25 May 2012

R U Calling My Nana a Liar?

Why waste your money looking up your family tree? 
Just go into politics and your opponents will do it for you. 
Mark Twain

Those of us that help on a popular Facebook page find ourselves cautioning others about believing their family stories. We tell them that those stories are not fact until we have the records to back them up. Looks like someone should have given Elizabeth Warren's family that same warning. It's only natural that we believe what our mother, father, or any other family elder for that matter, tells us about our family history. Unfortunately some of their stories get distorted over time. Doing genealogy research gives us an opportunity to get to the truth.

Did you ever play the "telephone" game when you were a kid? What starts out as "They inherited the earth and then the army came and scorched it" can end up as "Mayfield College." Now imagine that game of telephone is happening, not over an hour but, over decades. Oh, and someone in the "telephone" line was 8 years old when it was their turn and they only heard the story the one time. Your Nana may have had the best of intentions in passing the story along to you. She probably believed every word of it but if you base your research on that and toss aside any records that don't fit the family legend your real family history will never be found.
More on myths and legends after the jump.

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The "Indian" Myth

Someone may have heard stories about Great-Great-Grandma being Cherokee. (Why is it always Cherokee?) When you start looking into her line you see that she was born... in Cherokee County, Kansas. Is it possible that as the story was passed down it morphed from "born in Cherokee, Kansas" to "was Cherokee"? It's a possibility that should not be dismissed. All possibilities should be on the table until you find the records to back them up.

Many people will claim their ancestor had to have Native American blood because of their features. A physical description of an ancestor is just that, a physical description. Your ancestor had "high cheek bones" or "long, straight black hair," fact. Saying that the trait denotes a certain ethnicity or race is conjecture, speculation, or wishful thinking, not fact. 

One legend that can be dismissed immediately is that of the "Cherokee Princess." Your ancestor was not a Cherokee Princess. No one's ancestor was an Indian Princess, no matter the tribe.

Location, Location, Location 
Did you know there's a Texas County, Missouri and a Missouri City, Texas? The story of Great-Grandpa being born in Texas may not have changed but the people telling it may be in a different state now. To people living in Texas County a story about someone born in Texas may be understood to be referring to a local boy/girl, but for the same story told in Vermont the listener would probably assume Texas referred to the state.

Did you know there are 13 cities, 11 towns and 14 townships in the U.S. that all go by the name "Springfield"? Most people know there's a Salem, Oregon and a Salem, Massachusetts but did you know there are also Salems in New Hampshire, Virginia and Ohio? Someone before you may have assumed the wrong Springfield, Salem or other city and that "fact" was added to the story.

Truth or Fiction

A grandparent could have told a fictional story to their grandchild at an impressionable age. That child then tells it to his own children and so on. Somewhere along the way it becomes, not a bedtime story but a family story. When did the story change from fiction to non-fiction? Why did someone assume the story was true? You may never have the answers to those questions but you can certainly try to prove or disprove the story belongs to your family.

A Grain of Truth

You may have a family legend that you laugh about. "No way is that true!" Once you start researching you may find that a small part of the story IS true. Over the years it's just been embellished a little. It becomes the traditional angler story. Every time it's told the fish gets a little bigger ;-) So don't dismiss a story as fiction any quicker than accepting it as fact. There may be a grain of truth in there.

No one is calling your grandmother a liar but she may have believed her mother's stories just as you believe hers. Just don't jump into your research determined to prove that her story is true. If you're not open to other options you may just be adding bricks to that wall you're building.

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  1. As an Oklahoman, I have to take issue with the slant of this article, just a little bit. I don't think the national and Massachusetts media understand the cultural and racial situation in Oklahoma. Oklahoma is full of people who look like Elizabeth Warren who are 1/32 or 1/64 Cherokee and members of the Cherokee Nation. The current chief of the Cherokee Nation, Bill Baker, is only 1/32 Cherokee. There were kids in my son's high school class who received preferential college admission based on their having had a 2nd- or 3rd-great grandparent on the rolls. I have read that about 40% of people born in Oklahoma listed as "White" on census and other forms are actually of part-Native ancestry. In that context, the attempts to capitalize on Ms. Warren's situation appear entirely politically motivated. I think it is likely that if detailed research was done, she would prove to have a small amount of Native American blood, and she thought nothing of mentioning it due to having grown up in an area where it was unremarkable.

    1. The point is that genealogically she didn't have the documentation to back it up. She had been repeating the family lore. Many of us tell stories we've grown up with and just assume them to be true. You said it yourself, those people in OK who look like her have "a 2nd- or 3rd-great grandparent on the rolls". Elizabeth Warren doesn't. I don't think she did it maliciously and there has been no proof that she benefited financially, educationally, or career-wise from it. Personally I think her opponent is grasping at straws because he can't run on his record and I'm hoping she wins. Genealogically, I think she needs to hire a better researcher.

  2. Yes, that's true. People who haven't paid any attention to genealogy don't really know what proof is and don't realize that they may get called on it. Warren was too busy doing other things :) But a lot of the people I know who describe themselves as "part Cherokee" are really vague about exactly how they connect, especially if they aren't on the rolls. And some of the people on the rolls aren't there by blood! I have a friend whose grandmother was on the Dawes Roll through her part-Shawnee step-grandmother, who, it turned out, had enrolled all her children AND also her non-Shawnee step-children. (some of the Shawnee had been taken into the Cherokee tribe, a complicated situation)

    By the way, I found you through the discussion boards on FindAGrave and I'm enjoying reading your posts and this blog. Thanks! I love the dissection of the crazy trees on Ancestry, I need to forward you some examples. The farther back they go, the crazier they get, in my experience.

    1. Thanks! I can always use more fuel for the blog ;-) Send me a message on F.A.G. or here with links to any crazy profiles you find. Actually, drop me a quick note over there so I know who you are. You're just showing up as "Unknown" here.
      I think the Elizabeth Warren thing could be a great genealogy teaching moment. There's a lot of people who are sure their X ancestor was native but, like E.W., don't have the proof to back it up. Others who know to doubt the native rumors but don't have a clue on where to start to prove/disprove them. And many more believe the "Indian princess" myth or think that high cheekbones and straight black hair are proof :-P Maybe Dr. Gates' next PBS project should focus on Native Americans.