Like lately, I've been obsessing in ancestry.com and tracing my own family story as far back as the site's many databases would let me. I even ordered and got the results from the DNA test... more on that later.
First, though, I want to talk (and geek!) a bit about "family lore". Like a lot of Americans, my family always had this way to talking about the ancestors and how in the old world they did these certain things and then they came to America and did these different things. Mostly, it is a glowing review. One line came in the 1620s and settled Massachusetts Bay Colony. Many fought against the British in the 1770s. Abolitionists. Tons of Abolitionists. Oregon Trail travelers. Italians that saw the Statue of Liberty as they floated into New York City. And probably like way too many, Native American blood from the Huron Tribe.
|I knew there was a reason I liked this game.|
I grew up proud of these anecdotes. Yes, I was aware Americans were not perfect. I knew about the dark chapters of American history but there was no way any of my family was involved in any of that.
Well, as I went through ancestry, I found myself busting a lot of those family myths.
One of the first ones happened with that Puritan line. That line came to Massachusetts in 1623ish, a man named Phillip and his six kids and wife. Of his six kids, my line comes from Joseph. Joseph was a yeoman, which is just an old tymey way of saying farmer. He had his kids -- I found some criminal records on him (apparently for public disturbance -- he, his brother, and his brother-in-law were drinking a lot and being loud -- some things never change if you know my family).
|Pictured: Probably my ancestor -- you lush|
Then he died on May 19, 1676 in what is now Deerfield, MA. What was happening in Deerfield, MA on that date? A Native American Massacre. At the time, I'm sure he was hailed a hero as this was during King Phillip's War (no relation). But they killed mostly women and children and it was yet another battle in a string of battles that contributed to a destruction of a people.
Of course, my hyper imagination, I made up a story about the line being cursed since then -- because many of Joseph's descendants died in asylums (although it could be due to tuberculosis). But the curse is lifted because my great-grandfather in this line did a heroic deed during WWI, that is verifiable. He received the Croix de Guerre for flying in a plane before Air Force was a thing and mapped German positions while under fire.
|I'm not sure what is more terrifying, being in one of these or being shot at|
The thing about this story is no one in my family mentioned it. One of my relatives said I must have gotten the wrong Joseph but I kept on looking through primary sources and I'm pretty sure it is him.
Another Family Lore busted is that we had ancestors who fought against the British during the American Revolution. There is a few in different lines that did. However, I found a Loyalist (and probably a con-artist too).
In the 1700s, one of my great-etc grandfathers was a man named David Springer. He lived in Schenectady, NY. He had something like 15 children and a rather large bit of property. He said he was descend from the Delaware Springers who were founders of New Sweden. During the 1770s, David tried to get a bunch of locals to form a Loyalist militia and go bash the heads of some Yankees. A Yankee militia in the area confronted him, executed him on his front yard, and imprisoned his 4 eldest sons. Most of the rest of his children and wife fled to Canada.
|There is even a plaque about the occasion.|
Just as you would thinking being an executed Loyalist would be enough to bust this whole saintly ancestors myth, he probably was a con artist. A generation later, his descendants tried to get some of the Springer inheritance but the Springers of Delaware said they never heard of a David. It's been a point of conjecture for many genealogists. Some speculated that maybe they didn't like David because of his love of the crown. However, DNA tests of David's descendants do not match the Springers of Delaware. Even as I got my DNA test back, I only have trace amounts of Scandinavian which could have easily mixed in with the Irish or English during Viking raids or during Danelaw period.
The mystery of David Springer's line really bothers me. I traced his made up line but who knows where he really came from. And really his line of doing questionable things during war time doesn't stop there.
His daughter marries an Irishman in Canada with the last name Treanor. They chill in Canada for a generation then his son, Oliver moves to Iowa, farming with the best of them. Then, his son James joins up with the Union during the Civil War. He also lied about his age -- probably didn't want to be a drummer. He did serve with his unit for a year but deserted around Shiloh. Next thing I see, he appeared in California territory.
So I have a Loyalist and a Union deserter, just in one line. To be fair, I read about James's unit. They seemed more like King Arthur and his crew in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Like for instance, they were forced to retreat because one of the Confederates shot a bee hive over their formation.
But also, James did lie about his age to serve which meant he probably did think it was a good cause-- but probably wasn't prepared for how hard life really is. I did find the paperwork of the government forgiving his AWOL and even allowing him to have a Civil War veteran marker.
James did seem to have a successful business in California, so good for him.
I managed to bust a bit of Family Lore. But here is a big one -- Native American Blood. Everyone loves to claim Native American blood. I feel like it is this subconscious desire to justify belonging here in a former colony. My mother insisted that we did and my grandfather had the paperwork to back it up. I haven't found it yet -- but in many places, I'm going off based on names.
The DNA test didn't show any Native American markers. It did show Iberian Peninsula, North Africa, and Caucasus markers which opened up a whole new mystery. I have an Italian line. My great-grandfather came here from southern Italy. But I had no Italian markers. I'm not able to search further back from his father. I suspect Sicilian blood but I haven't been able to verify it yet outside circumstantial evidence. And it could be I just didn't get any of it passed down. Same with the Native American blood. The Family Lore COULD be true.
What did I learn from this? Well, recently, I've been rewatching the old Simpsons episodes. There is one episode I feel is extremely relevant called Lisa the Iconoclast. In this episode, Springfield is celebrating their Founders Day, Sprinfield's founder being Jebadiah Sprinfield. He has this American Folk Hero Story to him but everyone still has admiration for him.
|Pictured -- David Springer probably|
Lisa does some research on him and discovers the town founder is actually a pirate and criminal Hans Sprungfeld who tried to kill George Washington. She tries to shut down the Founder's Day Celebration calling it a sham. But then she noticed how just the myth is able to bring out the best in people and chooses not to tell what she learned.
|Filled with so much hope and optimism|
I somewhat agree with that sentiment. Myths have power -- often as much as the truth. Like George Washington was a mercurial man with a horrible temper but what he represents is important too. I may have found a drunk Native American killer, a Loyalist con-artist, and a Civil War deserter in my line but still the overall American story of my family sometimes leaving everything to come here to start a new life is still an industrious story that you can draw inspiration from.
I understand why people tend to hide these things -- either it wasn't a big deal at the time or the details get muddied from generation to generation. But even the mistakes of our ancestors are worth learning about. For one, it's a great story; for another, you are more than just the line of blood you come from. And you can rise above it.