tree. Ask yourself why this particular story has been so popular with your family. Does it tell them something about their ancestors? Themselves? Where they came from?

Congressman J. Arthur Younger appears frequently in the declassified Amelia Earhart papers, requesting military investigations into Earhart grave sightings in Saipan. In a Pentagon memo, an assistant secretary reports that the congressman is "under a good deal of pressure from constituents" to follow up on Earhart's disappearance. Many of the papers in this Earhart file reveal a woman whose character and actions were so immensely popular with the people of the United States that the public had not stopped looking for her 30 years after her disappearance. It doesn't solve her final mystery, but it illustrates her persona in a way a family tree never could. Even an untrue or unsolvable family legend can do the same for your ancestors.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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