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Greathouse Point > Library > Legends > Family Legends

Family Legends

Extracted from a 1996 issue of Missing Links

By Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG
Copyright, 1996

If you are going to be successful in finding your ancestors, you better look at those treasured family legends with the cold eye of an investigative reporter. Legends can lead you astray, and yet, we family historians cling to them, like favorite toys.

Four common legends that have been handed down in many American families include:

  • Particular spelling of your surname;
  • A town in England, Norway, Germany, etc. is named for your family;
  • There's a relationship to someone rich or famous, or to nobility or royalty;
  • Your line goes back to three brothers who came to America.

Spelling. The minute you insist your surname was ever or always spelled a particular way you label yourself a neophyte researcher. Spelling, as applied to surnames, in America was never rigid until the late 19th century. Most of the records in which you will find your ancestors were recorded by someone else -- a court clerk, enumerator, minister or rabbi, and your own ancestor may spell his name three different ways in his holographic will, and sign it with a fourth version. If you can't get over the surname spelling hump and look for all possible variants of your names, you will not be successful finding your ancestors.

Towns named for your ancestors? It is much more likely that your ancestors took the name of a locality than vice versa. And, your ancestor who first passed along your surname as a hereditary one may have lived in the 13th or 14th century, and you will be lucky to ever identify him. Use surnames as a clue to, not proof of, origins.

Rich & Famous? Royal and Noble lines? You may be related to someone rich and/or famous (even<gasp> infamous] of the same surname, but don't bet the farm on it. And, don't be deceived by commercial offerings of "family crests" or books about "your surname." They are not real genealogies. Genealogies must show relationship between people (regardless of their names). Not everyone of the same name is related, plus remember most of us descend from ordinary people.

Now and then you will find a famous or infamous character hanging on your family tree. They are nice decorations and add color to your pedigree, but the real challenge is to trace those undistinguished folks who left few records and moved frequently. Be wary of accepting any noble or royal lineage without scholarly verification. Many of these lines are false and some have been cleverly fabricated.

Three Brothers. The three brothers myth probably arose from earlier researchers who were unable to find links between men of the same surname in different localities and just assumed they must be related -- somehow. No doubt there are instances of where three (or several) brothers immigrated to America, but don't make such assumptions based simply on surname.

Accept no family legends on face value and do not allow them to blind you to possibilities that contradict the family tales. Actually, the real stories are much better than these tired old legends.

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