Bad information from well-meaning relatives

Family stories are rich with detail and "clues" about our ancestors. Unfortunately, the rich color is often in the realm of folklore and bears little resemblance to reality.

See if this sounds familiar:

My dadís oldest brother, Uncle Steve, was a character. He had story after story about his beloved grandparents. Unfortunately, before the advent of the internet and the ability to quickly research and dispel his "embellishments", it meant that I spent 17 years spinning my wheels looking for the wealthy, prominent Kubasiak family in New York City.

The stories claim we descended from Polish royalty, with a Prussian ancestor who fought in the American Revolution before returning to his noble family in Germany. The story went on that my great grandmother was born and raised in a house in New York state with servants and luxuries, but she was swept off her feet by a runaway servant boy who convinced her to hit the road with him. Even sadder was the tale that she was disowned and disinherited for falling in love with this "lowly lumberman".

Imagine my surprise to find a teenager from Hemlock, MI who contacted me when genealogy first hit the internet. He had a much different story to tell, and he had the people (and documents!) to back up his story. It turns out his grandfatherís cousin had married Martha Kubasiak of Milwaukee, WI. She used to come visit her aunt, my great-grandmother, every summer. Martha had just died two years earlier, but before dying she had laid out the family history for her grandchildrenÖ.who took meticulous notes and tracked down immigration and naturalization records. My Kubasiak ancestors were in fact dirt poor farmers who had lived in Beaver township since 1876 until their deaths in the early 1900s. They were so poor that their headstone had disintegrated.

This is just one example of approaching an obstacle with new resources and with a fresh set of eyes. The value is immense in letting someone with no knowledge of the family stories and no idea of the embellishments (and cover-ups) to objectively evaluate your research and give fresh perspective. If you can get a seasoned researcher to take a look at your materials and question the accuracy of your documentation, you may find the errors in your own thinking that are clouded by what youíve always thought to be true.

There are also the intentional miscues that our ancestors gave their children. People with skeletons in their closets or feuds that they didnít want to be part of could change a few details about themselves to separate themselves from the "unfortunate".

One of the saddest days in my life was finding out that my parents had intentionally misled my grandparents about my fatherís heritage. It seems my maternal grandmother did NOT like my paternal grandfather and his family. So to separate himself from THAT family, my father claimed that his late father was Belgian, not Polish. Yes, my own father told a lie his entire married life, God bless his soul.

Both of my parents were dead for several years when I found the truth about my dadís ethnicity, and one day I asked my maternal grandmother about my "Grandpa Ed". She was aghast. Apparently, I broke a 45-year old secret. OOPS. But that does not change the fact that my Nearing ancestors were Prussian, not Belgian. The only thing that changed is my grandmotherís opinion of my grandfather who had died 61 years earlier. Suddenly he wasnít such a bad man. He did have a decent son, after all.

The bottom line is that even people who are alive are not always good historians. They have their stories and they will stick to them, no matter how much documentation to the contrary you uncover. Some people are immovable, which also means they are not the people to ask for help. If your Aunt Louise insists that your family was full of Indians from Canada and you find they were blonde-haired, blue-eyed French refugees from Paris during the Napoleonic wars who settled in Detroit, then you have to accept facts for what they are.

Our ancestors were who they were. We can not change them into someone new long after their deaths. We can only strive to uncover the truth and document it faithfully and to the best of our abilities.

© 2006 Jan Nearing, LaMere Consulting, Midland, Michigan. All rights reserved.


Copyright © 2012 all rights reserved Jan Nearing
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