Fact and Fiction in Family History

The conclusion of one of the stories on Vita Brevis, the New England Historic Genealogical Society blog, demonstrates a typical family historian dilemma.

“We still don’t, of course, know who wrote down the story, when, or how likely they were to know the true facts of the case, but someday the original family version may surface.”

Alicia Crane Williams’ conclusion to her post about a man whose ancestor’s wife allegedly received a dowry equal to her weight in gold (http://vita-brevis.org/2017/01/poor-man-in-london/, Jan 9, 2017) was exactly as it should be. An important part of our job as family historians is to clearly make the distinction between history and story, fact and myth. Williams came across the story while researching a sketch of Henry Lamprey of Hampton, New Hampshire, but as far as she could tell, it was just that: a family story. She read it in an 1893 history of the town and traced an earlier reference, but she was still trying to figure out how much – if any – of the tale was based on fact.

As family historians, we all run across family stories, some amusing, others tragic. We are usually thrilled to find these stories since they help fill in some of the blanks between our ancestors’ birth and death dates. But that does not make them true.

Accounts written at the end of the 19th century are often suspect. Many towns in North America published books featuring profiles of prominent members of their communities. These accounts were usually provided by the families and they tended to emphasize the positive rather than relying on solid research.

My ancestor Stanley Clark Bagg is a good example. After he died in 1873, several Montreal “historians” wrote about his family’s roots. My research has proved that they made an error and this misinformation has been perpetuated until today in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. (See “The Biography of Stanley Clark Bagg: Don’t Believe Everything You Read”, Genealogy Ensemble, Dec. 2, 2015, https://genealogyensemble.com/2015/12/02/the-biography-of-stanley-clark-bagg/

Also common is the story about families being descended from royalty, aristocracy or the very wealthy. My MacGregor ancestor was supposedly descended from the clan chiefs and my Hamilton ancestor, a tailor, was – you guessed it – allegedly related to the Dukes of Hamilton. None of my research has showed either claim to be true.

Our job as family historians is not to just to repeat family stories as facts but to try to verify them and to correct the record when necessary, or at least indicate that there is doubt about a story. Many family stories do contain kernels of truth, and it is often helpful to put our ancestors’ lives into historical context. But if we can’t sort out what is fact and what is fiction, we have to be clear that we are recounting an unverified story.

About Janice Hamilton

Janice Hamilton is a Montreal-based writer, genealogist and photographer.

Posted on May 18, 2017, in Genealogy, Writing. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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