Family Legends


Contributing Writer
Janet Wahlberg

We all have them, Family Legends. The question is how do we incorporate them into our Family History. What’s your story? Great Grandpa rode with Jesse James, Great-great Grandma was a Cherokee Princess, distant cousins served with George Washington in the Revolution, Aunt Jenny survived the Johnstown Flood. These and other less dramatic stories abound in our family histories. Keep in mind that there is usually a kernel of truth in these stories. Your job as family historian will to be to locate and document that kernel.

I too had a family legend that I worked on over the years. I included it in the narrative section of the family history with a comment that indicated that this was family lore and as yet was unproven. After 15 years of research I was able to prove at least some of the facts to the story. It now stands alone as the story of “The Frozen Grandfather”. The key to proving or disproving these stories is careful and organized research. You need to begin by writing down everything that you have heard about the story over the years. In addition, you need to document who told the story, when did you first hear it, where were you when you first heard the story, who else was present at the time, and any other pertinent facts about the episode.

If the person that you first heard the story from is still alive, you need to make immediate plans to interview them. If they are not, determine who in the family is most likely to have also heard the story. You will need to interview them as well. You might consider sending out an e-mail or letter to as many members of the family as possible. You will want to carefully document what you know of the legend and ask them to contact you so that you might have the opportunity to interview them. Keep copies of any return e-mails or letters.

You also need to look for any documents that exist in the family archives including letters, postcards, Bible records, photographs, etc. What “facts” do you have about the person or persons in the legend, birth, death, or marriage dates, land records, etc. Two of my sources were written letters from two elderly great aunts that detailed the story and while some of the details were different, the core story was the same.

What are the approximate dates of the event? Do these make sense when laid out as a timeline? When historical events and people figure into the story, you will want to read books or newspaper articles that may shed light onto the story. I read several books on the Highland Clearances that gave me historical background on the movement of people in early 19th century Scotland. This was very helpful in establishing a theory regarding the migration of my family. This migration was central to the family legend.

Finally create a file that is dedicated to research on the Legend and nothing else. Place copies of all the pertinent information on the story. This will allow you to readily access the evidence that you have gathered when you locate a new tidbit. It will also allow you to sit down and review your research when an idea occurs to you that may, lead you in a new direction or even prove the story.

Some final advice, gather those family legends, cherish them, take the time to research them and share them with other family members in hopes that they can add to them and solve the mysteries. Who knows, maybe your Aunt Jenny did survive the Johnstown flood. I was able to place my 4 times great grandfather in the Highlands of Scotland in 1826 and even visited the church where he had his youngest child baptized. These stories are what add such interest to this Magnificent Obsession that we call genealogy.

To read Janet Walberg’s previous genealogy columns or to delve deeper into her writings and insights for searching out and recording your own family’s genealogy, please go to and visit Janet’s own web page.