Dissecting Family Myths and Legends

by Amy Johnson Crow

Posted on February 22, 2013

Does your family have one of those "too good to be true" stories? You know the kind: Great-great-great-great Grandpa stowed away in a wine barrel to come to America. Great-great Grandpa was present when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. Unfortunately, they're often not true or, at least, not completely true.

Family stories sometimes have a way of growing over the years, but they often have a kernel of truth to them. The trick is knowing which part is the kernel! Here are three things to look at in order to ferret out the truth, using the story of Great-great Grandpa being at Lee's surrender.

1. Look at the Time(line)

Timelines are invaluable genealogical tools. You can make them as elaborate as you wish, but even a basic one can help you see things that don't add up. Put the date of Lee's surrender (9 April 1865) on Great-great Grandpa's timeline and compare it to his birth. He was 4 years old at the time? Pretty young to even lie about his age to join the Army.

2. Look at Other Records

Let's say that Great-great Grandpa was old enough to have served in the Civil War. Do any other records support that he even served? Obituaries and tombstones often mention Civil War service. Have you looked for a pension file? Does the 1910 census state that he was a veteran of the Union or Confederate Army or Navy?

3. Look at the History

Ok, so Great-great Grandpa was in the Army during the Civil War. Was he in a regiment that was present at Lee's surrender? Time to look at some books and websites that discuss which troops were there.

Getting to the Truth

If all of the soldiers who descendants claim were at Lee's surrender were actually there, Appomattox Court House would have been overrun by a couple of million people! We like the "larger than life" family stories because they're fun and they're special. They can make us feel even more connected with our ancestors and our past. While the entire story may not be accurate, there could be a grain of truth in that tall tale. We owe it to our ancestors to find the true story.

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