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Tall Tales

By Daniel Hubbard | January 20, 2013

When I started being interested in my family history one of the things my aunt taught me was that sometimes family stories turn out to be wrong. It was an easy lesson for her to teach. The family story that had most fascinated me was something that she proved to be untrue.

That story had what it took to be remembered—a robbery, a murder and a mystery. The robbed items, turned out to have been lost. There was no murder. Without those two things there was no mystery either. That doesn’t mean that the story has no value. It is still a good story but that isn’t my point. The “murdered” man really did die and he died when the story said that he did. That story wasn’t true but it wasn’t 100% false either. It had a grain of truth. The grain was even a useful grain.

The Useful Grain

The useful grain is my point. A story can seem odd, exaggerated or fabricated, and the originator may have been intoxicated but that doesn’t mean that it must be useless. Twice when starting projects I’ve been told stories about name changes that the storyteller didn’t really believe. The stories hung together about as well as two Monty Python routines connected by “And now for something completely different” but in the end, they made the difference. Those name changes, or at least something very, very close, had actually occurred. Without the information preserved in the family story, would the necessary connection have been made?

Those stories had two important functions. They made it possible to connect two different names to one man. They allowed the paper trails to be found from what would have been  needle-in-a-haystack problems. Genealogy relies on identity. These stories gave starting points for testing if two different identities could actually be the same individual.

The other important function was to connect those individuals to the families. If you imagine trying to map underground water pipes, you might try some different strategies. You might criss-cross the ground with a metal detector and map the points where the detector found metal. Some of those points would seem to form lines on the map, lines you can conclude are the pipes. Those points are like documents. You can’t be totally sure they fit together but with enough work you can get very close. You find your documents string together to form a coherent picture of individuals and their relationships.  Another way you might try to map the pipes only works if you have access to the ends of the pipes. You put dye in at one end and check to see where the dye comes out. Because the stories were preserved within families, they work something like that dye. They flowed from their origins to living family members. The analogy isn’t perfect. Occasionally, stories jump to places that they could never reach if they were like dye in a pipe but more often than not they stay within the family pipe, even getting diluted like the dye in the water. So those stories gave independent reason to believe the connections found in the paper trail. If there had been no connection, if a mistake had been made, the story would probably not have flowed.

Another set of stories I was given included a mention of two poor immigrants who met while employed by someone very wealthy. It could have been a once true story on its way to becoming a retelling of Cinderella. It might have been that it had only gotten as far as Cinderella marrying the prince’s servant and in a generation or two, Cinderella would be marrying the prince, as she should in any proper fairy tale.

But not so fast. I found a suspicious girl. She was one of many with the right name. So how could I tell if she was the right one? Her age and origin fit. She was living one town over from where the story placed her. Not bad. What sealed the deal was the mention of the word “wealth” in the story. It wasn’t an exaggeration. It was an understatement. My eyes fixed on the name Rockefeller. This immigrant girl was working for John D. Rockefeller, the wealthiest man on the planet and often regarded as the wealthiest man who has ever lived. The case of that girl’s identity would seem to be closed, thanks to that story.

Odd stories can be misleading. They can make the truth seem disappointing. Nevertheless, they can be worth remembering. You never know when a murder that never happened, a crazy change of name or a Rockefeller might come in handy.

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