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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 8/2/2000


Analyze the Tradition

We all have family traditions. Some are colorful, some are entertaining; some are exaggerations, and some are bold-faced lies. All can be used genealogically, whether for actual clues or just to provide "colorful" stories to add to the family history.

Most traditions are not completely false and contain a buried grain of truth. Finding that grain of truth and determining the difference between truth and fiction is not a simple matter.

One approach to sifting the fact from the fiction is to break the story into those aspects that are potentially provable and those that are not. The lines between potentially provable and not provable are not always clear, but an attempt to categorize the story's aspects may further your research. The phrase "potentially provable" is used instead of "provable" to remind the researcher that an event that resulted in the creation of records in one time and place might not have resulted in the creation of records in another time and place.

Potentially provable items are those that reasonably resulted in the creation of some type of record. The record may or may not be an official record. A knowledge of the typical records for the time period under study makes the analysis easier. This knowledge can be gained by reading listservs, genealogy books, and magazines, and by attending conferences and other activities that expand your genealogical knowledge.

We will look at two traditions to see how they can be broken apart for potential clues, and we’ll discuss briefly what information was discovered.

Tradition #1
"Riley Rampley served in the Civil War. He was with General Sherman on the famous 'March to the Sea.' While on his way home (riding on a horse), he met a young lady (Nancy Newman) who was on her way home from a house where she had been serving. When he got home, he told his mother he had met the girl he was going to marry."

Several aspects of this tradition might have generated records. There are certain other parts that are difficult to validate unless diaries or contemporary letters are found. I analyzed the story in the following manner.

Potentially Provable

  • Riley's Civil War service--through service records and pension records
  • The involvement of Riley's unit in the "March to the Sea"--through regimental histories and Riley's service record
  • The marriage of Riley and Nancy--through marriage records

Most Likely Unprovable

  • Riley meeting Nancy on his way home from the war and subsequently telling his mother he had met the woman he was going to marry.

What Is Known

  • Riley served in Company D of the Illinois Volunteer Infantry and was with Sherman on the "March to the Sea." This information was obtained from military service records and a history of the 78th Illinois.
  • Nancy and her parents moved to Illinois in 1863-64 while Riley was in the service. This information was obtained from Nancy's obituary, her husband's biography, and from research on Nancy's siblings. Land records indicated that Nancy's parents owned a farm adjacent to that owned by Riley's parents. It is likely that the first time Riley saw Nancy was after he returned from the war. The couple was married in 1867, a few years after Riley's return from service.

Tradition #2
"Grandma Haase was first married to a Mr. Beger. They lived in Warsaw (in Hancock County, IL) and had two little girls, Frances and Louisa. Mr. Beger died by drowning, and Grandma sold sandwiches to the men who came to sell things at the river (Warsaw is on the Mississippi River). Grandma later married my grandfather, Conrad Haase."

Potentially Provable

  • The death of Peter Beger
  • The birth of two daughters or the existence of two daughters
  • The marriage of Peter and "Grandma Haase"
  • The marriage of Conrad Haase and "Grandma Haase"

Most Likely Unprovable

  • "Selling sandwiches" didn't require a license in the 1850s, and there probably wouldn't be a way to document this.

What Is Known

  • Peter Bieger died in Warsaw, Illinois in November of 1855 (per his probate records).
  • A guardianship case for his two daughters gives their names and dates of birth. A newspaper article on his accidental death appeared in the Warsaw, Illinois paper and indicated that he accidentally shot himself instead of drowning.
  • No marriage record for he and "Grandma Haase" (whose name was Barbara) has been found in the area.
  • A marriage record for "Grandma" and Conrad Haase was located in Hancock County, Illinois in 1859.

Summing Up
Not every tradition will result in possible records. However, taking a look at your family traditions may provide you with new insights to get a jumpstart on your own research.

When including traditions in your family history, just be sure to clearly label them as tradition. Once a tradition becomes a "fact," it can be difficult if not impossible to rectify the situation.

Michael John Neill, is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing.

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Used by the author on his website with permission

Michael John Neill's articles from the Ancestry Daily News