Family historians are always looking for stories about ancestors. They want to embellish the facts – names, birth, death, dates, marriage, children, and location with tales that bring their progenitors to life. Many rush to interview aging relatives to capture those stories before they are lost. Others bemoan the fact that they didn’t ask about their ancestors before members of the previous generation passed. Some are able to congratulate themselves on having collected the family stories in audio or video recordings.
That successful few are confident that they have the benefit of primary sources – accounts by people with direct knowledge of the stories they have told. Primary sources are wonderful, but they come with a caveat. As Ronald Reagan once advised, “Trust, but verify.”
The stories passed down by aging family members while interesting and colorful sometimes are less than wholly accurate from a factual standpoint.
The experience of Michael Casey, an author we are working with on a biography of his great-grandfather Henry Bothin, who built one of the largest steel companies on the West Coast and was the largest commercial property owner in San Francisco at the time of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, is an instructive one.
Casey’s grandmother, Genevieve Bothin Lyman, wrote a family history narrative with an account of her parents and grandparents. She reported the romantic story of the meeting and marriage of her grandparents as told to her by her grandmother.
The story said that Ernest Bothin (Henry’s father) was the adopted son of a well to do family in Chodziesen, then in Eastern Prussia. He fell in love with Rosena Von Lawrence who was of “minor nobility.”
A son was born to Ernest’s adoptive parents changing his status as the heir to the family fortune. Rosena’s family withdrew their consent for their daughter to marry Ernest. She became despondent. Her parents relented to save her life and said she could marry Ernest providing they immediately leave Prussia for America. The two agreed and were married.
Fortunately, Mike Casey researched the factual records of his family’s history. He learned that:
Henry’s father’s name was actually Ernst not Ernest. He was not adopted. He had five siblings, two – both brothers - born before him and three after.
His wife’s given name was Rosa. She was probably illiterate. Universal literacy, at least within the upper and middle classes, was the norm throughout Scandinavia and Northern Europe by the early 19th century. Mike concluded “…it seems absurd to claim a stature even approaching middle class, much less minor nobility.”
Rosa and Ernst were married on April 28, 1836, but didn’t leave for America until August, 1852.
The story Casey’s grandmother, Genevieve, told, while charming, was wrong in almost every factual detail even though it was a primary source.
So gather the family legends and lore, but measure them against the factual record. When including them in the family history make sure to indicate where they diverge from the truth.
You might also learn a lot, as Mike Casey did in this case, about the values, hopes, and aspirations of character who told the story from the nature of the details she chose to alter.