Family folklore

By Nancy Battick

Folklore is tales passed down without any empirical evidence to support them. Fact is what historians and genealogists seek. 

I’ve always urged people not to blindly accept family folklore. But quite often there’s a nugget of truth in some family tales. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

”Anna” always blamed her sister “June” for costing Anna the inheritance left to her by her great-aunt Elizabeth. The story Anna told was that June got pregnant as a young teenager while visiting an uncle and his family. The uncle stupidly tried to keep this secret by putting June into a home for unwed mothers. Anna’s mother found out and spent the inheritance money for a lawyer to get June’s release. 

The resentment Anna felt for her sister was palpable, and I heard this story from Anna whenever I happened to run into her. 

Years later I saw a copy of Elizabeth’s will, which left the bulk of her estate to her niece, the girls’ mother, and $200 for Anna’s education. That $200 was used to pay tuition for Anna to attend a school after she graduated from high school. The legal fees to secure June’s release were paid from money belonging to Anna’s mother. The resentment between the sisters was unjustified and the truth muddled. 

Another bit of folklore comes from a woman who told me her ancestor operated a tavern, and it was George Washington’s favorite tavern where he stayed whenever he was in that state. When Washington died, she claimed her ancestor was sent for to help carry Washington’s coffin. I questioned the story since, A, the distance involved would have meant the funeral would have had to have been delayed by a considerable time, and B, it’s hard to believe Martha Washington, a Virginia aristocrat, would have known of a tavernkeeper in a northern state or have held up the funeral waiting for him to arrive.  

Still, I wondered if there was an alternate possibility, and with some research discovered the following facts. Washington was our first president, and while criticized while he was in office (what’s new?), he was revered when he died. For the first and only time in our history he was honored with mock funerals all around the country. These were solemn processionals with empty coffins, funeral rites, and mourners attended these “funerals.”  

I wonder if the woman in question’s ancestor really did carry Washington’s coffin, or one of the empty ones in a procession of mourners. In a small town, as a man who had met Washington, and who would have been a local businessman, it would make sense for him to have received this honor. I can’t prove it, but I believe it’s what happened. 

In each case there’s truth and a lot of folklore in these stories. That’s not unusual in stories passed down generations. As a genealogist be sure you dig deep to find out what really happened, as much as records reveal. Fact is always better than folklore.

Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft.  Nancy holds an MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. Reader emails are welcome at nbattick@roadrunner.com.

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