Everyone has family stories. These stories are the basis of our narrative. They are usually the starting point of our research and guide us as we work from person to person.
There’s one thing I have learned from family stories. While they can add background to the documentation, they can also be roadblocks. They can be incredibly difficult to prove and they can get in the way of finding the truth about your family.
When I first started researching my family tree, my Grandma sent me four letters that were the basis of my research. She told me all about my Grandfather’s family. They were from Madeira and they came to Hawaii as a young couple around 1900. They lived in Honolulu. Then they left for California in 1907. My Grandfather was born on board the ship to San Francisco right when they got into port.
I was so excited to have all this information. I began writing letters to various places for information. I started to look through the California Death Index to see if I could find my people.
After a year of research I came up with nothing except the information I found in the death index. Like most beginning genealogists, I was completely naive about what it took to put together a family tree. And, this was before the internet age, so most of my work was through the US mail and painfully slow. Letters with no information could take six months to arrive. I was disheartened to say the least.
I found out that the wife of my Mom’s cousin was still alive, so I wrote her a letter. Wilma agreed to a phone conversation. Her information put me back to square one. That was a good thing since all the information my Grandma had given me was wrong.
The Pacheco’s were not from Madeira. They were from Sao Miguel Island, Azores. They came to Hawaii in the 1880s, not around 1900. They came over with their parents as young children. They had been sent to Kauai to work on sugar plantations. The only time they were in Honolulu was the day they left for California. In fact, that was the only part of the story that was true. They left Hawaii while my Great Grandmother was pregnant with my Grandfather. It remains to be seen if he was really born in San Francisco waters since there is no birth certificate on file in California to prove or disprove the event.
The reason I tell this story is that I think it is very easy to be deceived by family stories. If Grandma says it’s so, then it must be true! Why would Grandma lie? In the case above, I don’t believe my Grandma was out and out lying. I believe that she was telling me what she remembered. After all, it had been a good 20 years since she had had contact with any of the Pacheco’s and another 40 years since she and my Grandfather had divorced.
The point is this family stories can help you with your family tree. They can also hinder you. If you find yourself spinning your wheels, you have to ascertain the thought that those stories may not be true or only partly true. If you are willing to be open minded about these stories, you may be able to move beyond your roadblock and find the truth. You may find the stories or wrong. Or, like my Grandmother’s retelling, there is a little bit of truth, but the facts are all screwed up.
This may discourage you. I understand that. If you can’t trust Grandma, who can you trust? You are working with facts and if the facts aren’t true, where do you go? Genealogy is not only about proving facts, it is about disproving them. There are going to be times where those family stories lead you to records. There will be times where the family story gets you absolutely nowhere. It is those times when you need too work as hard on disproving what you’ve been told as you do proving it. Oonce you’ve thrown out the wrong information, you might realize that you can see things with a fresh mind. Then, that census page you overlooked turns out to be the right family. Or, that elusive obituary is found because you’ve decided your Great Grandpa might have died in a completely different place than you assumed.
Proving and disproving go hand in hand. Research can be used to weed out incorrect information as well as providing new leads. Sometimes it takes sorting through the data and figuring out what isn’t true before you can find what the real story is. A healthy dose of skepticism goes a long way where family stories are concerned–no matter how adamant Grandma is that it’s the truth!
2 thoughts on “Tuesday’s Tip: Be Prepared to Disprove Family Stories”
A very good post with much needed advice. When I was in high school (LONG before my interest in genealogy and even before I knew what genealogy was), I learned that a treasured family story about my great grandfather was untrue. Still, we have almost no facts about the man, so I had to work with that story until I proved that no part of it had anything to do with the facts of his life.
I don’t think anyone lied. My grandfather was 6 when his parents died. What he and his brother (then 8) knew about their parents was what the community knew. The foster parents were immigrants, so the stories could have been misunderstood or told “big” for more drama or misheard by my mother and her sisters — who knows.
I feel lucky that I knew this part of his story was doubtful when I started researching, and that I knew it was necessary to lay it to rest.
This is a great post. Early in my research my husband said that his great-grandmother was pregnant with his grandfather when they came from Bohemia. His grandfather was born in 1899 and with my research I found that the family was in the states since around 1885.
After a year or so I found that it was his Great Great Grandmother who came to the USA from Bohemia in 1869 and she was indeed pregnant with his Great Grandfathers brother.
My theory is to every rumor is a hint of truth. Maybe even just a miniscule truth.