by Dawne

I have touched on this topic in The Genealogy Center’s blog previously: Family stories – oral tradition – is something virtually every family has. We might grow up hearing the same old stories whenever the family is gathered. We might even have repeated those stories to our children and grandchildren. But often it was when we first began doing genealogy and tried to pin down older relatives about specific details, or to substantiate the stories with records, that we realized there might be a difference in what we thought we knew about the family and what was actually true.

Many patrons come to The Genealogy Center with a family tradition that they have Native American ancestry. In some cases this might be true. But Great-Grandma usually wasn’t a Cherokee princess. The Native American blood might be further back than the family story holds. The connection might be Miami or Chickasaw or some other tribe and not the more well-known Cherokee. And the relative might be one by marriage, rather than by blood. It’s also quite common that the patron is able to trace his or her ancestry back to an immigrant without ever finding a trace of Native American blood. In this case, it could be that the family story was in error about which ancestral line had that ethnicity. And DNA tests might indicate that there is no Native American ancestry at all. For some reason, it is a very popular family tradition to be part Native American.

So should we dismiss all those family stories we learned on our grandparents’ laps as bunk? Not necessarily. It has been said – and I believe it – that many, if not most family stories have some element of truth to them. A folklore professor I had in graduate school maintained that family stories are told for a reason – they represent some quality that is important to the storytellers and to the family. That reason alone might be enough to write them down for future generations.

Consider the information a friend of mine, Rhonda Stoffer, head of Indiana History and Genealogy Services at Marion Public Library in Marion, Indiana, received from her mother-in-law. Rhonda’s mother-in-law had never met her grandfather and asked Rhonda to find out more about him. She told Rhonda that his name was George Brown and he was a baker from Joliet, Illinois. She knew he was a baker because she remembered seeing a photograph of him wearing a baker’s hat. Rhonda found the right George Brown in the 1900 and 1910 census schedules, but in both cases, he was shown as a tin plate worker and not a baker.

Rhonda continued to research the family and discovered that George Brown’s father had died in the 1880s and his mother remarried twice – the second time to a man with the surname BAKER. Baker was the surname that George Brown’s mother was using when she died, and the one she is buried under. The family now believes that someone’s comment “and he was a Baker” about the mother’s third husband is how the family story of George Brown being a baker by trade began. The identity of the man wearing a baker’s hat in the photograph seen by Rhonda’s mother-in-law is unknown.

Genealogy Center Librarian Delia Bourne has a lecture on attempting to substantiate family stories that is titled “Did It Really Happen that Way? Documenting Oral History.”  While waiting for Delia’s talk to come back around in our programming circuit, take a look at a recent post by Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, in Quick Tips: The Blog @ Evidence Explained titled “Finding the ‘Core Truth’ in a Tradition.” Her article provides tips for analyzing family stories to get to their possible elements of truth.