We all have family stories that have been passed down over the years, and these stories come in a variety of flavors. They can be short little snippets, or long, sweeping epics. They can be presented as a form of absolute truth that defines your family's existence over generations, or as a gossipy rumor that no one really knows for sure, but doesn't it seem odd to you that Grandpa was born when his father had been away serving in the military for well over a year? They can be shameful secrets or just an interesting moment in an ancestor's life. And of course, they run the gamut in between all of these possibilities. If you sit down and really think about what you know about your family, odds are that you have stories of varying types: escapes from dangerous situations, romances, tragedy, or even just a story of how life was in a given time and place.
When doing genealogy, the first question that leaps to mind with regards to family stories is -- or, at least, should be -- "How reliable are they?" If we're talking about trusting these stories at face value, the answer, as frustrating as it may be, is "not very." When we implicitly believe the family stories and take every detail as literal truth, we are essentially playing the world's longest game of Telephone and expecting the output at the end to be exactly the same as the input at the beginning. Many rounds of childhood Telephone tell me that it doesn't take much for "The tiger takes a nap" to become "The Bible fakes a slap." Transmitted family stories may be untrue in many ways and for many reasons: the storyteller may misremember something in the re-telling, or they may fill in missing details to make it a better story, or they may purposefully mislead for their own reasons. Especially for older stories, the idea of chain of custody is important. How many people has this story or tradition passed through and over how many years? How likely are those people to have made a mistake that changes the story (very likely) or to purposefully change the story (somewhat likely, depending on the story's topic)? Can we trust oral tradition without contemporary documentation?
In last week's post, we discussed how to evaluate the reliability of sources and information; one might wonder where family stories/oral tradition falls along that spectrum. Well, wonder no longer, the answer is, "right near the bottom of the trustworthy heap, next to notes scribbled on grocery lists and things Grandpa muttered when he was drunk at Christmas that one time." Family stories are both derivative sources and secondary information, and most of them have the added disadvantage of not ever having been written down in a fixed form so that the story retains the ability to change and warp over time. In fact, only religious texts tend to rate lower as sources of reliable genealogical information (your instinct was correct, all those family trees that people claim to have traced all the way back to Adam and Eve are full of what we professionally refer to as hooey).
"Gather 'round, kids, Granddad's going to tell you all about -- *hic* -- what happened to your great uncle in Reno, and I swear it's ALL TRUE."
Don't despair. Despite all that, your family stories are not utterly useless. But if you were about to decry them as such solely on the basis of this blog post, thanks! Gosh, I feel powerful. Oral tradition is still valuable, and I don't mean that in the emotional, "It's valuable because it speaks to the human spirit in all of us," sort of abstract sense, I mean it in the sense that it can provide you with valuable clues to your genealogical research.
When dealing with a family story, the trick is to think about either A) how you can use records to verify parts of the story, or, conversely, B) how you can use the story to find additional genealogical details about your family. As a simple example, let's say that you have a family story about a great-grandfather who escaped from the Russian Army during the Russo-Japanese War, but you don't know much else about him. If you're looking to confirm the story, you can see what sorts of Russian military records might be available for you to help verify details of his service and desertion (and after finding a way to obtain Russian military records, please also find a unicorn or an albino giraffe, because you're clearly on a roll). If, on the other hand, you're hoping to use the story to learn more about your great-grandfather's life, you can do a Google search to find out when the Russo-Japanese War was (1904-1905), and use that information to help narrow down the timeframe of your search for an immigration record for him.
In addition to teasing out the verifiable/expandable details from the story, make sure to spend some time looking for artifacts that may also help tell the story. In order to help you understand just how helpful this can be, let me share a recent example from my own experience.
Meet "Sam Johnson".1 Sam was born in the mid-1870s in a rural county in western Pennsylvania. He had a fairly interesting life, including a stint working on the Panama Canal from 1909-1912. My client, a relative of his, remembered stories of Sam having played pro or semipro baseball in the 1890s, and was hoping that I could find details on that story. He also remembered seeing a navy blue baseball uniform, which told me that, whether it was Sam or not, a member of the family likely had played baseball.
The thing to do at first seemed to be to find pro and semipro rosters for 1890s baseball, especially those teams based in Pennsylvania and New York. The pro rosters are pretty readily available online. The semipro rosters are slightly less so. When I couldn't find Sam Johnson's name amongst any of the rosters, I turned to the experts: I wrote to the Baseball Hall of Fame and they checked their records. They were unable to find his name in any of their records from the 1890s. Next I spent some time looking into the smaller leagues, like the Iron and Oil League, but wasn't able to find Sam there either. I also learned that there were lots of smaller leagues and teams that were sponsored by companies or industries, but that good records of those teams generally were not maintained. Unfortunately, no one thought to "Moneyball" the players of the day.
In the end, I decided that my best bet was to try to find newspaper articles or game stats using Newspaper.com and narrowing the search parameters to Pennsylvania newspapers in the 1890s and the words "Johnson" and "baseball" appearing on the same page (as well as a variation search using his first name too). However, "Johnson" being a fairly common surname, the results were not encouraging: almost 3,900 hits. A perusal of the first twenty or so results convinced me that this wasn't a viable way of solving the problem. At this point, frankly, I was about ready to say that Sam had likely played for one of those industry-sponsored teams and that there just wasn't enough information available to go any further.
Then I got lucky, maybe because I had taken to the traditional baseball superstition of wearing the same socks for weeks on end. I had a meeting with my client and he brought with him a baseball, signed by the aforesaid Sam Johnson, as well as 13 other signatures. I took pictures of the ball, and promised to redouble my efforts. At first, I was disappointed: doing Newspaper.com searches using the same search parameters as before (1890s and Pennsylvania) but including several of the surnames from the ball turned up nothing promising.
In the end, though, my two big breaks were both prompted by the ball. The first was using census records to find that the other men who signed the ball were pretty much all from the same town as Sam, but ranged considerably in age, the youngest having been born in 1888. That being the case, it seemed very unlikely that the team had played in the 1890s; not too many teams worth their salt employ 8 year olds, though the modern professional farming system is fast at work solving this problem. That information told me that my client's remembrance of Sam having played in the 1890s was mistaken, and that the team had almost certainly played later.
The second discovery was prompted by this picture I took:
The baseball-savvy amongst you may recognize the name: Ford C. Frick was, at one point, the president of the National League, as well as commissioner of baseball at a later date. At first, I got very excited because his signature appeared to be real, of the same quality and texture as the other signatures on the ball (I figured that this was a man whose career had been well-documented enough that I could use it to find the team if he had played on it too). However, it turned out that the signature was not real, it was simply a stamp, but it still wound up being helpful. The website KeyMan Collectibles (and more specifically, the National League Baseball Dating Guide) showed me that I could date this particular ball based on the style of the stitching, the signature of the president, and the style of the logo. In this case, the mono-colored stitching, Frick's signature, the positioning of "Pres't." after his name (rather than below it), and the order of the information on the logo at the bottom helped me confirm that this was a 1936-1940 Ford Frick baseball. Those years being among the final years of Sam Johnson's life -- he passed away in 1941 -- it seemed likely to me that this must have been signed during some sort of team reunion, rather than during the team's heyday.
The combination of knowing that the team could not have played in the 1890s and that they got together in some context in the late 1930s helped me to put together a new search on Newspapers.com. I kept the location of the newspapers Pennsylvania-specific, but I changed the time parameter to span the 1930s, and added the surnames of three of the other signatures from the baseball to the "Johnson" and "baseball" search terms.
And there it was. Several different articles from 1930 and 1936-1939 documented the reunion of this beloved championship baseball team from 1904-1906 for a yearly all-star game and celebration. Not only was I able to use these articles to discover the name of the team, in which years Sam played, and what position he played, as well as the extent to which this team was deeply revered in the county, I also (most excitingly for me) found a picture of the team from 1904 which, of course, included Sam and the very same navy blue uniform remembered by my client, or so I assume... The picture was in black and white for some reason.
This was a case where the family story turned out to be largely true: Sam did indeed play baseball in a semipro capacity, and it was clearly an important part of his life story. However, slavish devotion to the family story -- specifically as to Sam playing in the 1890s -- would have utterly destroyed my ability to come up with any relevant results.
So, let me close by again saying that family stories and family artifacts are useful in genealogical research. They can be the clues that lead you to big discoveries and, when verified, the flavors that spice up what can otherwise be a dry re-telling of an ancestor's life. If, however, you are slavishly devoted to a story being objective truth, but you can't back it up with any documentary evidence, you won't get far and your research will suffer for it.
Please excuse me now, my husband is demanding that I go change my socks.
1 The name used here is a pseudonym for privacy purposes. Many details of his life have also been intentionally obscured for the same reasons.