Genealogy Myth-Busters: 3 Ancestral Myths to Ignore

Genealogy Myth-Busters: 3 Ancestral Myths to Ignore

Don’t let these three common historical “myth-takes” prevent you from discovering  the true stories of your ancestors.

Have you ever said—or heard a friend say—something like: “There’s no sense looking for old letters from my ancestors. After all, most people couldn’t read or write back then,” or “My great-great-granddad disappears at age 56. Oh well, people died young in those days.”
Our ideas about what our ancestors’ lives were like are sometimes shaped by historical “facts” repeated over and over again by parents and teachers, in books and on the internet. When you hear something often enough, it becomes part of your reality—or your ancestors’ reality.
Many of those often-repeated assumptions are simply not true. Still, these “myth-takes” about earlier days can affect the way you pursue your family history, becoming roadblocks to finding your ancestors and understanding their lives. So let’s do some genealogical myth busting to get past the falsehoods and reveal the truth about your ancestors.

Myth No. 1: Our ancestors were much shorter than we are.

This myth is just a tall tale. Studies performed a few decades ago at Colonial Williamsburg determined that the average Revolutionary War soldier stood near 5 feet, 8 inches tall; just a shade shorter than US soldiers serving during the 1950s. Archeologists have calculated that Medieval men in Northern Europe stood about this height, too; not terribly far from average height today.

Then why has this short story been around so long? Like many historical misconceptions, it’s inspired in part by faulty evidence. For example, old homes often featured small rooms, low doorways and narrow stairs. (One of my own family houses dated to 1830. I was always ducking.) But this scaling stems from early construction methods, including post-and-beam framing, and the challenges of fireplace heating—not because the home’s original occupants were tiny.
Antique beds displayed in historic homes also may appear small. “But that’s largely an illusion caused by the high bedposts, bed curtains and poufy bedding popular in that day,” says Mary Miley Theobald, author of the book Death by Petticoat: American History Myths Debunked (Andrews McMeel) and a Colonial Williamsburg historian. “When we measured the beds at Colonial Williamsburg, they varied in size, but none was shorter than today’s standard double bed.”
Diminutive historical gowns are another red herring. “Clothing and fabric was very expensive,” Theobald notes, “so larger dresses were altered and handed down to smaller relatives or daughters.”
You may even have misleading visual evidence of this size myth in your own family trove. Does your great-grandfather look tiny surrounded by descendants in a photo? Remember, people often lose height and grow frail with age. Your ancestor looked different when he was in his prime.
In effect: Don’t sell your ancestors short. According to centuries of anthropometric data (the study of human stature), height hasn’t changed much until recent times. From 1760 to 1930, the average height of American men varied by about an inch from a norm of 5 feet 7 inches. It’s only after that date when average height starts exceeding this range, mostly owing to improved medicine and nutrition. In 2010, the average US man stood over 5 feet, 9 inches; the average woman, about 5 feet, 4 inches. “So Americans are getting taller,” Theobald notes, “but only recently.”
The US population has always shown some variation in height based on ethnicity. Yet in almost every epoch, Americans have been taller than their European counterparts and have shown fewer differences in height according to economic status. These facts trace to historically better nutrition and less disease in America than in crowded European cities. Poignantly, Plains Indians once stood taller than white settlers in the area, until disruptions to their ancestral ways of life.

Unlike height, however, weight has changed dramatically. For example, at 5 feet 8 inches and 143 pounds, the average Civil War Union soldier was about 40 pounds lighter than the average man of the same height today.

From military draft records to passport applications, you might have loads of height-related data on ancestors. Now you can make better sense of it. Were your kin tall or short for their day? Consider their stature when trying to understand their daily lives and occupations such as farming or factory work.
Studying stature can reveal your ancestors’ world, sometimes in surprising ways. For example, there was a post-Civil War dip in the average height of men, but the cause isn’t genetic, and US immigration wasn’t high during those years. Instead, the data reflect lost stature due to malnutrition and other social conditions marking the transition from farm to factory life. Knowing this can help you appreciate your forebears’ decisions during this very hard time.
If you have no idea how tall a relative was, you may be able to make an educated guess by studying his photograph. Also remember that absent illness or other stresses, human height is a largely inherited. So whether you’re NBA-sized or closer to an Olympic gymnast, researching ancestral stature can help explain how you stand today.
Tip: Genealogical records including draft registration cards and declarations of intention to naturalize may include your ancestor’s height with a physical description.

Myth No. 2: Our ancestors died young.

Not true, at least not to the extent that many of us believe. A 50-year-old in 1850 could expect to live into his or her 70s—not too different from ages folks achieve today. So why does the “died young” myth live on?
In part, it’s because understanding average lifespans for past eras is confusing. For example, actuarial tables (which measure human life) do list average life expectancy for a child born in 1850 at just 38 years, disastrously young. “But that includes early deaths from childhood illnesses,” Theobald says. While statistics aren’t exact, an estimated one in five Civil War-era children died before age five. Illnesses that are now preventable also claimed many adolescents. And compared to today, death from childbirth was much more common.
“But if you could manage to live past the danger years, your chances for a long life in earlier days were remarkably good,” Theobald says. For example, if you could reach age 40 in 1850, you were nowhere near the end of your life: Life expectancy was about 68 years if you made it that far. Whether through strong natural immunity or luck in avoiding contagions, a surprising number of 18th- and 19th-century Americans lived into old age.
Of course, this in no way downplays how our modern medicine and lifestyle have relieved pain and suffering. Today, longevity begins at birth and more people live longer, better lives. Your ancestors did too often grieve lost children and young adults, but they certainly didn’t exist in a society where no one lived to be old. It was a multigenerational world, with parents, grandparents and perhaps great-grandparents, just in different proportions than are familiar to us today. According to federal census records, the United States of 1900 had twice as many children as today for each adult under age 60, but only half as many elderly for each adult under 60. You may have proof of this in your own family photo album. Those big Victorian-era group photographs, showing lots of children, some adults and a few aged figures capture these ratios.
Dispelling the life expectancy inaccuracy opens up all kinds of research possibilities. After all, who has more birth and death dates at her fingertips than a genealogist? Now you can mine that data in new ways. For instance, are the life­spans you’ve recorded from old gravestones, obituaries and Bible pages remarkable, or were they normal for your family?
You also can better understand your ancestors’ lives by banishing this myth. For example, your turn-of-the-century kin wasn’t “old” at 50. No wonder he launched a new business venture, purchased land or set out to cross the continent at that age. He wouldn’t have considered himself young, but he could reasonably expect to live many more years.    
If you’ve lost an ancestor (for example, he’s disappeared from records but you can’t locate a definite death date), don’t presume he must have died and stop looking. Statistically, if your ancestor was, say, 45 years old in 1905, there’s about a one in 12 chance he’d live into his 80s, meaning you’d need to search up to the World War II era. Go further in the records than your initial instinct suggests. In effect—never say die.
Tip: The 1900 and 1910 censuses can provide clues to relatives who died as infants: Compare the numbers in the columns recording how many children a woman had given birth to and how many of those children were still living.  

Myth No. 3: Our ancestors were mostly illiterate.

Books and movies often perpetuate the myth of widespread illiteracy in early America. In fact, by 1870, about 80 percent of Americans were judged able to read and write according the norms of their era. Not too different from the 86 percent judged functionally literate by modern standards.
But didn’t shopkeepers in olden days advertise their wares using picture signs (a big boot or a horseshoe) because so many of their customers couldn’t read? “That was more about tradition in the trades, not literacy,” Theobald explains. It’s true that some of our ancestors couldn’t read. Censuses from 1870 to 1930, which asked whether respondents could read and write, may indicate such was the case, or you might find an X on a document instead of a signature (though this also could signify illness or advanced age). But that doesn’t mean the person wasn’t intelligent. Some populations, such as recent immigrants and African-Americans, too often faced extreme challenges in securing schooling. It’s also true that compared to today, fewer 19th-century school-age children attended class regularly. But school was arranged differently, especially in rural districts to accommodate the needs of farming families. And when children could attend school, they often received excellent lessons—better than the rote education we often see portrayed in historical books and movies. In fact, 19th-century schools demanded real achievement from their pupils despite having no computers, smart boards or other modern conveniences.
Having “only” a high school education (like President Harry S. Truman and airplane inventors Orville and Wilbur Wright) provided our ancestors an excellent start in life. Even earlier in history, widespread literacy among the colonists helped Revolutionary-era pamphlets, such as Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” sell thousands of copies and shape the identity of our nation.
For genealogists, this all means that your ancestors were probably better-educated than you might think. Don’t give up on finding their old letters or other handwritten documents. And don’t underestimate your forebears’ ability to read and understand contracts and other official records you find today. They may have read everything from newspapers to literary classics, or had hobbies that required reading. And by all means, launch a search for their old academic records.
There’s nothing like new possibilities to get a genealogist going again. Remember, history wasn’t always the way we imagine it. By learning more about it and opening our eyes to our research biases, we might even get past our own past errors and assumptions, and make key discoveries in our family history research.

Sizing up your ancestors 

Historians use clever techniques to estimate height from old photographs, and you can, too, by trying these techniques:

  • In very old (pre-Civil War) portraits, a head high or cropped on the plate could indicate a very tall subject because photographers could make only limited adjustments to early portrait cameras.
  • In later, full-body images, you can estimate a subject’s height by comparing it against an object of known size in the photo (such as a buggy wheel), provided that both were nearly at the same depth of field (distance from the camera).
  • In a large, front-facing photo, use calipers to measure the distance between the subject’s eyes, from pupil to pupil. Then measure the subject from head to toe. Divide eyes into height, and multiply by 2.5. This gives the height in inches. Using this method, which is based on anatomical patterns observed by mathematicians including Leonardo Fibonacci, an 1862 photo of our 16th president scales him at 6 feet 3¾ inches, very near Abraham Lincoln’s true height of 6 feet, 4 inches.

See for more on this and other strategies to estimate a person’s height based on a photograph.


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From the July/August 2015 Family Tree Magazine 

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