Genealogists and researchers face plenty of obstacles without falling for silly myths. Beginners can run into these difficulties even more easily. Get the facts about family history myths so that you can tell your ancestors’ real story!
Many companies will try to sell you mugs, banners, and blankets with a “family crest” on them. Technically, families don’t have crests. And also technically, this is the wrong term. A “crest” is part of a coat of arms, which is probably the shield, supporters, motto, and helmet you’re imagining. This appears in fiction often enough, and has led to this fallacy. In reality, individuals could receive family coats-of-arms from a sovereign. A coat of arms was a means of identifying an individual and his male descendants. You can only claim a coat of arms officially by proving your male-line descent from the recipient.
However, if your ancestor was the one awarded a crest, you can learn a lot about them. A glimpse into heraldry and learning what colors or symbols mean can tell you what was important to them. You can learn more about coats of arms via The College of Arms.
Many of us want to connect our ancestry to Pilgrims, royalty, Revolutionary figures, or pop culture legends. But the truth is, likely, we’re just descended from ordinary people. If you have a similar name to one of these figures, while it could point to being related, you have to provide proof. This is especially true if you want to join societies.
You also may need to do your research before believing you’re related to George Washington, for example. Some historical figures, like Washington, never actually had children, or their descendants did not have children or survive to adulthood (like Aaron Burr).
But you don’t need a spectacular lineage to be special. Your “ordinary” ancestors have their own fascinating stories to share!
Many families have a similar narrative of three brothers (without variation) arriving in the United States and promptly going separate directions. This spread their unusual surname across the country.
In truth, immigrant families tended to stay close by, settling one area. This could hold some truth if part of a family split up over migrating West (following either the Oregon Trail or the Mormon Trail). But you will still need careful research to prove that a family split up instead of moving together.
Along with wanting to connect to famous people, there is an interesting tendency for Americans to claim a connection to Native Americans. Mostly, they claim a connection to a Cherokee ancestor, more than any other group. In 2010, the Census Bureau reported that 819,105 Americans claimed Cherokee descent. There are a couple of reasons for doing so. This is partly because of the Cherokee tradition of marrying outside of their clan. Or, it could be because Southern whites claimed Cherokee ancestry and “legitimized” their native, ancient status in the South, romanticizing their stand against the federal government.
Without a DNA test or recorded proof, though, this might just be a myth in your family. One part that is definitely a myth, regardless of DNA or records, is the myth that your Cherokee ancestor was an “Indian princess.” The Cherokee have never had anything like “princesses.” While you could have Native American blood, don’t trust this particular claim.
The 1890 Census
The 1890 census was badly burnt in a fire in the Commerce Department Building in 1921. Many people give that census up for lost. Actually, there are portions still surviving that you can use! The Census Bureau has a list of the remaining records, and you can find those records on Ancestry.com.