Using Family Myths To Break Through Brick Walls

Almost every genealogist has stumbled upon them at a certain point of their research: the family myths. The most common myth is that of having royal blood, but every family has its own particular myths that are so detailed that they are hard to dismiss right away. What to do with grandma insisting that her grandfather was an African prince although her family does not look African at all? And what about grandpa claiming that the old gun in his cabinet once belonged to Thomas Jefferson?

We tend to put those myths aside because we cannot prove them or because they simply sound to far-fetched to be true. However, I think you should always take these stories seriously; they may even help you break through some of your "brick walls"! To see how that can be, let's have a look first at what family myths are.

How do family myths develop in the first place? Usually they start out as simple oral stories around a family fact. For example grandma's grandfather was born in the French colony of Algeria, spent his youth there and later emigrated with his parents to the United States. With each generation that passes on the story orally, some details are lost and others are added to make the story more worth telling. The first generation may transform Algeria into Africa, because they could not remember the exact country. The second generation may add that he grew up in great wealth and his parents belonged to high society. Most colonials would have matched that description. The third generation may change high society to nobility and before you know it the son of a well-to-do French colonist in Algeria has become an African prince.

You could of course dismiss grandma's stories about her noble African roots and get stuck in your research when you cannot find her grandfathers birth record in France. You could also take her story seriously, in the sense that something about these African roots may in fact be true. The myth actually points the way to breaking through that brick wall. It is telling you: if this birth record is not to be found in France, how about French-African territories?

Some practical steps you can take to break through brick walls with family myths:

1. Collect what myths you can from your living relatives.
2. Write down every myth in all its details.
3. Strip the myths of any embellishments: get rid of or tune down famous people, kings, brave actions and other obvious or likely exaggerations.
4. Make a list of the few things that point to exact places, dates and events.
5. Keep the list with your research and consult it every time you hit a brick wall. The list will often provide just the clues you need!