Many families tell and retell dramatic, strange, or funny stories about their ancestors. Some of them might even be true. Here are some examples of true, false, and partly-true stories in my family.
From the Mayflower to the Revolution
One of my mother’s cousins wrote this in a letter in 1973: “In the 1920s, Aunt Sadie . . . had the family tree done by professionals. . . . Something that may interest you from Aunt Sadie’s tree––two English [family surname] came over on the Mayflower but died the first winter in Massachusetts. When the second ship came over, two more Englishes came over. They were Geo. and William English. These two were our forbearers [sic]. . . . Another interesting thing is when Benedict Arnold gave the plans to Major André, the man who was presiding officer at the trials was our relation. He was Brevet Gen. Alexander English who ordered Major Andre hanged. He is buried in West Point cemetery. I visited his grave many times when I was stationed at the ‘Point’ in 1924 to 1928.”
During the 1970s, many relatives born around 1900 told me Aunt Sadie bragged about her tree, always carried it in her purse, and frequently brandished it to relatives while telling them they couldn’t read it because they hadn’t paid for it. The then-current owner promised Sadie she wouldn’t let anybody else see it, but she let me copy it because I lived more than 2,000 miles away. The report was done in 1930. It was not done by a professional. It went back only to Sadie’s grandfather who was born in 1803. It did not include any of the above stories.
Researching reliable historical records shows the following. The Mayflower brought one English, not two, and he died the first winter without issue. The second ship did not bring anybody named English or anything like that. No George or William English arrived in America for at least eighteen years after the Mayflower’s arrival. The presiding officer at Major André’s trial was Nathaniel Greene. The Daughters of the American Revolution Patriot Index shows no English with a rank above lieutenant. The hanging was ordered by the court martial board and confirmed by General Washington. General Alexander English, who is buried at West Point, was born seventeen years after Major André was hanged. Oh, sigh! How disappointing! [More on this family coming in the next installment.]
Went to Texas and Were Killed by Indians
My wife Carol researched a Masterson who married a Lanman, losing track of that family in Iowa in 1850. She asked the current Masterson genealogist of highest standing if she knew what happened to those people. She said they moved to Texas and were killed by Indians.
Carol found them in the 1860 census of Jack County, Texas. Several years later, she Googled “Texas Lanman.” She found a description of an Indian raid that took place in Jack County several weeks after the census was taken. In that raid, three members of that Lanman-Masterson family were killed.
From Portugal or the Netherlands?
A patron at the Longmont Family History Center asked for help researching her family. Some family members said they came from Portugal, others said they came from the Netherlands, and still others said they came from Portugal-Netherlands. The family name sounded Dutch rather than Portuguese.
Carol searched the Internet for an old gazetteer and found an entry for Portugaal in Zuid Holland. Her search of old maps found one, dated 1450, that showed a town named Portugaal near Rotterdam. A modern Google map shows Poortugaal among the southwestern suburbs of Rotterdam.
A Scottish Name in Switzerland
A friend asked me to help her start researching her family. She said the family used to be wealthy and lived in their castle on an island in a lake in Switzerland. The name sounded Scottish rather than German, French, or Italian.
Switzerland doesn’t have a lake with an island. I found that family’s association website. They are descended from the man and woman of that name who were wealthy and lived in their castle on an island in a lake near the west coast of Scotland. The association offers copies of their extensive genealogical data to anybody who can show they are descended from any family members they recognize. My friend’s great-grandfather was among them. So she had her ancestry back to 1750 in one day.
So . . .
Stories preserved within your family might be true or false or some of each. Think of how you might prove or disprove parts of the story using authoritative sources that do not come from the family. Imagine what you would like to find if the world were an ideal place. Then hunt for such information on the Internet. If an imaginative and persistent search fails, try looking for books on relevant subjects in Worldcat at www.worldcat.org/. That site lists more than two billion items in libraries around the world. If you find something interesting, ask your local librarian to get it for you through Interlibrary Loan.
Hope that you can prove or disprove the stories you have inherited, but realize that some questions cannot be answered conclusively. For example, consider John English, who was a private in the Second Pennsylvania Regiment of the Continental Line and who claimed that he took an active part in the hanging of Major André. He was in that unit for two years before and three years after the André incident. That unit was close to Major André’s location the day he was hanged. No record of events close to the execution mentions John and no record says the Second attended the hanging. Was he nearby? Yes. Was he there? Maybe. Did he participate? We’ll never know. [More on John English in a subsequent installment.]
Advice and Examples
Read Sustainable Genealogy: Separating Fact from Fiction in Family Legends by Richard Hite. This book is a collection of family traditions and explanations of how they were investigated. Some were true, some were false, and some were a little of both. If the library nearest you doesn’t have this book, ask a librarian to get it for you through Interlibrary Loan. [Or purchase a copy at the StLGS online store. Click here to go to the correct page. Remember to log in and get your discount code first, if you are an StLGS member.]