How much weight would you give an oral history of someone's life if it conflicts with sources?

+5 votes
Nora here has created a poem about her family.  Her descendents use it for proof of her ancestry.

There are a few problems however. The descedents have attached all sorts of incorrect census records and the like to Nora's ancestry tree.  

The information I am putting together, does not fit with the poem or the tree the granddaughter of Nora has put together.

This is a very delicate matter of course.  Perhaps Nora was told a different story of her birth and parentage, or perhaps it has been interpreted incorrectly, or perhaps it is completely accurate and all of the official records are misleading.

Whatever the case, I certainly need help building up this family tree.

Any takers?
WikiTree profile: Nora Swafford
in Genealogy Help by Lance Martin G2G6 Mach 9 (90.9k points)
Wow Lance,

Thanks for sharing this poem with us.   It's a treasure.  But  you probably already realized your sources have great weight in determining your family history. Poetry is often as accurate as the Fargo series which was  "based on a true story".
Well, that is the side a genealogist comes down on. But the fact remains, could the 1880 census be wrong? Is it possible that Nora's name wasn't Taylor and the census taker made an assumption the grandchild belonged to the daughter?

Or perhaps there is a third Nora out there somewhere I have yet to discover.

I would like to think the facts speak for themselves, but to read the facts, you have to have all the facts.

Like finding the mother on a later census and comparing child counts, doing DNA tests to find ethnicity or even mtDNA haplogroups.

LIke I said, very difficult.

6 Answers

+8 votes
Best answer
I’ve had a few of those to deal with. I don’t know how my Grandpa would have reacted to hear that most of what he told me about one of his ancestors didn’t pass the paper proof. There was a kernel of truth in what he told me, enough to track down the whole truth. I’m not so sure I would have told him. It’s a moot point for me, as he died about 30 years before the research proved him wrong. Fortunately for me, no other family member has worked the genealogy of his family but one distant cousin, the one who made all the discoveries.

I think you can still honor the story Nora told through her poetry while continuing your research. You can stress what she got right by the research, while gently showing what is incorrect. It’s always difficult when an honored family member is involved.
by Pip Sheppard G2G Astronaut (1.9m points)
selected by Lance Martin
+7 votes
While I think the poem itself is a treasure, I wouldn't put much weight in it.  I would go with the sources.  Like you said, information could be misinterpreted when passed down orally.  As a for instance:  My grandmother's great-grandmother was Pennsylvania Dutch, so she thought she was part Dutch.  My sister, mother, and I have all had our DNA tested and or course there is no Dutch ancestry.  My mother still insists we are part Dutch.  My sister and I have to avoid eye contact with each other...
by Lucy Selvaggio-Diaz G2G6 Pilot (451k points)

The Pennsylvania Dutch aren't Dutch. They're German, as in Pennsylvania Deutsch (the German word for German). wink

That is what I thought and what my mom told me Deb - but there were Dutch Dutch as well as the Deutsch Dutch in that time and place to I found out later - and we were way more dutch that Deutsch!
+7 votes
I grew up believing my great grandmother's name was Sophia because that's what my father told me. Her name was Mary Emma which I discovered after beginning my research. Go figure. Oral history is just a story until it is backed by documentation and if as many of us had Cherokee blood in this country as is claimed, they'd be the majority ethnic group.

The research and documentation should always prevail.
by Deb Durham G2G Astronaut (1m points)

Because this thread was bumped by someone editing their post from last year .. Deb, I grew up with my mum being called Sue by everyone (well, except those who called her Mrs Paul).  I didn't know she had another name for years.

That doesn't make the name Sue any the less hers/her.  She acquired Sue when in the WAAAF during the second world war. It stuck even after she was demobbed.  It was really, REALLY strange many years later to hear her called "Ailsa" (or, often, "Ails by her sister-in-law).  Many more years later and the only people who ever called her Sue were her WAAAF mates, with whom she got together once a year on the anniversary of their join-up date.

Maybe your gr-grandmum's "Sophia" was something like that.  Margaret used to be Daisy, Peggy, Peg, Meg, Madge, Megan, Rita, Greta, etc, the only one of those even halfway relatable to Margaret might be Meg.

Anyone ever listening in to my husband talking to me would have thought my name was Honey. cheeky

Oh, I did find out where the Sophia came from, and it wasn't completely off base, just wrong.  His great grandmother was named Sophia and he had an aunt named Sophia. These are excellent lessons in how information gets garbled though and something I always keep in mind when all I have is family stories as a jumping off place for research. I no longer dismiss something out of hand just because it doesn't match what I've been told. wink

Oh, I absolutely agree.  My Mum had notes about her gr-grandfather's brother marrying gr-grandfather's wife's sister, because that's what the family had said when she was young. She even found a NSW BDM record that seemed to substantiate that.  Then I come along and start poking holes in it all.  First I tell her that her gr-grandmother had 2 MORE siblings.  Then I tell her that sibling one did NOT marry her gr-grandfather's brother.  Unfortunately, I wasn't able to prove it because I hadn't written down where I saw the info; so it wasn't until last year I managed to track down that info again and document it properly.  Unfortunately, Mother isn't around anymore for me to crow at "I told you so!", but that's ok.  I think she knows it all better than I do now.  cheeky

It means, too, that anything I get told as family "fact", I triple check and find the sources before I believe it.

Hah! It's crazy some of the stuff that gets passed down. It's like that telephone game, I think it's called Chinese whispers in Australia, where what comes out at the end bears no resemblance to what they start with. laugh

I know the game you mean and I only remember it as "telephone".

Funny thing about our grands and so on, even those who wrote things down.  Sometimes it's what they did NOT record that can tell us things.  It makes no difference to the genealogical tree, as she didn't add dna by producing offspring, but my Mother's Grandmother (who brought my Mum up) had a baby sister nobody knew about until I found her birth and death listed on the microfilm.  Mum was blown away. *I* believe it calls into question Gran's story that she was born "on board ship" just off the Queensland coast, the last of the family.  If that hadn't already been challenged by the fact that her parents had been in the state for 7 years by the time she was born and she had two siblings born in the state before her.  Add in the baby that nobody seemed to know about (we asked living cousins and they'd also never heard of the baby) and you have a story based on OMMSION of information, rather than addition of it.

(There's a story with the other "2 more siblings" from the previous post I made, but I have a tendency to hijack threads with info that's probably only interesting to me, so I'm-a quit now before the swat team arrives to throw me out.)

+6 votes
If you look hard enough at Wikitree you'll find the story of a US Okinawa veteran who's ship was sunk after the battle and he would have drowned at sea if not for a friendly dolphin who saved him and then swam him 100 miles to Guadalcanal.

Surely this was a bed time story for the grandchildren who today, for whatever reason, think the story is real.

Maybe this is something like that.
by SJ Baty G2G Astronaut (1m points)
edited by SJ Baty
+4 votes
That is a most interesting project. It makes me wish I did American records, but I do not and am content to leave that those better qualified. Reading the poem it occurred to me that Nora was a poet 1st and a genealogist 2nd making me doubt the accuracy. Good luck with what promises to be an intriguing investigation.
by Anonymous McCormick G2G6 Mach 5 (55.3k points)
+3 votes

There's often a grain of truth in these stories but the actual facts have been mangled. You can find many articles and books that claim that the actor Peter Sellers was the great-great-grandson of the Sephardic Jewish boxer Daniel Mendoza. Sellers himself apparently believed this and took great pride in the fact. The truth, as you can find here on wikitree - and other sources agree - is that his great-great grandfather Mendoza was actually a first-cousin of the boxer.

by Matthew Fletcher G2G6 Mach 9 (92.2k points)

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