Everyone at some time in their lives has heard stories told by family members of ancestors who either met a famous person, accomplished some great feat, was a war hero, invented a time saving device or somehow brought honor and glory to the family name. There may also have been a few tales of the “black sheep” of the family who even had a shady past or reputation. As a rule these accounts were handed down over the generations by word of mouth and so can be unintentionally twisted, changed or modified by the time the current generation listens to the story. Most of the time these narratives were taken as the absolute truth just because it was grandmother who told the legend and she would certainly have known the facts, even if the event occurred over a hundred years prior to her birth.
With so many individuals interested in genealogy, these varied family legends are being better researched and the truth is finally being learned, sometimes disproving the story completely. It may be discovered that some have a basis in truth, but have been misconstrued over the years while others have no facts to support the story at all. However, the one thing they all have in common is that they make for very interesting family tales, before and after the truth is revealed.
When a person does genealogical research, they have to be prepared to uncover a “family skeleton” or two in the closet or that “black sheep” individual. Even if you are not totally into genealogical research, you can still do some interesting detective work to disclose the facts.
Your ancestors were ordinary people, leading a simple life in different parts of the country or the globe, throughout our history. There are plenty of legends regarding our American heroes that have taken on almost mythical proportions. For example, George Washington and his father’s cherry tree or Abraham Lincoln writing the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope.
Everyday folks and what happened during their lives to make them a bit distinguished and for perpetuating their memory for future generations can be an important part of investigating some family legends. Some key elements a researcher should consider about a legend to know if it is truth or myth. Keep in mind there is usually some aspect of the truth, or grain of truth, slight that it might be, in every tale. Some genuine family stories can turn out to be just as intriguing as the embellished ones.
Start by interviewing various family members about a family legend or tale. Only work on one at a time, it makes it easier on everyone. Allowing who you are asking the questions of to give their own version and writing their recollections down so you can compare what is possible vs. what is just a little too bizarre. The important thing to make a record fully of the family legend as it has been handled down. There could be different versions, depending on which relative you interview.
Review all available records held by the family such as bibles, vital records, letters, diaries, journals, photos and keep a list of common threads found that relate to your legend. Again, focus on just that legend because it is easy to get sided on another ancestor or family story.
Keep copies of all your findings, no matter how insignificant it may appear at first, you never know when all the pieces of the puzzle can fall into place. Approach a myth with a bit of skepticism but also with an open mind.
You can leave what was gathered as ‘family legends’ and not do any further investigation to see if any part of it is true. Family lore brings “color” to family history; so embrace, delight, be amused, enjoy and retell the tales. However, you more than likely will want to check out documents, newspapers, and records to see how much is the truth.
Many of the family myths can be investigated from home using simple sources available on the Internet, going to the local Family History Center and by writing for copies of records from federal and state agencies, hometown counties and libraries. There are no fool proof methods that will guarantee you can completely prove or disprove a family legend, but you can come very close to realizing some particular truths previously unknown to the family.