Family Tradition as a Source

Most genealogists probably encounter family traditions. They’re the stories—often with uncertain origins—that have been passed down from one generation to the next. The tales may involve subjects such as ethnicity, places of origin, military exploits, occupations, accomplishments, connections to famous people, and so on. Can we use family traditions as sources? Absolutely! As Thomas W. Jones points out in “Perils of Source Snobbery,” by omitting sources such as family tradition, valuable data could be overlooked.[1] Genealogical standards teach researchers to evaluate and analyze sources as well as to compare evidence from multiple, independent sources. Incorporating family traditions into sound research, therefore, requires that stories be evaluated, analyzed, and compared to evidence obtained elsewhere.

Until family traditions are set down in writing or recorded in some other way, details run the risk of changing as stories are told and retold. Oral history surrounding my own great-great-grandfather demonstrates that. One branch of my family believes he left New York City and returned to Ireland, but another branch heard he left New York with his eldest son to find work in Chicago.

When a researcher is faced with oral family tradition, the first step should be to record it. This preserves the story for future generations as well as for research purposes, as the record will ensure details remain consistent over the course of the genealogical investigation. In addition to the story itself, notes should include the current date, full names of the person making the record and the person providing the information, the informant’s connection to the story, and any known details about the story’s origins. Researchers should consider adding how the story may have been passed to the present time and naming people who may have been part of the chain of transmission.

Story elements that are relevant to the research problem must be assessed in terms of likely accuracy. Researchers must think about the informant’s connection to those parts of the story. Did the storyteller witness or experience those things firsthand? If not, can the person or people who did have firsthand knowledge be identified? How far removed is the current informant from the person with firsthand knowledge? Is it possible that details were intentionally muddied along the way? Was the truth concealed during retelling because of embarrassment or shame? Might any of the people involved in telling and retelling the story have had faulty memories?

About 1984, my aunt recorded her own father’s recollection of the story of his grandfather’s leaving New York City about 1891. My aunt’s notes preserve the story as her father told it and identify him as being the person who informed her of the details. It is likely that her father heard the tradition from his own father, Frank, who was the son of the man who disappeared. Frank was about thirty years old at the time of the event, and the family tradition does not include any hint that Frank’s father remained in contact with his children. Although Frank had firsthand knowledge of his father’s leaving, the destination may or may not have been known.

Like details obtained from any source, the accuracy of information from family traditions must be tested by comparing it to information found in other sources. Correlating the evidence—comparing and contrasting it to identify areas where sources do and do not agree—is a vital step in working with evidence, whether that evidence comes from official records or from family traditions.

When family traditions are set down in writing or on audio or video recordings, they can be cited easily. Information taken from those traditions must carry a citation to the tradition as the source. The citation should include the name of the person who compiled the notes or made the recording, the date of the compilation or recording, and its present location. At the first reference to the tradition, the note should include details about the person who reported the story and an assessment of its accuracy. Section 3.45 of Elizabeth Shown Mills’s Evidence Explained provides more guidance about using and citing family traditions.[2]

As an example of citing a family tradition, the first reference note to my aunt’s record of the family tradition surrounding my great-great-grandfather would look something like the following:

Malloy family traditions regarding the fate of Edward1 Malloy (born ca. 1835), Eileen Muzio, compiler (MSS notes, ca. 1984; privately held by Laura DeGrazia, [address for private use,] Wantagh, New York), as reported by Edward3 Malloy, grandson of Edward1 and father of Muzio, 1984. Edward3 was born after his grandfather’s last-known record (1891). The information would likely have come from his own father, Frank2 (1864–1943).

Just because information comes from something other than an “official” record does not mean it should be discarded or ignored. When used carefully, traditions can play an important role in helping to document a family history. Wise genealogists listen to the stories, read the accounts, assess the strengths and weaknesses of the information, and seek out independent sources to test for accuracy. Successful genealogists work with every available source—including family traditions.

[1] Thomas W. Jones, “Perils of Source Snobbery,” OnBoard 18 (May 2012): 9–10, 15.

[2] Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, 3rd ed. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 2015), 158.

Image courtesy of Wellcome Library, London.

  1. December 20, 2016 10:29 am
    • December 21, 2016 6:56 am

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