28    Jun 20102 comments

Family legends: Shaking the tree

Genealogy conferences present opportunities to learn more about topics with which we are familiar, as well as new, not yet investigated subjects.

The recently concluded Southern California Genealogical Society's 41st Jamboree presented numerous such sessions.

Sometimes there are sessions at which the proverbial lightbulb switches on. Such essential knowledge is transmitted that the participants then find it difficut to look at their own individual family histories in quite the same way as before.

All of us have family stories that might be termed myths. How can we determine whether a story may be fact or fiction?

A fascinating session on just this topic was given by Jean Wilcox Hibben. With a PhD in folkore, an MA in speech communication, and a Certified Genealogist, Jean is president of both the Corona (California) Genealogical Society and the Southern California chapter of the Association of Professional Genealogists, Genealogical Speakers Guild secretary and much more.

"Shaking the Myth: Proving and Disproving Family Legends" demonstrated the challenges faced by genealogists and family historians.

This was based on A*R*G analysis, a method of analyzing arguments, that outlines an argument, ending in a conclusion or claim, and then following a three-step analysis to determine whether or not the argument - or your family legend - is on solid ground.

Jean used the case of a person about whom a legend was transmitted: An ancestor - a new immigrant who supposedly arrived as a stowaway - served as the private secretary to a famous Civil War general. The story was told to the man's son and daughter who transmitted it to their children and grandchildren.

Although it was a romantic story and might have illustrated the premise of "new immigrant's success," it simply wasn't true.

Jean decimated it using the outlined arguments, as well as information and documents from various sources.

A*R*G stands for Acceptability, Relevance and Grounds.

For the first test - acceptability - each part of the story was looked at separately from the other statements. Jean noted that a statement is acceptable "if and only if" at least one of the following criteria is met:

-- no reason to disbelieve
-- a closely held value
-- appropriate testimony of a credible authority
-- a conditional statement
-- necessarily true
-- substantiated in a previous argument

Unacceptable statements cover:

-- known to be false
-- contradictory to another premise
--based on a faulty assumption
-- a value not closely held.

The second test - relevance - is also applied to each statement or premise and see if it is relevant to the conclusion (the family legend). If it makes the truth of the conclusion more likely, it is relevant. If a statement has nothing to do with the conclusion, it is irrelevant.

The third test - grounds - involves looking at the family legend and asking what else is required to convince the researcher of the story's truth. What information is missing from the story to make you believe it?

Using historical facts and documents from the National Archives, military records and other materials, Jean went through the family story and asked the audience to say whether each statement passed the acceptability, relevance and grounds tests.

In researching the story, Jean found an arrival record for the man,  discounting the "stowaway" story.

As to his war record, she discovered a certificate of disability for the man, when he was supposedly acting as the general's secretary.

Why would a general hire a new immigrant with limited English skills? He wouldn't. To prove that, Jean discovered the general's records signed by his real secretary (not the man in the family story).

Jean recommended constructing timelines so that parts of the story can be compared to historic events and see if statements are from the correct period.

She also mentioned that to discuss these stories, the researcher must be objective, not emotional nor swayed by opinion. Data from various sources may be able to prove or disprove the truth of a story.

As time goes by, families often embellish family stories and, in so doing, stretch the truth. Sometimes they do this to make their ancestor more human. 

I found it a very interesting way of approaching a family legend.

What is your family legend? Can you prove it? Can you find the facts to support the story or to label it as fantasy?

I'm interested in hearing your family stories, whether they are are true or not. Share your family stories with us.

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Comments (2) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Hi, Schelly,
    Glad that this method struck a chord with you. You have actually combined 2 separate myths that we dissected, but that's OK - the point is still here. I do want it to go on record that this method of analyzing was developed by Canadian Trudy Govier and was shared with her permission. Thanks for letting me clarify that.
  2. Hi, Jean,
    Thank you for taking the time to write, and for the information about Trudy Govier's development of this method. In the past few weeks, I've found myself looking at some family history claims in a different light. Looking forward to seeing you at next year's round of conferences
    Always happy to hear from you!

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