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Your Family. Myths and Legends in Genealogy

  • Written by | 3 Comments3 Comments Comments
    Last Updated: August 20th, 2008

    Every family has the age old myth or the legend of the grandmother who was a “full blooded Indian princess”. In fact, the Native American tribes didn’t sport many “Indian Princesses, but almost every family has some degree of native American blood and all of them, by and large due to prejudices that used to, and in some cases, still do exist in this country, want that Native American blood to be something that is a bit more acceptable than just a “Native American woman who was part of the family”.

    Admit it, Indian Princess sounds so much more acceptable and so much more romanticized than simply saying that great grandfather married a Navaho woman. In days past, having Native American blood in your family wasn’t quite as acceptable as it is in today’s society, so it was by and large hidden. The family may never had been told exactly what tribe the great grandmother came from, or if in fact she was Native.
    Many families who believed their family to have native blood, particularly in areas such as Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginian are finding instead that the blood was of a race determined to be Melungeon, not the Native American they thought it was originally.

    Some family legends aren’t truth at all, while others are in some cases, completely factual. Only research is going to help you determine which is which, but paying attention to them only makes sense.
    In most cases, legend or an old family tale has a grain of some kind of truth to it .

    Legends about family history don’t normally get invented from no basis and aren’t usually completely invented from thin air. There will be somewhere in that legend a single grain of truth that you have to sift out of the dune of sand to get the real story for your family.
    Some family legends you will hear as you work through your genealogy will be red flags to you however to dig a bit deeper and see if there is a grain of sand, or truth to the family legend or if it is in fact fallacy.
    The more common things you might hear that should raise a flag for you will be:

    • The Indian Princess Myth. Usually you’re going to hear Cherokee Indian Princess, but it may manifest itself as a Mayan Princess or any other tribe. Rest assured that it may be that there is Native American blood in the family, but Indian Princesses by and large don’t exist. In point of fact there were no tribes who actively made use of the feudal type system that was by and large a Caucasian invention, so the title Indian princess would not have been used. For the most part you’re going to find that this is always a myth, but do pay attention to it and dig around a bit to search for Native blood in your family history. Usually you are going to find it with this kind of legend in the family’s history.
    • The Myth of the three brothers. The tale is always the same. Three brothers immigrated and got separated when they traveled to various portions of the United States. Perhaps one will be lost to an accident, or thrown overboard, or swept away to sea. Confirm the brothers before you go any further. If there were in fact three brothers, then move backward and find them, but in many cases you will find that there were only one or two.
    • The Stowaway Myth: No one, it seems, wants to be part of a family whose ancestor actually paid for their trip to America., Perhaps its more mysterious, more romantic or more.. something, but stowaways were not common place and in fact were harshly dealt with. You can confirm a passenger, particularly in the past hundred fifty odd years. Starting with passenger lists will help you to confirm or deny the stowaway angle of the family legend about their genealology
    • The Famous Ancestor Myth. :You know this one well even if you’re not a genealogist. Every single family wants to be related to someone famous. If in fact they share a name, then they assume, sometimes rightly so, but more often than not, erroneously, that they share the blood. Jesse James was their cousin, or Daniel Boone was their grandfather, or Isaac Newton was their hundredth cousin twice removed. We would all love to see a famous entity as part of our family heritage, and the genealogist who disproves that family theory probably isn’t going to glean the thanks of the clan unless he or she approaches it from a gentle angle when breaking the news to the family.

    When you do deal a blow to the family’s genealogy myth, how do you break it to them?
    If you find they are patently false, then move into trying to find out how it originated and why the story was added to the family history. Was it because their ancestor really was a Native American and they were concerned about what others might think in a more closed minded society?
    Offering that kind of an explanation to the family might be a lot kinder than simply saying, that’s a lot of bunk and the family story can’t be believed.

    Instead, note the story in your writings, and add that it was family legend that was disproved but that it began… for this or that reason. If you can prove or disprove it, so much the better. Most families are going to thank you for your hard work even if you prove they don’t have an “Indian Princess” but do have a Native American ancestor in their family.
    If you can explain how or why it originated, then you will go a long way toward staying in the family’s good graces. Even if you can’t prove it or disprove it, note it anyway so that someone with more resources than you may have or a different approach to the research may dig a bit deeper and find this origination or prove the truth of it.

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  1. #1
    History Chasers
    August 21st, 2008 at 5:51 am
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  2. #2
    September 10th, 2008 at 5:43 pm

    Very good article. I have some basic Dawes information on my blog which may be of service to researchers.

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  3. #3
    August 5th, 2009 at 9:01 pm

    I was wondering if I could have your permission to use your wonderful picture of the Indian “Princess” for the above group on Genealogywise.com


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