Marty & Karla Grant

Family Traditions

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Family Traditions, while useful, can not be considered primary evidence, nor even secondary evidence. Almost all of the Family Traditions I've heard are incorrect, exaggerated, or distorted way beyond what the original facts were. This is not evidence that someone in your family has been lying to you, only that they have passed along information orally that gets less and less accurate with each generation and with each retelling.

Family Tradition falls under the category of "Tertiary Evidence". I have heard some amazing stories that I just knew couldn't be true, but I listened to them, wondering where the story originated. Family Traditions are handed down from generation to generation, and almost invariably become distorted over the years. Tall tales get taller, or stories regarding one particular ancestor get mistakenly attributed to a different ancestor. This is so very common. However, just like other forms of Tertiary evidence, Family Traditions should not be ignored, nor should they be whole-heartedly accepted either, unless other proof is available to back them up.

Every one has heard of the game you play where you get a group of people and whisper a short story to one person who passes it on until, finally, it gets back to the person who first told it. By then the story has often been changed beyond recognition. This is the same as Family Tradition, only it usually gets grander (or vaguer) with each telling.

None of this is to imply that Family Tradition should be ignored, discarded or generally shunned. There is often a grain of truth in the story. It may require detective work to find out what the truth is but, it gives you something to start with. Of course some stories just can't be proven or refuted depending on the subject matter.

A general rule of thumb to consider is that the longer ago something was supposed to have happened, the less reliable the story may be. If the person telling it was an eye-witness to the events, then, you can generally rely on it being fairly accurate. If they heard it from an eye-witness, then it may be accurate, but possibly not 100%. If they heard from someone who heard it from someone else, well, then you should consider the story highly suspect, but worth keeping.

Let me give you some examples of Family Tradition gone wrong. My grandfather gave me considerable assistance assembling the family tree as far as he knew it. Most of what he told me was accurate. However, when I queried him about his maternal grandmother's maiden name, he told me it was "Ballard." I wrote this down without hesitation, after all, he knew her and he was 30 years old when she died. However, after awhile I just couldn't fit that into the evidence I was uncovering. I asked him again and this time he said it was "Henderson." That turned out to be true. I don't know where "Ballard" had come from, and he wasn't sure either (still haven't found any connection to that surname). This is just proof that even an eye-witness may not have all the facts, either that or he was just temporarily confused, which happens to us all from time to time.

My grandmother told me a story that I instantly knew couldn't possibly be true but I did not want to hurt her feelings so I just nodded and wrote it down. We were talking about some land that was still in the family that had originally belonged to her great grandfather. She proudly told me that "somewhere" in a storage chest was the original grant from the "King of England" for the land. Well I knew that was impossible for the land was not even settled by our family until ca 1840, over 60 years after our country gained independence from England. I thought of several explanations for this story. One, there was some old land grant from the King in a chest, but it couldn't be for that particular piece of land (this grant has never turned up), but might be something from a few generations back in another county that the family still had. Or two, there was a Land Grant, but probably from the Governor of North Carolina (as most land grants were signed by him or the Secretary of State). In either event, her "family tradition" was wrong, though with some room for explanation.

Other well known traditions refer to our ancestors being associated with Daniel Boone or George Washington or someone else famous and often can't be proven. Upon close examination these stories fall apart due to geographical separations or because the alleged ancestor was too young or too old to have done whatever was claimed.

Similarly, those with a surname common to someone famous are almost always claimed to be "kin." Several in my family claimed we were related to President Grant, which couldn't be true. Folks name "Boone" are always related to Daniel Boone, folks named "Washington" were cousins to George, etc. Sometimes these claims are true, but more often than not they are just fantasy or musings or wishful thinking. It is always "cool" (now as well as back then) to claim you are related to someone famous. However, make sure the facts back up the story before you go advertising it.

My point is just that family traditions are interesting but more often than not, totally inaccurate. They often have some germ of truth in them. Consider that when using them in your genealogical research and you won't drive yourself insane trying to connect dots that just don't connect. If the facts you find back up the story, then you are lucky, for most traditions don't work out that way.

There are a couple of "Standard Traditions" that should raise some red flags. Is there someone in your family tree who was "adopted" or who's parents died at sea (or somewhere), so he was raised by someone else and took their surname? This story, more often than not, is a "cover up" to hide an illegitimate birth. I think most states had laws requiring that a bastard child was required to take the mother's surname at the time of the child's birth. Surnames were not something you could just change. It was a legal matter. Of course that doesn't mean every story like this is a cover up, some may be true, but everyone I've heard so far can be traced to an out of wedlock child.

Nearly every family has a tradition of their ancestors first arrivals in America being "three brothers" who came over from England (or somewhere) to settle here. Sometimes it is four brothers or five brothers, but the story is almost always the same. One settled here, one settled there, one was never heard from again and so on.  These stories could be true, but more often than not they can't be proven. It is interesting that there were never any sisters or parents coming over with the brothers!

There are other standard traditions, but those are the most common.