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Family Legends and Myths

by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, CG
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Watching Out for Red Flags
Many families have cherished myths and stories about their immigration to America or other pivotal events and people. Sharon DeBartolo Carmack shos you how to determine which family legends are true, and what to do if you prove one false.

"Great-grandma was a Cherokee Indian princess, you know." At the family reunion or while interviewing relatives, you might hear family stories like this or other lore about your forebears. Nearly everyone has a story that has been handed down about their ancestors. Some of these legends may be quite factual; others are myth. Almost all family stories have some grain of truth, however. Family legends aren't usually created out of thin air, and that tiny grain of truth may be the clue that leads you to genealogical success. There are many myths that have worked their way into family stories, and perhaps you've already heard some of these. Often, they are about ethnic origins or how the family came to America. If you haven't heard any of these common legends yet, make yourself aware of some of the most common ones, since you may eventually hear variations as you talk with family members.

The Cherokee Indian Princess Myth

It's always a Cherokee princess, almost never Navajo or Apache or Pueblo or Lumbee. Native American ancestry is an extremely common family story, and it seems it is always to an Indian princess. The Cherokee, of course, are a large tribe with a diverse culture, divided by the Trail of Tears. They intermarried widely, perhaps increasing the likelihood of Cherokee/white ancestry.

One reason this princess myth may have evolved is prejudice. For those who frowned upon a white male ancestor marrying an Indian woman, elevating the woman's status to princess made the truth easier to swallow. Keep in mind that any story that says you have Native American ancestry — often Cherokee — may in itself be a myth. Even though it's currently an "in" thing to have Native American ancestry, just a few decades ago, it might have been the skeleton in your family's closet. Proving certain ethnic ancestry can be difficult because of prejudice or popularity toward a culture at any given time. Throughout history, some people who were victims of prejudice may have tried to hide their native origins by changing their name or claiming a different ethnicity.

The Three Brothers Myth

It's always three brothers who immigrated to America, never two or four or five or six. Sometimes one is lost at sea during the voyage over, or one went north, one went south, and one headed west, never to be heard from again. There are never any sisters involved in the big move across the ocean. Be wary of the brothers myth, and always keep an eye out for additional siblings both in America and once you start foreign research. You also want to confirm through your research that there were, in fact, three brothers, that the three brothers were indeed brothers and not two brothers and an uncle, for example, or that the three brothers weren't just three men with the same last name.

The Stowaway Myth

For some reason, it is so much more romantic to have an ancestor who came to America as a stowaway rather than a paying passenger. While there are cases of people who actually did sneak aboard ships, this was not common practice. If the stowaway was discovered enroute, typically, he will be recorded on the last page of the passenger arrival list. I deliberately use "he" because you almost never hear a story about great-grandma being a stowaway. Even if you have the family story of a stowaway, still check for a passenger arrival list, since if he was discovered and recorded on the passenger list, he'll likely be on the index, too.

The Claim-to-Fame Myth

Everyone who has the surname Bradford or Alden is related to William Bradford and John Alden of Mayflower fame, right? And everyone with the last name of Boone is related to Daniel. And if your last name is James, you're related to Jesse, of course. If you do have Native American ancestry, then you must be descended from Pocahontas. Is that a red flag I see flying? We all want a famous person to hang on our family tree, but we may not find that person. I'm supposedly related to Robert E. Lee. My research revealed that I really am. He's something like a ninth cousin, twenty times removed.

The Wrong Ethnic Identity Myth

All Germans are Hessians who fought in the American Revolution. All French are Huguenots. All Hispanics are Mexican. Of course, none of these broad statements is true. We tend to lump certain groups of people incorrectly into one category. "German" is not a distinct enough identifier in genealogy any more than "Indian" or "Hispanic." If family stories indicate that your ancestors were German or from Germany, were they Germans from Imperial Germany, Alsatians, Austrians, Swiss, Luxembourgers, Germans from Russia, or Poles from Germany? Even the records you uncover may not tell you more than "Germany." This is why it is so important to learn the unique cultural traits — customs, traditions, folkways — about the ethnic group.

Names, too, may be inaccurate indicators of ethnic identity. Just because the name sounds Italian, is it? The name you are accustomed to may have been changed or inadvertently corrupted over time, obscuring its ethnic origins.

The Ellis Island Baptism Myth

This is the myth that an immigrant ancestor's surname was changed by officials during processing at Ellis Island. No evidence whatsoever exists to suggest this ever occurred. During its operation as an immigrant receiving station (1892-1954), Ellis Island was staffed with hundreds of interpreters who spoke more than thirty different languages. Inspectors compared the names the immigrants told them against what was recorded on the passenger lists. These lists were created at the ports of departure. There was no reason to record or change anyone's surname once they arrived on the island. More likely, immigrants themselves changed their names after they settled in America to avoid prejudice and to blend more easily into American society.

Handling the Myth in Research and Writing

Now that I've shattered your favorite family story, how do you tell Grandpa? Or should you? And how do you handle ancient family legends that you've discovered through your research are false? Family legends are part of your family history and should never be ignored or taken lightly. As mentioned earlier, there is usually a kernel of truth to the family story. Rather than bursting Grandpa's bubble with the facts, try to find out how the story originated. When you write your family history, include the family story as it was told to you, noting it as family "tradition" or "lore" or "legend." Then explain, if you can, how the story originated, followed by a discussion of your research findings. You may reveal that some elements of a story were true and some were false, or that a story was totally false. Even if you have not been able to prove or disprove the story, acknowledge the lore and say it has yet to be proven. These family stories give color to your family history, so record and share them as what they are.

About the Author
Sharon DeBartolo Carmack is a Certified Genealogist, editor of Betterway Genealogy Books, contributing editor for Family Tree Magazine, and the author of eight books, including A Genealogist's Guide to Discovering Your Female Ancestors. Sharon also teaches online courses in personal/family memoir writing.

This how-to article was adapted from Sharon's book A Genealogist's Guide to Discovering Your Immigrant and Ethnic Ancestry. Topics include how to get your research started, the history of major ethnic groups in America, and how to turn your research into a family narrative.

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How-To Article: They Changed Our Name at Ellis Island
How-To Article: What is a First Cousin, Twice Removed?
How-To Article: Family Traditions — The Ties That Bind

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