|If you are going
to be successful in finding your ancestors, you better look at those
treasured family legends with the cold eye of an investigative reporter.
Legends can lead you astray, and yet, we family historians cling
to them, like favorite toys.
Four common legends
that have been handed down in many American families include:
spelling of your surname;
Spelling. The minute you insist your surname was ever or always spelled
a particular way you label yourself a neophyte researcher. Spelling, as
applied to surnames, in America was never rigid until the late 19th century.
Most of the records in which you will find your ancestors were recorded
by someone else -- a court clerk, enumerator, minister or rabbi, and your
own ancestor may spell his name three different ways in his holographic
will, and sign it with a fourth version. If you can't get over the surname
spelling hump and look for all possible variants of your names, you will
not be successful finding your ancestors.
A town in England,
Norway, Germany, etc. is named for your family;
There's a relationship
to someone rich or famous, or to nobility or royalty;
Your line goes
back to three brothers who came to America.
Towns named for your ancestors? It is much more likely that your ancestors
took the name of a locality than vice versa. And, your ancestor who first
passed along your surname as a hereditary one may have lived in the 13th
or 14th century, and you will be lucky to ever identify him. Use surnames
as a clue to, not proof of, origins.
Rich & Famous? Royal and Noble lines? You may be related to someone
rich and/or famous (even<gasp> infamous] of the same surname, but don't
bet the farm on it. And, don't be deceived by commercial offerings of
"family crests" or books about "your surname." They are not real genealogies.
Genealogies must show relationship between people (regardless of their
names). Not everyone of the same name is related, plus remember most of
us descend from ordinary people.
Now and then you
will find a famous or infamous character hanging on your family tree. They
are nice decorations and add color to your pedigree, but the real challenge
is to trace those undistinguished folks who left few records and moved
frequently. Be wary of accepting any noble or royal lineage without scholarly
verification. Many of these lines are false and some have been cleverly
Three Brothers. The three brothers myth probably arose from earlier researchers
who were unable to find links between men of the same surname in different
localities and just assumed they must be related -- somehow. No doubt there
are instances of where three (or several) brothers immigrated to America,
but don't make such assumptions based simply on surname.
Accept no family
legends on face value and do not allow them to blind you to possibilities
that contradict the family tales. Actually, the real stories are much better
than these tired old legends.