Family stories can be the most interesting component and a foundation for all genealogical research. While some stories prove to be accurate, many either stretch the truth or turn out to be pure fabrication, as in the following example from one of our recent researchers. Her great-grandfather supposedly was the captain of a sailing vessel which crossed the Atlantic in dangerous storms multiple times in the early 1800s from England to Boston, Massachusetts. Many present-day members of the family liked boating and sailing, and assumed this love of the sea was handed down from their great-grandfather.
The truth turned out to be less dramatic. The great-grandfather had been a captain of a barge which went up and down the Ouse River, outside the port of Boston, located in Lincolnshire, England. Like many family stories there was a kernel of truth, but most of the details were exaggerated. In some cases, the inaccuracies may be deliberate. In most it is simply that over time, we remember past events through “rose colored glasses”. Distant memories are also influenced by subjective opinions that over time become “facts.”
Use caution about stories that touch on the social standing of a family, especially those claiming noble descent. This is where the greatest discrepancies usually occur. The farm laborer becomes a land owner, the sergeant or lieutenant in the army becomes a colonel, or a small house becomes a thirty-room mansion. Someone moves to a new place, job, or church, makes new friends and tries to impress them a little with some slightly exaggerated stories about his or her background. Even the most honest people have been known to enhance their resumes for employment or educational purposes.
Stories can be deliberately fabricated. In some cases, this happens because someone was trying to hide their social status, criminal activities, failed marriages, or hide acts that occurred during controversial time periods in history. Social norms have changed over time. Historical customs such as slavery were once considered appropriate. Many immigrants grew up in poverty and came from repressive areas of Europe and the British Isles. Upon arrival in America, they made every effort to “bury” that past and create a new reality that fit a new country.
Depending on the individual circumstances of your family you should also discover what you can about name changes, naturalization, military service, apprenticeship to a craft, and ethnic background. When discussing a place of birth or origin be sure you get the name right. Double check with one more person at least, and don’t assume the name you have been given is the name of a city or a village. It may be the name of a farm or a district or a county, or the nearest big city rather than that of their small and unknown village. If you are lucky enough to have elderly family members still alive, consider taking the time to interview them. When they die, the stories are buried with them.