Never Trust Anybody: sifting through the avoidance, lies, mistakes, and secrets taken to the grave in family history research
When I began doing family history research, a friend warned me: “The old people lie.” This lady knew what she was talking about as her nearly 90 year-old grandmother refused to tell anyone who her first husband was. Once we found the marriage date for the second husband, we realized that the first husband might actually be my friend’s real ancestor. I would think that’s something she would need to know, but Grandma is taking that secret to the grave. Most family history interviews I have done (with any age) have been very positive and fruitful. Allowing someone to tell their story will provide lots of valuable information that will not be found on any census forms or county courthouse records. They provide an opportunity to reminisce and remember those people who have been gone for many years. Just realize they are telling you their story the way they heard it and choose to remember it.
Sometimes the falsified stories and records are attempts to cover up situations the old-timers wanted to protect. Often this included paternity, health issues, or criminal activity. In a country where around 40% of children are now born to unwed mothers, many of these stigmas are disappearing. We understand more about mental health, substance abuse, and other hard realities of life. In other words, the secrets great-grandmother kept might not even turn a head today. While I believe in honoring privacy as it affects the living, I suspect most of the secrets the dead held do not matter much today. My 4x great-grandfather, James B. Brown (1810-1905) confessed on his deathbed that he had moved to Alabama after getting in trouble with the law for counterfeiting up North and surviving a shootout. He changed his name to James B. Brown to avoid detection. Too bad he failed to reveal his original name. There is quite a bit of mystery and intrigue surrounding this guy, but that may be an entry for another day. By refusing to reveal his original name, he created a dead-end for my research.
While some ancestors lied and falsified records to protect secrets, many simply told what they thought was true. My wife’s great-grandfather, Lenon Hersey Newsom (1897-1970) alternated between two completely different birthdates and appears as Leonard on many records. As if that was not difficult enough, when he applied for a delayed birth certificate later in life, he listed his mother as Beatrice Akers. He also passed this name through oral tradition to his grandchildren. For a long time, this Beatrice Akers was a huge barrier for me because I could not find anyone close to a Beatrice Akers in Tate, De Soto, or Marshall Counties in Mississippi that matched her. When I finally drove to Tate County and found the marriage record, her name was Beatrice Echols. Lenon Newsom no doubt believed his mother was an Akers, but, unbeknownst to him, he was spreading bad information. He was a small boy when his mother died, and he moved to Arkansas as a young man (reportedly to help his brother relocate after killing a man). He no doubt had little contact with the Echols and simply reported the mother’s maiden name as he remembered it.
A record is only as accurate as the person who provided the information, and many people will pass on inaccurate history for a variety of reasons. When doing family tree research, never assume anything is true. Always try to back it up with multiple sources, and if you do find some bad information, that could mean there is a juicy story hiding in there.