According to family legend, my ancestor John Howland was the only Pilgrim to fall off the Mayflower. The entertainer Mitch Miller is a distant cousin. And the spelling of my last name was changed from Eisenstadt to Eisenstodt at Ellis Island. All families pass down genealogy stories of their ancestry, some true and some not-so-true. Your job as a genealogist is to separate fact from fiction. We’ve identified eight common genealogy myths. Avoid these beginner traps, and your research will be smoother sailing.
Myth #1: Your ancestors’ names were changed at Ellis Island.
This is the most common family myth, but Ellis Island historians have yet to find a documented case that supports it. Many of our ancestors did change their names as part of the assimilation process; however, this happened after they settled in the United States, not when they first arrived.
At Ellis Island, each passenger had an interview with a clerk fluent in the immigrant’s native tongue. The clerk simply confirmed the immigrant’s information on the passenger list created at the port of departure. If the clerk found discrepancies in the immigrant’s answers, he could detain the person. The clerk wasn’t permitted to change information on the passenger list unless it contained an error.
That means your ancestors’ names weren’t changed by Ellis Island clerks or those of another immigration station.
Myth #2: You can buy your family crest or coat of arms.
All over the Internet, vendors hawk what they call “family crests” or “family coats of arms” printed on T-shirts, key chains and coffee cups. Many of these merchants also will claim to know the meaning and history of your last name, and sell certificates with this information.
But there’s no such thing as a coat of arms for a surname, according to the College of Arms, “the official repository of the coats of arms and pedigrees of English, Welsh, Northern Irish and Commonwealth families and their descendants.” In fact, “many people of the same surname will often be entitled to completely different coats of arms, and many of that surname will be entitled to no coat of arms.”
Coats of arms and crests date to medieval times, when knights competed in tournaments. The heralds who organized these events could identify the knights by the arms on their shields and the crests on their helmets. Heralds recorded these symbols and became responsible for controlling their use.
“Coats of arms belong to individuals,” states the College of Arms’ Web site. “For any person to have a right to a coat of arms, they must either have had it granted to them or be descended in the legitimate male line from a person to whom arms were granted or confirmed in the past.”
To claim a right to arms, you must prove descent from one of these individuals. Each officer of arms has a practice in heraldry and genealogy, and will search the College’s official records on your behalf for a fee.
Another misconception, the College points out, is that everyone has a clan with a specific tartan or badge. But only people of Scottish descent could be associated with a clan, and even then, chances are slim. The Scottish clan system comprises a few historically prominent families, and only the court of Scotland’s chief herald, the Lord Lyon, King of Arms can recognize a group as a clan or an individual as a clan descendant. For a fee, you can consult an officer of arms about your genealogy and ask him to represent you before the Lyon court.
Myth #3: You can find your entire family history online.
Thanks to the world wide web, you can access millions of records, family trees and long-lost cousins at the click of a mouse. Family history research has never been easier.
Just remember that the web serves as a helpful jumping-off point. Libraries are full of undigitized, rich records. And you’ll need to evaluate any information you do find online. Errors abound on the net because researchers of all experience levels publish family data without verifying it (or without citing sources to show that they’ve checked it). Even an innocent typographical error could lead you to believe, for example, that an ancestor was born in 1877, not 1887. Until you double-check that information in original records, don’t accept it as fact.
Myth #4: The only records you need to research are censuses, vital records, wills and deeds.
These are great sources if you’ve just started to climb your family tree, but eventually, you’ll run into what veteran genealogists refer to as a “brick wall” — a research dead end. When that happens, you’ll have to call on some of the lesser-used records to bail you out. These include church records, directories, newspapers, military records, and local and county histories-and more.
Myth #5: Three brothers came to America …
There are a few variations on this myth, but they all start out the same way: Three brothers from England (or France or Italy or Russia) traveled to America together. In most cases, the story continues that one brother settled in the north, one in the south and one in the west. Sometimes one of the brothers died or was lost at sea during the voyage.
Of course, this story must be true for some families, but it’s not likely for most. For one, immigrants typically were young families or single people traveling alone. And if these three brothers had migrated together, why wouldn’t they have settled near one another? This story never seems to mention sisters or a fourth or fifth brother, either.
If you’ve heard this tale about your family, find out if there actually were three brothers who could have immigrated at the same time. Then look for ship manifests to support the story. (Our Passenger Lists Genealogy Workbook can help you find these records.) But keep in mind that if you see three people with the same surname on a passenger list, that doesn’t mean they’re all brothers—or even related.
Myth #6: Your ancestor was a Cherokee princess, George Washington or a witness to a historic event.
Most families claim celebrity connections of some sort, whether presidents, entertainers, military heroes or inventors. Considering our fascination with the rich and famous, that’s no surprise. But just because Aunt Jane swears your roots lead back to the Mayflower (after all, your last name is Howland, same as the Pilgrim John Howland), that doesn’t mean she’s right.
Anyone could have celebrity kin, but “seldom will you find a relationship through a shared surname,” says Rhonda McClure, author of Finding Your Famous (& Infamous) Ancestors (Betterway Books). “Usually, you’ll find a connection only after following the twisting, turning branches of your family tree and your famed forebear’s.” So if your last name is Roberts or Clooney, don’t assume you’re related to Julia or George.
How do you prove a family legend? You can start by reading up on the celebrity. In doing so, you might learn, for example, that there were no Cherokee princesses (the Cherokee Nation didn’t have royalty), and that George Washington’s only children were his wife’s from her first marriage—so he’s nobody’s ancestor.
Another common legend is that an ancestor witnessed a historic event, such as the sinking of the Titanic or the Wright brothers’ first flight. Find out which ancestor supposedly was there, and compare his life dates to the date of the event. If your ancestor wasn’t even alive at that time, you know the story’s false.
Myth #7: The courthouse burned, and all the records are gone.
County courthouses store all kinds of documents that detail our ancestors’, marriages, divorces, adoptions, wills, civil and criminal legal proceedings, military discharges, deeds, mortgages, naturalizations and more. So when you hear that a fire has destroyed your ancestors’ courthouse and all that was in it, your heart sinks.
Don’t lose hope; Although many courthouses have gone up in smoke (especially in the South, due to the Civil War) not all of their records burned. Check with your ancestral county courthouse to see if any of the records were salvaged, and if so, where they’re housed. And don’t lose hope if you discover that key records were destroyed: Look for “reconstructed” records and substitute sources for the same information. The video class Burned, Trashed, Vanished: Solutions for Missing Records will give you a game plan.
Myth #8: You don’t have any black sheep in your family tree.
Sure, we all want to claim Tom Cruise, Abe Lincoln and Pocahontas as our cousins. But Lizzie Borden or Al Capone? No way! Truth is, every tree’s bound to have a few bad apples—and that’s what makes family history so interesting. In fact, some genealogists take great pride in their ancestors who strayed to the wrong side of the law.
So don’t worry about those black sheep tarnishing your family tree. No one can blame you for their misdeeds. And with a little research into criminal records, newspapers and other sources, you might be able to learn what motivated their actions.
If anything, their stories will pique your friends’ and family’s curiosity. Imagine how they’ll react the next time you start a conversation with, “Did you know the outlaw Jesse James is my eighth cousin?”