Queen Elizabeth II recently said that “recollections may vary.” For genealogists, truer words were never spoken.
When you’re talking to a family member for their recollections, remember to take the stories with a large bag of salt.
It isn’t that your family are necessarily lying. Memories are wonderful things, but they can be influenced or embellished. Eyewitnesses aren’t always reliable.
As State Historian for the Daughters of the American Revolution in Maine a few years ago, I was tasked with writing a history of the defense of the seacoast in Maine. It was an interesting and rewarding experience and I’m proud of the book that emerged, but I soon discovered that the stories of the time were often repetitious, erroneous, and many defied common sense.
For example, every attack on the Maine coast was laid at the feet of one British Navy captain named Mowatt. It didn’t matter that official records show he and his vessel were elsewhere at the time, the locals all said he was responsible and somehow able to be in five places at once. I also found many stories were repeated from town to town. Clearly, they borrowed from each other until they blended into some blatantly tall tales.
Genealogists often face this issue. Let me give you an example from my own family. My uncle “Joe” recalled quite clearly how he carried wood upstairs every day to a bedroom where my grandmother’s aunt, “Lucy,” was boarding. Her bedroom had its own wood stove. Uncle Joe told us he carried Aunt Lucy’s wood up 12 steps and how heavy it was, but she’d give him a piece of candy for his efforts.
When I created a timeline for Aunt Lucy, I immediately spotted a problem. Great Aunt Lucy died in May 1924. Uncle Joe wasn’t born until December 1924. When I mentioned the date of Lucy’s death my uncle was shocked. He clearly recalled the events of his story. But it was impossible. There was no way he did it and his wife thought it was hysterically funny.
I figured out that Joe’s older brother, “Charlie” who was born in January 1918, carried the wood and hot water up to Aunt Lucy. Uncle Joe heard the story, borrowed it, and adopted it as his own. He wasn’t consciously lying. He believed he had done it, would have sworn to it in court, but it wasn’t true.
This isn’t a case of the fish that got away growing inches every time the story was told. Everyone has heard one of those and enjoyed teasing the talebearer. Nor was it an induced memory. It was an acquired memory, like the many men along the Maine coast who swore they took part in the Boston Tea Party. Was it wishful thinking that made them tell that tale or an attempt to impress others? Or perhaps they were confusing the York Tea Party with the Boston one?
So, be warned when you’re talking to family members, and remember, “Recollections may vary.”
Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft. Nancy holds an MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. Reader emails are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.