08 November 2010

Family History: Truth or Fiction?

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?


M.C. Moran said...

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.

Oh yes. I hear you on the mythinformation. I hear family stories, the details of which might have been lifted from the lyrics of an Irish ballad: so romantic! and such a lovely story; and so completely undocumented, and generally altogether improbable. Documented proof to the contrary is often no match for the appeal of a good story.

I think that if it's worth doing at all, it's worth doing carefully. But probably only a tiny fraction of one's family/audience/readership will appreciate that attention to detail, sources, standards, and so on.

It's probably not so different from broader, national, e.g., history, though, in terms of evidence versus mythology. There's the source-based, socio-economic-political account of the War of 1812, for example, as exhaustively researched in archives by several generations of historians; and then there's the legend of Laura Secord. Most Canadians know of Laura Secord, if only from the chocolates (and that's okay! I think), but not so much about the nitty-gritty details of that conflict, which tend to be less dramatic and personality-based, and more about boring geo-political context and such. I guess the difference with family history is that you might have to field questions/objections much more directly and intimately, from a great-aunt or someone else in the family who is already committed to a certain narrative, no matter what details you might turn up.

Diana Ritchie said...

Hi Brenda ~ Oh definitely similar experiences!! I had a great-uncle who loved to tell stories about ancestors/relatives from Scotland. (Both of his parents were born in Scotland) Basically anything of note that happened at any time in Scotland, some relative of ours must have participated. He once told me about someone who married the "daughter of a prominent Edinburgh professor" (everyone in our family was apparently "prominent") When I finally traced that one down I found the father as the school master in a small village. That was the problem - I could never discount Uncle George entirely ...there might be some small grain of truth hiding in the stories.

I have decided that the stories tell me something about Uncle George more than about the family. I "keep" many of them - recorded as stories from Uncle George - just because the family members who never met him can get a glimpse of what he was like.

Not sure I've answered your real question - I guess I keep on just for myself - it's an obsession and I can't stop!

RuthC said...

I too had some mythinformation in my family history. My mother told me that a South African cousin trained Christian Barnard and another cousin was a rabbi in Boston. Thanks to the Internet, I've just connected with a distant cousin who confirmed both stories. He's the son of the doctor and told me the first person to receive a heart transplant was his father's patient! And, yes, another branch of his family went to Boston where one was a rabbi. So, it does pay to record these stories because you never know when the grain of truth will sprout.

Paul Jones said...

My grandmother, Nanny, used to claim that she was descended from the composer Handel. Only problem: all the authorities state that Handel died childless. At this point, those with a fleeting regard for fact and proof would think, "Do we have a scoop!" The anticlimactic truth is that Nanny's Welsh great-grandfather was given the middle name Handel by his musical parents. It turns out this was quite a common practice in Wales in the first couple of decades of the 19th century. Haydn was even more popular than Handel. So while I can't yet prove with a certainty I'm not descended from Handel, the odds have lengthened astronomically.

BDM said...

Many thanks for your comments! It goes to show that careful family historians often have their work doubled in a sense ... not only trying to prove ancestry but disproving (or hopefully confirming!) family legends. I hear you, M.C., about the tiny fraction we might have to be content with. Diana and Ruth are right that we mustn't discount a potential kernel of truth in all the husks. And Paul, a story "disproven" but so great to add the investigative part to the family history!

I think the research tales of such legends are as compelling as the original stories!

Caverly said...

Hi Brenda,
Yes there are a few family stories we may never be able to confirm or deny. In some ways I am trying to create a family story in producing a history on my 3 generations of great-grandfathers I want to publish for family. Where I run into the lack of information is my 5th great grandfather (1786-1854). To create information on his early years I have relied on local history and made assumptions regarding what he may have been doing up to the point I could find some information. I have cautioned my readers that I made up this part of the story based on local history facts. Since I did not write any exaggerations others should find the details acceptable but perhaps boring.
Paul Caverly

BDM said...

Paul C, nice point (bearing on the further back we go, the more difficult it is to find personal information). I too search for local, contemporary material to add 'substance' and context for early ancestors, because that's usually all we have in additional resources to make a family history appealing to our relatives. If carefully written and cited, no-one accuse you of attributing wild stories to the family heritage! (smile)