Family Legends: Fact or Fiction?

Stories and information are often passed down from one generation to the next; mostly oral but sometime written as family history.  But how often do we question these “facts”, this information given to us by our own parents?

Your mother told you she was 18 years old when she got married, the fall after she finished high school.  The story is very vivid. You were told that she waited until she was of legal age because her father opposed the marriage and would not sign for her to get married earlier. But, as a genealogist, you need to find the documents to prove this bit of family history.

The three most important documents we want to find and analyze for our ancestors are the 1) birth certificate, 2) marriage certificate and the 3) death certificate.

So now you set out to find the marriage certificate for 1938.  But, to your surprise, you find it recorded in 1937, signed not only by the bride and groom; but your mother’s father as well!  A county marriage record should be credible, right? It states that the bride was 17 years of age and the groom 26. This shows us that the timing was fairly close to what we were told. Not a big deal. She was in her senior year of high school.  But you continue your search. You finally find a birth record for grandma – it says that grandma was born 4 June 1922. Wait! What? That makes her – 15? How can that be? That’s three years younger than your mother told you. Her own father signed the marriage license. Was her age a simple mistake? Did he not know how old his daughter was? Could there be any other reason he might give a false age?  After further searching, you find a death record and the social security death index for grandma that both confirm her birth year of 1922.

Now let’s go back to Grandma and Grandpa’s marriage.  You found Grandpa’s birth record and see that his age was not correct either. Probably not a mistake when both ages were incorrect.  He was actually 28 years old. So instead of a bride being 17 and the groom 26, we have a 15-year-old bride and a 28-year-old groom.  So why falsify the records? Age difference? Pregnancy? We may never know but here is an example of errors even in primary documents.

What we want to remember is, just because we’re given information by a reliable family member, we still need to check our facts.  Collect as many primary and secondary documents as possible and then analyze the information to come up with the best possible answer.