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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Investigating Family Traditions
by Rhonda R. McClure

April 03, 2003
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Family traditions in genealogy are the family stories that you have been told since you were knee high to a grasshopper. As children, you squirmed to get down from the lap of the person telling such a family story and as a teenager you turned a deaf ear because it wasn't cool to listen. As an adult, you wrack your brain to remember these same stories to help you with your genealogy.

Family stories or traditions usually grow each time they are told, much like the proverbial "fish who got away" story does. The trick for genealogists is to wade through the fiction and find the grain of truth upon which the story was built. Of course, this is a lot easier if there is someone around who remembers the story better than you or who can help you put the story together.

You need to find the grain of fact in the fiction.

We've Heard the Story Before

There are a few common themes to stories that families tell over and over. Indeed, some of the stories may very well be true but more often than not only a portion of the story is true. Some of the more popular characters in these stories include:

  • Signers of the Declaration of Independence
  • Presidents
  • Famous explorers
  • Royalty
  • Staff of the royal household
  • Gunslingers
  • Witches

There are other common stories as well. For instance, most people believe that their ancestors came through Ellis Island. Never mind that your ancestor arrived in 1823 and Ellis Island didn't open until 1892. Ellis Island is the place to have come through when entering the United States. Many families wear this as a badge of honor. Of course, when you research back to pre-1892 and your family is listed as being born in the United States, you are forced to deal head on with the family tradition.

It is always possible that family tradition is correct, but I often find that somewhere along the way the simple family story grew to give the family something to brag about. The key is to dissect the story and find that piece of truth that still lingers in the poetic license that has taken place over the years.

Create a Timeline

Whenever you are dealing with a family story, the best thing to do is to plot out that story in a timeline. If you supposedly have an ancestor who came through Ellis Island then you should plot the history of the immigrant. When and where were they born? When did they supposedly come to the United States? When and where did they marry? When and where did they die? Use this information to draw up a timeline and merge in the dates when Ellis Island opened and closed. Is it possible that your ancestor arrived at Ellis Island?

If the story is that your ancestor lived in the same town as some famous person or lived where some famous event took place, you can do the same thing. Plot a timeline of the life of your ancestor and then compare it to the dates and places where the famous individual was throughout his or her life. A colleague discovered the problems of family traditions as a child. Her grandfather told her about how her great-grandfather lived in the same town as Jesse James. When she looked into it to write a report for school she discovered that it just wasn't possible. Her great-grandfather wasn't old enough when Jesse James died to have headed out west. When she brought this up to her grandfather, his comment was "Well that's what Papa always said."

As you can see, sometimes a bit of research can prove an entire story is false. Other times you can find the grain of truth or see how the story came to be in the first place. Perhaps your ancestor was in the same county as the famous individual, just not in the same town. Or perhaps there was just a year or two separating the event in question and the arrival of your ancestor to that same region.

Creating timelines for your ancestor and the famous individual or event in question and comparing the dates helps to figure out of a family tradition is plausible. Then you would need to do some further research.

Proving a Relationship

Many more of the family stories, though, have to do with being related to or descended from someone famous. This could be a living celebrity but usually these stories have to do with being related to someone famous in history. To prove these family traditions, you'll find that you can't make a simple timeline. Instead you must research your direct lineage first, going back on all lines as far as you can. Then you must also research the ancestry, and sometimes the descendants, of the famous person. In essence you are compiling major genealogical projects for yourself and the other person.

Before you throw your hands up and say it isn't worth it, it is important to note that sometimes you'll find that others have done the research for you. One place to start is a compiled genealogy databases such as the World Family Tree collection. If you find the ancestry or descent of an individual in such a database, use it as a clue and go on to verify the information in more reliable records (such as primary sources).

Remember that your connection to a famous person is more than likely a distant cousinship. Because of this, you can't just concentrate on your direct lineage or the direct lineage of the famous individual. Instead for each generation, you will need to look at all of the siblings. If you really are related to the famous person, at some point you should find the common link. Keep in mind that this link is seldom in the paternal line. Most connections are found through the various females since that is how new surnames are added to family trees.

Above all, keep an open mind as you are researching both lineages. Too often we are so convinced of the family story that we force a lineage to fit when it is obvious later or to others that the relationship doesn't really exist. Of course, getting the family to accept this is sometimes harder than doing the research to track down the truth!

In Conclusion

We all have family stories. Some of them have been embellished over the years or through the generations. Don't throw away the story as complete fiction though. Usually these stories started out with a truth, and your job is to find that truth through diligence and creative approaches to your research.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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