Posted by Amy Johnson Crow on April 8, 2016 in Research
Brigham Young, circa 1855-1865. Image courtesy Library of Congress.
Brigham Young, circa 1855-1865. Image courtesy Library of Congress.

“You know we’re related to Brigham Young.”

That’s what my Grandma Johnson told me way back when I was first starting to show an interest in our family history. I was fairly impressed. When it came to matters of our ancestry, Grandma was always right.

Except when she wasn’t.

Working With the Family Legends

Family legends, such as the one my grandma told me, can be tricky things. They can sound so awesome that we want to believe them. They can also sound too good to be true, and we end up discounting them. Both of those strategies are troublesome. If we believe them, we could be adding all kinds of falsehoods to our family tree. If we discount them, we might be missing out on something.

The key is reaching a balance between belief and dismissal. That’s where analysis and research come in.

Look for Plausibility

Grandma’s claim that we are related to Brigham Young has some problems when it comes to plausibility. First, there’s the matter that our family has deep roots in Ohio and West Virginia, not Utah or New England (where Brigham Young was born and raised). There’s also the matter that Grandma came from a long line of Methodists. So far, there isn’t a whole lot of overlap when it came to geography or religion. This legend doesn’t seem very plausible.

There is the matter of Brigham Young spending time in Ohio. My ancestors are from Ohio. Could there be something there? That’s the next step: research.

Research the Facts

When I got a bit older, I started comparing what I had documented about my family tree with some facts about Brigham Young. My family settled in Washington County, Ohio (in the southeastern part of the state). Prior to that, they had been in present-day West Virginia, having migrated there from Scotland.

Brigham Young, on the other hand, was born in Vermont and raised in Massachusetts. In 1832, he joined Joseph Smith at Kirtland, Ohio, which is in the northeast part of the state — approximately 170 miles from where my ancestors lived.

Even extending the research back to Brigham Young’s ancestors and comparing them to my ancestors didn’t lead to anything. His ancestry in England isn’t anywhere near my ancestry in Scotland. (Of course, there could be something way, WAY back. But back to the plausibility factor — how plausible is it that it would have been passed down that we’re related to Brigham Young when the connection would have to be back in the 1600s? Possible, but not likely, especially considering everything else against this.)

The Kernel of Truth

The thing about family legends is that they sometimes contain a kernel of truth. The story about great-grandpa having fought with Sherman in his March to the Sea? The kernel in that story might be that great-grandpa served in the Civil War.

Could it be that one of my collateral relatives had joined the Mormons when they were in Ohio? Could that fact have changed into “We’re related to Brigham Young”? So far, I haven’t found any of my ancestors’ siblings who became Mormon (either in Ohio or elsewhere). That doesn’t seem to be the origin of the story.

Is there a kernel of truth to Grandma’s story? It turns out there is… sort of. While I have not been able to find any familial relationship to Brigham Young or anything connecting my relatives to the early Mormon church, there is one tiny connection between Brigham Young and my grandmother. Her maiden name was Young. Considering all of the research, I think the origin of her statement that “We’re related to Brigham Young” was the fact that her maiden name was the same.

Conclusion

Family legends can be entertaining and frustrating. Treat them like you would any other piece of evidence. Analyze them and check for plausibility. Research the facts and evaluate how the story holds up. The entire story might not be true, but there could be a piece of it that is true. That’s the piece that you want to find.

Amy Johnson Crow

Amy Johnson Crow is a Certified Genealogist and an active lecturer and author. Her roots run deep in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states. She earned her Masters degree in Library and Information Science at Kent State University. Amy loves to help people discover the joys of learning about their ancestors and she thinks that there are few things better than a day in a cemetery. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Amy Johnson Crow.

24 Comments

  1. Karen Dolan

    Spoke with someone yesterday and told to tell my story to out if answers can be found. The people who became my Grandparents were pretty special since they served in the USO in France during WWI where pictures were taken of Grandma writing a letter home for a wounded serviceman as One of the Original Doughnut Girls of WWI and then again they serviced our servicemen at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 being stationed with USO again on the day of the bombing having just getting my mother out of there only a month or so before the bombing. Now between WWI & WWII they were stationed in Amarillo, Tx. with the Salvation Army helping with those abusing alcohol at that time. I have also found articles of babies being abandoned and the woman who became my grandmother was given these babies to find homes for. She decided to keep this last little girl for herself and this woman became my mother. My mother also worked for 45 years for the Salvation Army in their homes for Unwed Mothers, helping other girls in their time of need. If it is at all possible we would like to see if we can find anything out about the woman who left her in the boarding house.

  2. Ryan

    My grandma died before I turned one, but all my uncles and aunts said that they KNOW we are descended from Robert E Lee. It turned out not to be true, but it is what got me into genealogy in the first place. I was kinda surprised that she would’ve told them that as she was a genealogist herself, but in none of her documents does she describe REL. I have 2 theories (1) is one of our confederate serving ancestor somehow met him or something like that (2) she found out we are somehow distant cousins.

  3. Jean

    My favorite part about a family legend is that even when you prove it’s not true, some family members still believe!

  4. Monika

    Speaking of family legends, my favorite is one that involves my husband’s maternal great-great-grandmother. Both, great-grandfather and great-grandmother show in numerous/all Census records as having been born in Baden, Germany. Even though I have 3,300 names in that tree, great-grandmother’s line is the end of the line for me at this point. When I worked on that branch of the tree I managed to track down all the living descendants of great-grandfather and great-grandmother’s line on the internet. (They had a total of nine children.) When I tracked down the descendants of the youngest of these nine children, they proudly shared with me that they had a Family History book that great-grandma and written about her parents. Needless to say I was overjoyed when they sent me a copy. You want to know what it says? Well, here goes: “Great-grandma’s mother (hence great-great-grandma) was born in the late 1700s in a Lutheran community north of Madrid, Spain. Because they did not have Lutheran schools in that community and the roads to Madrid were in too bad of a condition, her parents (g-g-grandmother’s parents) sent her to live with relatives in Germany! ” Oh, ppplease! In the late 1700s, when you lived in Spain, you did not have “relatives in Germany” to send your kids to! The only people who had relatives in other countries in those days were royalty who sent their daughters off to other countries to marry into another royal family. Nor have I ever, despite of all of my research, found a “Lutheran community” anywhere in or near Madrid, Spain. Yet many of the descendants of that line named their children Ramon and Jose because of this Family History book. So clearly, they drank that Kool-Aid. Husband also took the DNA test and while we discovered many cousins that are part of other lines, it did not help us so far in resolving this mystery.

  5. Bonnie

    When I first started my tree I had 3 or 4 family legends to check into, all in my mother’s family. 1st Legend: our Barnum family ancestor was a cousin of PT Barnum. This one took the longest to prove but it eventually did turn out that our ancestor Anna Ellis (Barnum) was a 2nd cousin of PT Barnum. 2nd Legend, ancestor Samuel Hendricks fought with Merl’s Raiders in the Civil War. Turns out he fought with a unit in Missouri called Merrill’s Horse. Legend 3: Samuel Hendricks was very old when he married his wife Aurelia Fox and when he died she abandoned the children to be raised by native americans. Not true at all. But, at the same level of the family history the Anna Ellis mentioned above was about 17 when she married David Barnum, he was about 40 years older than her and did die while she was still raising children, but she didn’t abandon those kids either. This story was obviously only half true and applied to a different ancestor than the one I was told about.
    Legend 4: Samuel Hendricks was the son of Samuel Hendricks, and the grandson of Samuel Hendricks who arrived in the US in 1754. Not true, Samuel’s father was Abram and Abram was a first generation American whose father likely arrived in the US around 1796 or so. There is always a small amount of truth in these legends…the fun is in proving or disproving them.

  6. Paula

    I have a family genealogy written in the late 1920s by my gg-grandfather. It is clear, from his claims, that he turned to the encyclopedia to look for famous people with his father and mother’s last names, and then grandly claimed that it seemed very clear that we were descended from them! A second glance at the dates and places should have told him that the “famous ancestor” was too young to be the progenitor of his family and lived an ocean away. The other “famous ancestor” had the correct name, but it turned out that our ancestor’s name had been altered over a couple of generations in Virginia, so that instead of being the English name that it was, it became a French-sounding one. “Bang” went that theory of being part French and of a famous lineage! But I have to love this gg-grandfather: he interviewed all his many relatives, organized the information, and presented his siblings and many descendants an otherwise excellent genealogical history of a family living in coal-mining country in the 19th Century.

  7. Liz

    I have two family legends about ancestors interacting with General George Washington in the Revolutionary War; one was supposedly his official food taster, the other allegedly was a tailor who made the general’s uniform. While neither legend is likely to be true (and, in fact, the desire to have a connection to our first president generated a lot of these kinds of family legends), both ancestors did fight in the Revolutionary War and were serving under General Washington at Valley Forge and later conflicts, so there is the slightest grain of truth within the rumors.

  8. Carol Kuse

    Bonnie,
    My husband’s great grandfather also served in Merrill’s Horse. Adolph Boeckelmann. He just got here to the US in time to serve. Merrill’s Horse was quite a group. Be sure to check them out.

  9. Donald Lancaster

    I was able to prove my paternal grandfather’s stories about how the family moved from southwestern Pennsylvania to western Kansas in the late 1870s. As a kid, I would hear about how the family, my great grandfather was a toddler, lived in a sod hut. The family returned after spending time trying to farm the land in western Kansas. They returned to their home in southwestern Pennsylvania. The family legend is that my great-great grandmother found a snake in their house and that caused them to return

    In doing research, my family appeared in the 1880 Federal Census in Russell County, Kansas. My great grandfather’s father and his grandfather all lived and farmed in the same community I did more research to discover that there was a large migration from western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio to Kansas. There was a push to have the land settled and farmed. I learned that there was a bad drought in the late 1800s that probably resulted in my family’s decision return to their home in Pennsylvania.

  10. My mother’s story about my 4x great-grandmother is derived from a DAR membership research form as well as family legend. However, I still don’t have proof, as when the research was done for the DAR membership back in the 30s, they were not as stringent about sources. Elizabeth Howe Stone was allegedly born at what is now Longfellow’s Wayside Inn. The birth record index of Rutland Massaachusetts says she was born in Rutland, where her parents lived at the time. What’s the truth? Her father’s brother ran the Inn in Sudbury, which is quite close to Rutland. I can imagine a scenario where her mother went to visit their many relatives (both Howe and Stone) in Sudbury, and the baby came while she was there, but the birth was not recorded officially until she returned home to Rutland. There is nothing in the present-day archives of the Wayside Inn to prove or disprove a baby being born there in 1744. I have not contacted DAR to see if they have any information not on the papers in my possession. If you know more about older research records at DAR, could you please get in touch with me and help me out?

  11. Joyce

    MY family legend was that we had American Indian heritage–I have never found a link to prove that as i lost track of the family line it was supposed to be in–so I discounted it UNTIL I uploaded my DNA to GEDMATCH and looked at their ethnicity report–and sure enough it showed 1.03% Native American—too small to be picked up by the larger companies who give you 4% “other” as ancestry did–SO the moral to MY story is don’t discount fsmily legends until you can “disprove” them—and many CAN be disproven such as my cousin who said they were always related to Joe Dimaggio–something that was easily disproven with a little research–although perhaps someplace WAY back in history it is true—Family legends that are totally false probably start something like this: a child overhears an adult consversation where they hear “maybe we are related to” so and so…and then it becomes a family story to be passed down as the child did not fully understand what was said…Family stories come from “somewhere” and the key is to figure out where they probably started.

    One family legend was that we were part French and indeed my maiden name IS a French name BUT I discovered that ONE relation wrote down his father was from France –although his father died when he was 11 AND it was during the time that the Irish were hated and people tried as much as possible to disguise that they were Irish…so from ONE child getting the wrong idea about his father, who has clearly been proven to be Irish, not only by documents but by Y-DNA…we have finally gotten that fallacy out of the family tree–I discovered through research that the Irish Clan Furey or O’Furey indeed had a branch break off that changed their name to Fleury…

    Enough research can prove or disprove these things—BUT just because our automsomal DNA did not reveal American Indian I thought that rumor was false also–but IT turned out to be true, when I found a site that dug a little deeper into 4% “unknown”…

    The answers ARE out there–but sometimes it takes some digging 🙂

  12. Dolores Kinsey

    One of my legends says that while serving in the Confederate Army my great-grandpa came upon an Indian maiden singing in her teepee, no less, and came back to marry her. Not so. In the first place, teepees were used by Plains Indians, not Cherokees in Mississippi. Secondly, though her picture looks very Indian, no records show her or her family as Native American. They did come to Mississippi from an area in Georgia that had a Cherokee enclave there, and there is a slight, very slight, chance that she has some Cherokee DNA, though how much probably will never surface, but she surely didn’t live (and sing) in a teepee!! I don’t dare try to convince anyone of the fake legend. My Mom and her sibs died believing the story and I’m sure I have cousins who still believe it.

  13. Oma2004

    Love those family stories. My favorite in my maternal Stevenson line in SC involves how my 3 great grandfather came to SC. According to several living grandchildren at the time of documentation, he “came down from the North to work on the canals”. Genetically, he is descended from a well documented Virginia line. Now, no true Southerner would consider Virginia to be “North” but realistically, it IS North of SC!

  14. James Knighton

    A confusing family legend is that my great-grandmother believed her father (who died two weeks before she was born) was French.

    He wasn’t, he was English and was actually in the British Army having fought in World War I. This would have been easily disproved with a simple conversation with her mother. How this belief came about is the bigger mystery.

    The surname IS of French origin (Feaviour) but our particular line can be traced back to the 1600s in Norfolk/Suffolk so we have no proven French ancestry.

    There were absolutely no photos of her father when she grew up, and the real truth about his family is interesting enough (her grandfather started a successful family coach building business, which eventually sold the first Model T Ford in the district).

    From what I can gather, her stepfather was a bit of a tyrant and I imagine any discussion of her real father was forbidden.

  15. I married for the second time. I had been working on my family so I thought to help my husband with his. He and his family were happy until I found some questional things in one of their legends. After a while I gave up on his and went back. I didn’t want to cause any trouble in their family. I have traced several of my line to England and Ireland. Now it is how to go forward. My DNA test 48 British, 28 Irish. It was interesting reading all of the stories.

  16. Sharon

    You must be happy grandma is wrong.
    Even if it isn’t your fault, knowing that your related to an infamous racist mass murder like Brigham Young isn’t a pleasant thought…

  17. Jemma Dee

    My father’s cousins swear that the story is true that their grandfather used to take the bus to Rome as a boy. He lived in Termini Imerese, Sicily and immigrated to Chicago in 1886. A bus? from an island? in the 1880s?

  18. Monika

    @ Jemma Dee. As a European born, I love your story. Reminds me of my husband’s g-g-grandmother being sent from Spain to Germany in the 1700s to go to school there. On a slightly different subject, Not that I consider Find-A-Grave a “family legend”, but definitely a creator of legends at times. While an invaluable source of information it is not always the most accurate one. I have for years researched who Amberry A. Rankin’s parents were. Have contacted Gwen Podeschi of the Abraham Lincoln Library and many VERY equally reputable researchers and they all say that, while eager to find out, they are unable to establish who his parents were. Would love to know what would qualify Find A Grave to discover something that the best in this country have not been able to discover.

  19. Tom Ontis

    My wife’s middle name is Lee, not an unusual one for a woman. We tapped onto Ancestry a few years ago because she had been told her family was related to Robert E. Lee of Confederate Civil War fame.
    We both started tracing things back and we found out that indeed Robert E. Lee is her 6th Great-grand uncle. Additonally his father and uncle are the Lees of Virginia, both of whom signed both the Declaration of Independence AND the Constitution. Cool, eh? She lost interest after that and only deals in computer games now (ugh!)

  20. Tom Overocker

    Our family legend concerns my mother’s middle name – Alden. Of course, if your family has New England roots, the Mayflower is the “Holy Grail”. I have tried reasearching her family both in person and online and keep running into walls at the third or fourth generation – no Jon and Prsicilla Alden yet! Today I was researching my father’s family using Ancestry.com and started in the fourth generation researching mothers. Lo and behold, John and Priscilla Alden werre my 8th Great grandfather and 8th Great Grandmother. But on my father’s side, not my mothers. So much for family legends!

    • Jessica Murray

      @Lucy, We invite you to submit your story to ask@ancestry.com for consideration. Our researchers occasionally pull stories submitted by members to develop education (blog posts, YouTube videos, resource guides, etc) which may help you and others overcome a particular challenge. We would also recommend visiting our Facebook page (Facebook.com/AncestryUS) and sharing your challenge on our public wall so others can offer advice or a different perspective which may help. There’s a very active group of family history lovers on our Facebook page who are always happy to help!

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