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Seeking the Truth in Family Stories title image

By Phyllis J. Hughes, HFA Genealogist

Appeared in Autumn 1996 issue of the HFA Journal

At least fifty percent of my mail from those inquiring about their Hull lineage, claims some descent or relationship either to the above Commodore Isaac Hull or to the former Secretary of State Cordell Hull. These stories are no different from many of the biographical sketches in the biographies and genealogies which I constantly collect and analyze.

Few people, if any, tell the truth about the past. Not because they don’t want to, necessarily. But because they innocently tend to reconstruct rather than remember. And each reconstruction changes each remembrance. So say the experts. All history, they say, is bent out of shape.

— Anonymous

Contributed by HFA member Barbara Knight Cruchon (#0366)

It is usually my unpleasant task to have to inform the correspondent that it is impossible to descend from either Commodore Isaac Hull or Cordell Hull, as neither of these men had children. After examining whatever family records the correspondent might have sent, it is also usually necessary to relate to the inquirer that there probably is no basis for even a distant relationship to these two men. Even so, these tales, which have been communicated to the descendants by their elder ancestors or relatives, continue to persist as part of their treasure-trove of “true” family stories.

We all—not just Hull descendants—have such stories in our family backgrounds. These are stories which are very dear to us and we do not wish to have to relinquish them, even when there is not a shred of proof to substantiate such stories. This is only human nature—these stories are a part of us—part of our entire being and of our proud legacy of family tradition.

As a personal example, I was told very early on in my research by my Logan cousin, that we were related to the Civil War General John A. Logan, the founder of Memorial Day. My cousin had been told this by his father and “My father would not lie,” he said. To substantiate his story, my cousin said that they had a photograph of Gen. John A. Logan, complete with his uniform and sword. When I finally was able to obtain a copy of this photograph, I determined that it was instead that of our Great Grandfather Logan in his Knights Templar uniform—and, yes, the sword was there!

Black Sheep and Kissing Cousins: How Our Family Stories Shape Us is recommended reading for genealogists and non-genealogists alike.

Other very common family tales, which surface from time to time, are: (1) the mention of an Indian ancestor—almost always a woman; (2) the descent from royalty, Huguenots, or a Hessian soldier; (3) the three brothers fable, i.e., “We descend from one of three brothers who came to America—one went west, one went north, and the other was never heard from again”; (4) the tradition that our ancestor served as an aide to George Washington in the Revolutionary War; or that (5) “Our family once owned property where the city of ‘fill-in-the-blank’ [but usually Baltimore], now stands, and we are the rightful heirs to thousands of dollars.” Almost none of these tales has any real basis in fact, but they are prevalent in every family.

There is a very good book on family stories and the roles which they play in our lives, entitled Black Sheep and Kissing Cousins: How Our Family Stories Shape Us, by Elizabeth Stone, published in 1988 by Times Books. It is recommended reading for genealogists and non-genealogists alike.

There does become a point when, if we are to be regarded as serious genealogical researchers, we have to document our lineage, as well as these treasured family traditions, in order to try to separate “fact” from “fiction.” This can take months or even years of research. But, normally, those of us, who have been told of a famous ancestor or relative, can easily find lineal information on that noted person in almost any good library.

It is wise to take these family stories with the proverbial “grain of salt” and develop a healthy skepticism in regard to them—some of them may be true—many of them are not!