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Dealing With Those Pesky Family Legends

Unfortunately, anyone who might know the truth about the legend has probably been long gone. But the facts remain. And facts are what you as a family genealogists deal with in uncovering the truths about your ancestors.


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Its holiday time once again–time your family to gather around the table to share good food and comradery. Another thing that many families share are stories about their ancestors. Inevitably, these get passed down from generation to generation, often around the holiday dinner table. Some even become legends. But the same legends that make holiday gatherings special can also be the nemesis of many a family genealogist. Dealing with them can often be a tricky and sensitive issue.

Family legends start just like the game "Whispering Down the Lane" in which the first person tells a tale to the second who passes it on to the third and so on. By the time the tale reaches the end of the line of players, it's usually a twisted version of the original story. And so it is with family legends. Instead of a line of players, the legend travels from one person to another through generations until the most current generation believes it to be true. Unfortunately, anyone who might know the truth about the legend has probably been long gone. But the facts remain. And facts are what you as a family genealogists deal with in uncovering the truths about your ancestors.

Almost all of us have family legends. While legends often have a basis in fact, they're frequently distorted when being passed from one generation to the next. Relatives, especially older ones, may insist on the absolute accuracy of a story or the family lineage and will feel insulted if you suggest researching its authenticity. While your family's genealogy contains mostly relationships between ancestors, a family history, should you choose to write one, will contain lots of background about your family gleaned from stories that have been passed down.

People naturally regard published information as accurate. Whether it's a family history or a small memorial pamphlet printed to commemorate the death of a patriarch or matriarch,

these often contain genealogical information and family stories spanning multiple generations.

Prepared without much research and usually in a hurry by well-meaning relatives, these little volumes usually include incorrect names and dates, plus family stories known to the author at the time. But as a basis for research, these memorial pamphlets can be invaluable to you, the family genealogist or historian.

Many families cherish stories about big events, such as their ancestors' immigration to America. Other stories may center around the supposed relationship to a famous person based on the family name. Whatever the story, it needs to be proven.

So how do you handle family legends that you've discovered to be false? First, don't take family legends lightly or even ignore them. When you write your family history, include the family stories as they've been told to you, perhaps noting them as family legends. Using the word "legends" implies that the stories may be exaggerated. Tell how the stories originated, then show what you've discovered through your research. Try to separate truth from fiction, and don't hesitate to prove that stories are false, if they are. Even if you have not been able to prove or disprove a particular story, acknowledge it as a legend and say you've yet to substantiate it. The family stories you gather will make your family history more interesting, so treat them for what they are and nothing more.

Generally, family legends tell about the traditions, customs, and values of your family from one generation to another. They're usually based on facts and often provide clues to the ethnic origin of your family. Through them, you may uncover information leading to your family's founder's immigration, occupation, marriage, number of children, and cause of death. Family legends are also embedded with emotion, as your ancestors struggle against overwhelming odds. This brings to the surface such inherited characteristics as intellectual ability or stubbornness, perseverance or tenacity, or artistic or musical talent. But more often than not, family legends enhance the status of a family by creating larger-than-life heroes.

The achievements of your ancestors can add interest to what might otherwise be a dull family history. While a legend can cast an aura upon the character of a particular ancestor, the manner in which it's told reveals almost as much about the character of the storyteller. However, a legend can become detrimental if it's substituted for reality, making an ancestor seem more important than he or she really is.

The discussion that arises as to whether a family legend is true or not can add a bit of controversy to your family history, leaving the question open to speculation and individual interpretation. Finally, you can ignore the legend altogether and simply relate the facts gathered through your research.

However you choose to treat your family legends, look at them with the eye of an investigative reporter. Legends can lead you down the wrong path, so be careful. Accept no family legends on face value and don't allow them to blind you to possibilities that contradict your family's stories. The real stories are far more interesting than those pesky old legends, anyway.

Source Information: Everyday Genealogy, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

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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