Is Your Family History Riddled with Legend?

Family history or family legend?

That is the question facing many a person who claims descent from “legendary figures.” Royalty, Native Americans, Mayflower passengers, presidents, pirates, and patriots often are claimed. You can hardly blame anyone from wanting their claim to fame.

But there is only one way to validate the claim–and it is not by name. The one way is by establishing the relationship, link by link, from generation to generation. Not by relying on family legend.

Fannie Pierce Embry often told her children, “We are related to President Franklin Pierce.” This was pretty much accepted by the family until one daughter became interested in genealogy, not legend. She traced the Pierce line painful link by painful link. Church records helped. As she dug up information, she discovered some interesting facts.

One Uncle was the “first white child” to be born in Georgia Indian Territory. A member of the family was so well regarded that when his congregation built a new church, they cut out a spot on the wall which had been stained by his head as he sat on the last pew. They framed the cut out spot and hung it in a prominent spot in the new church.

But none of the Pierces were related to Franklin Pierce. The Pierces of her family originated in Georgia and Virginia. That was a long way from New Hampshire, the birthplace and home of Franklin Pierce, the fourteenth President of the United States. That was just another legend. [For information on all the presidents go to
http://www.whitehouse.gov/history/
and click on “Presidents” in the left column.]


Beware of Names

One of the worst offenders causing legends to pop up in family history is that experience Fannie Pierce Embry had. It is so easy to assume a Tudor, Washington or Shakespeare must indicate a relationship. Assuming a connection in your family history just couldn’t be a legend.

Indulge me a moment as I tell you a true story of strange proportions. The first indulgence is the introduction of my surname: Winebrenner. I think you’ll have to agree that this is not a common name. Maybe you’ve never even heard the name. Unless you’re from York PA [settling region of early mid-18th century Winebrenners]. Or you’ve been to Frederick MD [birthplace of John Winebrenner, founder of the Church of God]. Suffice it to say it is fairly uncommon.

Furthermore, to set the background of this story, consider the Miami FL area as some 1500+ miles from “Winebrenner Country” in PA and MD.

I live in the Miami area. One cold winter in Allegany County MD my grandmother, Mrs. Larry Winebrenner, looked at the icicles hanging from her porch roof, shivered a little, and decided to move to Florida and live with us. Smart gal! Not long afterward her youngest daughter, Virginia Lee, also moved to the Miami area from Frostburg MD. [That town name ought to give you a clue why she moved!] She took up residence in a trailer park.

I have 5 kids. You can understand why Grandmother decided to move in with her daughter–no husband, no kids.

When Virginia left town on vacation, Grandmother would come stay with us. Each day after work I’d drive by the trailer park and pick up the mail. One day I walked in and said, “Your government check came today.”

She looked at it and said, “That’s not my check.”

“Yes it is,” I contradicted. “There’s your name.”

“This check is to Mrs. Larry Winebrenner,” she needlessly pointed out. Then she continued, “My checks come to Flora Winebrenner.”

We checked the address, an sure enough, it was the same trailer park, but with a different address. There was nothing to do but take the check back across town to its rightful recipient. Would that it were so easy.

I found the right lane in the trailer park and the right address. My wife looked at the trailer backed up next to the new address. “Isn’t that Grandmother’s trailer?” she asked.

Sure enough, two Mrs. Larry Winebrenners living in a trailer park 1500+ miles from home, one from, Indiana, the other from Maryland. Trailers parked back to back, and not even aware of each other’s existence. It’s the stuff of which legends are made..

But that’s not the rest of the story.

The other Mrs. Winebrenner was not home. A neighbor stuck her head out of a trailer next door and said, “She’s in the hospital.” The neighbor didn’t know which hospital, but gave us her daughter, Phyllis’ phone number.

I called and said, “My name is Larry Winebrenner.”

There was a deathly silence.

Then Phyllis said, “I don’t think that’s funny. My father has been dead for seven years.”

“I don’t think it’s funny, either,” I told her.

When I explained the situation, she asked if we could take her the check. “My husband is working and I have three kids to take care of.”

I didn’t tell her of my five kids, but agreed to deliver the check. My wife went with me and took the check up to the door. They had never met.

Now this still isn’t all.

Some time later the Miami High School Alumni Association called my wife about a class reunion. After giving my wife the facts, the caller said, “By the way, there was a Phyllis Winebrenner in your graduating class. You wouldn’t happen to know her, would you?”


Names and Places don’t Mean Diddley Squat

When searching for ancestors, beware of making assumptions based on common surnames and adjacent locations. If you consider the story you just indulged, consider the coincidences.

two women named Mrs. Larry Winebrenner
both got government checks
they lived not only in the same trailer park,
but back to back
they did not know each other
they could discover no relationship back 5 generations
the daughter of one attended high school
in the same graduating class
as a person who married the grandson of the other
and those two women had never met

Phew!

Do you suppose a future genealogist digging up facts about two women of the same name living right next to each other, with a descendant attending the same high school with someone who married the descendant of the other might not insist they were related?

Have you ever built up such a relationship based on information you found similar to that? Legend or family history? Keep digging.

Native American Roots

Are you searching your roots hoping to find evidence of Native Americans in your family tree? Well, here’s one of the most extensive lists of sites to explore. Simply go to
http://www-personal.umich.edu/~cgaunt/amind.html
and you will find dozens of links listed. I haven’t explored all of these sites, but a quick scan seems to indicate good, free information. Free is not always good, but this site seems to have come up with that treasured combination.

Once again, however, you must not confuse family legend with actual fact. Hanging on the living room wall of my grandparents’ house was a picture of Abigail Coe. She wore what appeared to be American Native dress.

“She was an Indian Princess,” I was told.

At first, as a teenager, I believed.

Then I decided “Princess” was just too much. Native American, maybe. Princess, no.

Then the full force of the legend was revealed to me in a correspondence I was conducting with another searcher named Gini.

She found records of marriages, tombstones, census records, and other evidence that showed Abigail Coe was fifth child [fourth daughter] of Philip Coe, Jr. and Salome Ogle. There was no record of Native American ancestry in either line of these fine folk. Abigail married William L Martin. Their daughter married my great-grandfather and bore my grandmother.

No native American there. Only legend.

While I’ve subjected you to a good deal of personal experience, I hope you got the point instead of cavalierly rejecting the material as merely so much egotistical blather.

Sometimes individual experience is the best way to teach a truth about a subject you have experienced personally. Maybe you’ll find that is true the next time you try to sort out what is truly family history and what is legend.


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