We’ve all heard stories, passed down from generation to generation and wondered, “Is that really true?” These myths about family history aren’t uncommon. Understanding their origins is the best way to move past them and get to your real story.
This is perhaps the most common misunderstanding in U.S. family history. Between 1892 and 1954 almost 12 million immigrants entered the United States through the gates at Ellis Islands. Passenger lists were typically created at the port of departure—the lists were then turned over to immigration officers in the U.S. Name changes usually occurred after immigrants had landed and were settled in their new communities and trying to fit in. As you are researching your family history, passenger lists and naturalization records are good places to start, keeping in mind that your immigrating ancestor likely used the original spelling of both first and given names in their native language.
Depending on where you are in the country, this could be a tale of general Native American heritage or it may be very specific. My mother’s doctor once told me that she had a “Cherokee Princess” in her family, which is unfortunately a common myth. Her family had been in New Jersey since colonial times and was never near Cherokee territory. Many of these stories may come from racial stereotypes. Some come from novelty photographs of ancestors in staged Native American settings. Others may come from those who traded with Native tribes or spent extensive time with Indigenous peoples. If there are Native Americans in your family tree, you might find them by researching the U.S. Federal Indian Census Rolls.
Many Americans are fascinated with coats of arms and family crests. But there is no such thing as a “family crest” and coats of arms are rarer than you might expect. Coats of arms were granted to individuals, not families. And while they can be passed down from parent to child, there are specific rules (and sometimes laws) about how such transitions can be made and who is eligible. Typically, only one individual at a time is allowed to bear the arms. Learn the rules for the nation where your ancestor’s arms were granted to determine whether or not you can use them.
The origins of this common story are unclear, but the myth is pervasive in American culture. It goes like this: There were three brothers who immigrated. One went north, one went south, and one went west. Or maybe there’s one that was never heard from again. This story should always be approached with a healthy dose of skepticism. Would families really separate after a long voyage? Wouldn’t they stick together in a new environment? This myth is probably the result of a desire to find connections between people with the same surname in different locations. So, before you assume the story is true, look for verification in records.
There is a misconception that our ancestors were all short-lived. In reality, it was not uncommon in the modern era for people to live into their 70s, 80s, or 90s. Benjamin Franklin, for example, was 84 years old when he passed away. There is a difference between life expectancy at birth and overall life expectancy and the infant mortality rate in times past was much higher than it is today. Living past childhood was a challenge, but those who made it to adulthood may have lived long lives.
Sometimes family names were spelled consistently, and this can be helpful in identifying your family from other families in records. But spelling variants are all too common. In days past, words (including names) were spelled phonetically. The clerk creating the record wrote what he or she heard. And this problem continues to this very day. My surname, Leclerc, for example, is routinely spelled incorrectly. Part of this is because the final consonant at the end of my surname is not pronounced. It sounds more like “Leclair” which is how it is frequently spelled. Occasionally people spell it the right way, but they incorrectly capitalize the first letter c.
If you don’t take into account that your ancestors’ names could be spelled in multiple ways, you will miss important records. Also, bear in mind that some of our ancestors didn’t know or care how their name was spelled.
Myths in family history can be clues that may lead you to the truth by asking the right questions. Could there be other explanations? Could there be a bit of truth buried in the story? With diligent research and an open mind, you can find the truth to your family story.
Michael J. Leclerc, CG, the Genealogy Professor, has been a professional genealogist for more than 25 years. He enjoys researching the hidden stories of our ancestors. You can find out more about him at www.genprof.net.