Family Traditions: Fact or Fiction?

The family historian and family storyteller are not always the same person.  Family traditions are not always family fact.  Traditions are not always historical and family stories are not always factual.  Does it matter?  Only if you’re claiming or implying yourself a historian, a reporter of historical facts.  Then it matters.

If we claim to be writing or telling history, never be surprised nor offended when our statements are challenged.  Most people will not care if we tell our tales as tales, but more than a few may object if we rewrite history.

The genealogical proof standards are exacting for a reason.

Consider this quote from a 1913 Roberts family genealogy book available from the Internet Archive website.[i]

“Three brothers by the name of Roberts came to America from Wales in the year 1700.  One brother settled in New York.  One went south.  The third brother, Robert Roberts, bought considerable land in Gloucester County, New Jersey, two miles from Swedesboro, on Oldmans Creek and Coons Creek.

His wife was from Holland.  He was an Episcopalian.  He lived to be over eighty years old.”[ii]

Now, consider another quote from one of my prized possessions, another self-published Roberts family genealogy.

“Three brothers, John, James, (George?) came to this country, United States, from Wales about the year 1600 and settled in Virginia.  Best I can gather one of the brothers went to the North and others stayed in the South.  The Roberts family is of Welch Baptist Stock, Primitive faith.  Great Great Grandfather John Roberts, moved from Virginia to Williamson County Tennessee when Great Grandfather John Rivers Roberts was three years old, 1803.  They later moved to Calloway County Kentucky near Murray.”[iii]

The document credits these words to William Penn Roberts, my second cousin once removed.  My cousin Deborah Outland assures me her aunt Verna played no small part in the research of this Calloway County, KY Roberts goldmine.  We’ve since confirmed the document I have is only part of a collaborative work between Penn and Verna which was over twice the size of the work I possessed.  Verna focused on the Owen family and Penn on the Roberts.

What do you observe in these two quotes?  Do they contain facts?  Yes.  Are these facts historically demonstrated or documented?  No.  Do these quotes contain family traditions?  Yes.  Does this mean they’re not historical events?  No.  Our family traditions may contain historical facts.  As family historians we take our family traditions and document the facts and distinguish for our readers between fact and fiction.

“Proof is a fundamental concept in genealogy. In order to merit confidence, each conclusion about an ancestor must have sufficient credibility to be accepted as “proved.” Acceptable conclusions, therefore, meet the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS). The GPS consists of five elements:

  • reasonably exhaustive research;
  • complete, accurate citations to the source or sources of each information item;
  • tests—through processes of analysis and correlation—of all sources, information items, and evidence;
  • resolution of conflicts among evidence items;
  • anda soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.”[iv]

I’m related to John Rivers Roberts and his second wife Rebecca Ann Giles.  Penn Roberts was related to John Rivers Roberts and his first wife Sarah B. Smithson.  On a page with the heading “Facts of the Roberts Family” he repeats this tradition – or perhaps, begins it.

“The Smithsonian Institute of Washington D.C. was founded by one of our forebears according to best information we have.”

Well, we needed better information.

James Smithson portrait image from the Smithsonian Institute website. See it and others at https://www.si.edu/

James Smithson portrait image from the Smithsonian Institute website. See it and others at https://www.si.edu/

According to the Smithsonian Institute’s website[v] James Lewis Smithson (c. 1765-1829) was “the illegitimate son of Hugh Smithson, the first Duke of Northumberland, and Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie, a wealthy widow who was a cousin of the Duchess of Northumberland.”  He used the name James Lewis Macie until his parents’ deaths and in 1801 had it changed to Smithson.  He never actually visited America.  He never married.  He never, to our knowledge, had children.  He could not be one of ours or anyone’s “forbears”.

When Penn Roberts wrote his family tradition (perhaps the 1950s) he did not have the internet and its research capabilities.  It’s truly amazing, a glut of information at the click of a mouse.  This may be a good time to remind ourselves.  Everything reported on the internet is not necessarily true or accurate.  “I saw it on the internet” doesn’t make it so.  Like the print media which preceded it, it may disseminate lies and misinformation or truth equally well.  And as we also know, just because something is written in a book doesn’t make it so.  Our information is only as good as the source of that information.   It must all be weighed, tested and documented to be confirmed.

This is where I add to our family tradition and show you a portrait of James Smithson from the Smithsonian website.[vi]   It’s reported to be a 1786 portrait done at Oxford upon his graduation by the English portrait artist James Roberts.  We must be related!  (I write with tongue firmly in cheek.)

James Smithson portrait image from the Smithsonian Institute website. See it and others at https://www.si.edu/

James Smithson portrait image from the Smithsonian Institute website. See it and others at https://www.si.edu/

Family traditions do not begin with a “reasonably exhaustive research”.  This is, however, the beginning of the genealogical proof standard.  We have much information at our fingertips today, but it’s common in genealogy or writing family history to do “reasonably exhaustive research” away from our computers.  We may need to exhaust ourselves in courthouses, libraries and research centers to begin the process of writing a “a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion”.

Here’s another family story shared by Penn Roberts.

“One of my father’s sisters, Amanda Jane, married Dr. Felix Winters, a Dentist.  She took up the practice of Dentistry and it is my understanding that she was the first woman Dentist in the whole Country.  Medical Journals had write-ups concerning her as a first woman Dentist.”

In his “Facts of the Roberts Family” Penn reports Amanda Jane Roberts’ birth date as March 22, 1861.  According to Elizabeth Neber King’s 1945 article entitled “Women in Dentistry”[vii] and printed in the Washington University Dental Journal, the first female to practice dentistry in America was born a Roberts.  Her name was Emeline Roberts Jones.  She assisted her husband prior to taking up the practice of dentistry in Connecticut in 1855, six years before Amanda Jane Roberts was born.  Ms. King also reports the first female to actually graduate (You have to be accepted before you can graduate.) from a dental school in America was Lucy Hobbs Taylor in 1866.

I celebrate the accomplishments of these women in dentistry, especially my relative Amanda Jane.  In spite of the difficulty of getting into universities and professions in the past, I suspect women have been finding ways to soothe men’s toothaches and other ailments long before the 1850s.

Family traditions become a problem for family historians when they’re stated as proven facts when in fact, they are not.  I never easily dismiss family traditions.  They often contain a germ of truth which must be explored and confirmed or disproven.  I never want to dismiss a family member’s claims without an examination.  I encourage this behavior for all family historians.  I thought several stories my Dad told me were “just stories”.  I’ve been able to confirm the factualness of some of them.  You may discover the same in your research.

Enjoy your family traditions.  Explore your family traditions.  Before your write them up as history, examine them.  Use the genealogical proof standard to separate your family’s facts from fiction.

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[i] https://ia902606.us.archive.org/14/items/genealogyofrober00cowa/genealogyofrober00cowa.pdf

[ii] This genealogy of the Roberts family appears to be a self-published work dated 1913 in Chicago.  “Genealogy of the Robert Roberts Family in America”, compiled by Maude Roberts Cowan and printed by Joseph Samuel Roberts.

[iii] This quote is taken from a copy of a document entitled “The Roberts Family History”.  The top of the third page includes these words, “Compiled by Wm. Penn Roberts”.  I received my copy from Rudy Roberts Holland in 2013 while visiting him in Murray, KY.  He is my 3rd cousin once removed.  I suspect he received his copy from Nancy Roberts Thurman whom he referred to as the “expert” on our Roberts family.  There are copious corrections in this work and I suspect they were done by Nancy or perhaps Penn’s wife Virginia “Verna” Roberts.

[iv] http://www.bcgcertification.org/resources/standard.html

[v] https://www.si.edu/About/History

[vi] http://siarchives.si.edu/history/james-smithson

[vii] http://beckerexhibits.wustl.edu/mowihsp/health/womenindentistry.htm

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