We all have them. Family stories told by our grandparents about their grandparents. Tales of heroism, derring-do or just black sheep. As genealogists, we want to investigate these stories to determine how much of the story is actually true. Let’s look at four family legend case studies!
These four family legends come from my family, my husband’s family, and my best friend’s family. While I have not exhausted all sources to prove/disprove these legends, the research I have done makes me fairly confident about the results.
We all want to have an ancestor that came over on the Mayflower! While the list of passengers on the Mayflower is well known, it can be difficult to trace your line back that far at times. My grandmother loved to tell how her mother was a Jewett and the family line came over from England shortly after the Mayflower. This was one of the first family legends I attempted to prove.
Researching the Jewett family is actually very easy. My great-grandmother was born into the Jewett family in 1885, and so is mentioned in the Jewett Family History book published in 1908. This treasure trove traces the Jewett line all the way to 1580 in England and tells the story of two brothers who immigrated to the New World. While this history references sources, they are not reproduced so more research has to be done to verify completely, but the details shown are pretty clear that both Maximillian Jewett and his brother Joseph Jewett (my ancestor) came over to the colonies in 1638: only 18 years after the Mayflower.
True! Having ancestors who settled in the mid-1600s is fairly awesome (especially since one of my other lines first immigrated in the early 1900s), and thanks to the work that has been done on the Jewett line, joining the Daughters of the American Revolution in the future shouldn’t be too difficult!
The Wright Brothers
To be able to causally mention that you are related to a famous person is everyone’s dream. “Oh, George Clooney? Yeah, he’s my third-cousin-once-removed,” you say offhandedly. My best friend was told for years by her grandpa that they were related to the Wright Brothers, the ones of first-flight fame. Since her last name is Wright, it was within the realm of possibility.
Enter Ancestry.com. I started with her genealogy and was able to trace her Wright line back to the mid-1700s. Then it got difficult due to that annoying habit folks had back in the day of naming children with the exact same unique name as their parents. I think I still have a couple Philbert Wrights mixed up. And some dates are waay off. Anyway. The famous Wilbur and Orville hadn’t yet appeared, so I decided to search for them and see where that got me. I was able to find them and their lineage back several generations. Comparing names and dates didn’t reveal any matches.
Busted! At least, it appears so. Granted, she’s probably more closely related to them than I am, but it’s not a close relation like her grandpa always said. However, something good did come out of this: during the research, I found a Jewett on her line and proved that she and I are tenth cousins, once removed! How awesome is that?
So many Americans claim — or want to claim — Native American ancestry. For many of them, it’s true! My husband was always told from the time he was a child that one of his great-great grandparents was a full-blooded Cherokee. Since no one I talked to could remember exactly which grandparent and any real information, I decided to research it to see what I could find.
After tracing his line back to just pre-Civil War, I found the most likely connection. His 3rd great grandmother was supposedly half-Cherokee. I found applications from her and her son (2nd great grandfather) for a share of the government allotment for the Eastern Cherokees, and it was denied. I found some random sources (read: non-scholarly) and received some messages from a connection on Ancestry that seemed to indicate that although it was “common knowledge” that my 3rd great grandmother-in-law was the daughter-born-out-of-wedlock of a prominent Cherokee, her grandfather denied it in court — and since he was powerful, it went through and the children were denied compensation and robbed of their heritage.
Likely true, but unproven — and likely unable to prove. We plan to do DNA testing to see what comes of that, but it’s a fascinating story and very plausible.
Andersonville Prisoner of War
Whenever you study the Civil War, Andersonville Prison in Georgia is always mentioned as one of the worst POW camps that existed during that time. Uncounted hundreds of men died under deplorable conditions. When you hear a story growing up that your 2nd great-grandfather was thought to be AWOL early in the war, but was actually captured and survived Andersonville, you want to verify it!
The story goes that my 2nd great-grandfather lied about his age and enlisted in the army. I did find a record of enlistment from 1862, which would have made him 15 at the time… definitely on the young side! His age was listed as 19, so that element seems to be true as I have a preponderance of records from across his entire life that indicate he was born early 1847, not 1843 as indicated by the enlistment. So far, so good. I then found a record that seemed to indicate he was listed as a deserter, but there was some other conflicting information. Unable to find anything about Andersonville, I had the opportunity to visit the former prison. After a sobering tour of the visitor’s center and a walk upon the grounds, I checked with the information desk. They checked their records and the results were inconclusive. Apparently, he’s listed in their database as someone who “is suspected of being a prisoner, but no corroborating data exists”.
Likely false, but unproven. Will likely never be able to prove, unless there are some “lost” records someplace that I stumble over sometime. It bears more research, but it could be that my 2nd great-grandfather was a bit of a black sheep and spun the tale to make himself sound better!
Do You Have Family Legends to Prove?
If you are starting the hunt to prove or disprove a family legend, here are some tips that might help:
- Get the whole story: Talk to everyone in your family about the legend. Especially cousins and other relatives who might have heard a slightly different version of the story. Writing it all out will help to find the common threads, and maybe a random nugget that turns out to be the truth!
- Do your research: Explore the history of the area and time period when the story took place. Is the family legend even likely? Verify dates and create timelines. Was this person in the right place at the right time for this to be true? For example, it’s unlikely that your ancestor fought in the American Civil War if he immigrated to the US in 1880.
- Test your DNA: DNA testing won’t tell you if your great-grandfather rode for the Pony Express, but it can help identify ancestral ethnicity, determine historical geographical locations, and establish common ancestor connections.
Have an experience to share? Let me know in the comments!