Which is stranger, truth or fiction?
In family history, the real question is which survives longer or stronger?
That depends, bien sûr, on two things in every generation: the level of interest among assorted family individuals, and the abilities of a family historian.
One of my main blog goals has been to reach extended family members who feel the occasional curiosity regarding their antecedents, their cousin relationships, or perhaps their biological inheritance. Now I’m seriously questioning this goal. Not that I will stop my mission, because family history contributes a much wider significance to the grass roots of ALL history. The necessary mental gymnastics themselves are a singular challenge and satisfying reward.
My particular subject of the moment is Family Stories—a special source my fellow genealogists will recognize at once, rolling their eyes. We have other terms for the same concept: derivative sources, oral tradition, family legends, family lore, hearsay, word of mouth, and so on.
My personal favourite is mythinformation, a coinage oh-so-suitable for historical/genealogical permutations. A few generic stories seem to cross all ethnic and genetic boundaries in the New World ... e.g., the Indian Princess ancestor, or The Three Brothers who arrived to go their separate ways, just waiting for us to hook them up again. By the time you reach the bottom of this post you will get the connection between the aforementioned goal and mythinformation.
Stories of the olden days are often what capture us to first explore our unique piece of history. Some ancestors were more colourful than others. Their exploits and events—heroic or scandalous—tend to alter as the years go by. Parts of a story get embroidered or censored. Bits get added or omitted. Sometimes the years blur two ancestors into one person. By the time a few generations pass, we researchers understand that it takes a certain amount of the proverbial salt to digest the stories.
It’s like that old parlour game with a circle of people. The first person whispers a fairly simple statement into the ear of the next person. The second person whispers what she or he heard to the next person. The whispers continue around the circle. Last person compares what she/he heard with the original statement. Hilarity ensues. Point taken: how little the statements resemble each other.
Family stories can be vivid for “adding flesh to the ancestral bones” as we say. Lord knows, anecdotal evidence can be useful when trying to describe long-gone people in writing. But they are only stories, identified as such, until otherwise researched. We spend a lot of time trying to track down the truth behind stories-gossip-rumour handed down to us. And it sure ain’t ever easy, separating the wheat from the chaff.
Example: An articulate cousin, at every family gathering, takes centre stage with tales of Highland glory and our imaginative descent from Simon Fraser the explorer. The indulgent audience is always rapt. I gave up arguing privately with him because I finally understood his need to repeat the fond stories without factual spoilers from me.
Searching for the truth is an obligation that comes with the genealogy package—at the least, doing our best to verify the straight goods. Biographical writing of real, documented ancestors, even if it looks slim at times, is the result of intensive research. We pay tribute to the ancestors who contributed so much to make US who and what we are.
However, that presumes perhaps impossible interest from the very family members we try to reach: enough genuine curiosity, and some respect for the researcher who’s writing it down :-)
Notice the emphasis on old family stories, and the passage of generations. How can we tell if the morphing into mythinformation began in mere carelessness or if more deliberate motives were at play?
To my surprise and regret, I find bizarre family stories propagating in my lifetime about an ancestor whose life events I’ve researched in contemporary, original sources. I hear: rum-running during prohibition! Military honour awarded by the Queen in greatest secrecy! Murderous post-war hunting of Nazi criminals! Yowser. Sounds like an unwritten novel. Idle minds? Wishful thinking?
Readers and GeneaBloggers, I ask you: Any similar experiences? Is there a moment when we stop proselytizing, if that’s what we’re doing, and forget the “audience”? Just work on family history for the sheer joy and peer support?
If any family members are lurking along, remember you can comment anonymously! Or do I detect a movement to lock up the crazed genealogist in a computer-unfriendly environment?