Saturday, September 01, 2007

Confirming & Debunking Family Myths, Legends and Lore

I have a host of family legends that I have not been able to entirely confirm or debunk.

Legend #1: My gg-grandmother, Sarah Gilbert Johnson, was an Indian. I haven't found any evidence that she was, mainly because I've found no evidence of her except an entry in the Clay County (Mo.) marriage records and one census record. Family members say that her daughter, Mary Elizabeth Johnson, who died in 1946, said her mother was an Indian. Living family members who knew Mary Elizabeth Johnson say she had "Native American features" and wore her hair in two long braids until the day she died.

The "Grandma Was An Indian" legend exists in many families for many complicated reasons. It turns out to be false more often than true. But who knows in the case of Sarah Gilbert Johnson?

Legend #2: Somebody named "Carl" in my father's Georgia family tree was Jewish. I've found no evidence of this, though my father keeps asking if I have. One of my father's uncles was named Carl. He was not Jewish to the best of my knowledge,. In one version of the story, this person came to Georgia from Florida. Now, I am missing at least two male ancestors in that branch of the family, both of whom were likely Caucasian.

The "Grandpa Was A Jew" legend crops up rarely, but occasionally in ostensibly non-Jewish families. Slightly more frequently, for complicated reasons, the fact that Grandpa was Jewish may be hidden.

Legend #3: My great-grand father, Richard Gines, was French, or spoke French. Although I've found no evidence of this, there is a plausible reason that people believe this. He was born in Louisiana and he married Sylvia LeJay, whose surname is French. Curiously, no one ever says that she was French, though this might make some sense.

Legend #4: I'm related to Sir Patrick Manson(1844-1922), the Scottish physician who was the first specialist in tropical medicine. While possible, I doubt that this is true. I started this "legend" myself when I was in high school. Why? I don't know.

Legend #5: One of my father's aunts left Texas to return to Georgia to find "the rest" (i.e., "the white people") of her family. When she got to Georgia, she found the "family," knocked on their door, and was rudely dismissed. She went to Atlanta and was never heard from again. Not true. The aunt in question likely was Julia Matilda Manson (1900-1912). She died of tuberculosis at age twelve. [Citation: Milam County Death Records, Vol. I, Milam County Genealogical Society, 1998]. This may have gotten started as a way to explain to her siblings and other folks her untimely death ("she ran away to Georgia and we never heard from her again").

Legend #6: One of my mother's aunts, Mary Beatrice Long, died when she fell into a lake and drowned while on a church picnic. Not true. Mary B. Long died on May 6, 1921, of tuberculosis. She was sixteen years old. [Citation: Death Certificate No. 12145, Mary Beatrice Long, Missouri State Board of Health, 1921; available from Missouri State Archives website at]. Again, the far-fetched story may have been a tale to explain an untimely death. The several family members from whom I first heard this story now claim they don't remember telling it.

The biggest myth in the family is one I've written about before. I've dressed it up again for the next post.


Terry Thornton said...

Your two posts on your family myths are so interesting --- thank you so much for sharing your family's legends and myths. "The Spanish Lady" problem is one that I think has confused researchers for several generations. And I can see where you too have run into the problem of "Shhhhhhhh. Let's not talk about this."

Terry Thornton
Hill Country of Monroe County, Mississippi

Miriam Robbins said...

Sometimes I wonder how happy our family members are about us debunking their beloved family legends! I suppose all the great new stories helps balance it out (at least, I hope so!).

Moultrie Creek said...

I don't know about your Southern family, but all of mine are great storytellers. I've always loved listening to those stories, but am a bit skeptical of their basis in reality. I'm a firm believer in President Reagan's statement, "Trust, but verify."