Tradition as deceiver

View of Windsor Locks
Courtesy of UConn Libraries.

I was recently searching The American Genealogist for information and found an article titled “Tradition and Family History.”[1] The article’s opening lines are: “Tradition is a chronic deceiver, and those who put faith in it are self deceivers. This is not to say that tradition is invariably false. Sometimes a modicum of fact lies almost hidden at its base.” As a researcher, I have done quite a few cases that involve family traditions, and the article made me think about some of the stories that I have been told about my family.

The earliest story that I can remember involves my great-great-grandfather, who was a constable in Windsor, Connecticut. The family story that I heard in elementary school was that he was involved in the investigation of Amy Archer-Gilligan, who ran a boarding house in Windsor and was convicted of murdering boarders with arsenic. Her case is cited as the inspiration behind Arsenic and Old Lace. I was in fifth grade when I first heard this story as part of a class project to create our family trees.

Once I got into researching my family genealogy, I paid special attention to verifying this story. In all of my research, I have been unable to clearly tie him to the investigation, but I’ve also found that he was much more interesting than his possible connection to this one event. During Prohibition, his name appears all over the local papers because he led raids on illegal stills. My favorite picture of him, which hangs in the Windsor Historical Society, shows him sitting with some of the stills he confiscated in the raids. Although I have not found proof of his connection to the Archer-Gilligan case, I was able to locate other information that I might not have found if I had not been looking for the truth to the family story.

Another story that surprised me came from my grandfather about what his father went through during the Great Depression. My grandfather was only about 10 years old when the Depression ended, so I was expecting him to repeat what I already knew. I had already heard that the family was poor and was on the verge of losing everything. What I got was a detailed 30-minute story describing just about everything that his father did during the Depression. It was more than I expected, with details such as who the town clerk was and who had loaned his father money.

However, being a “doubting Thomas,” as my mom once described me, I had to investigate everything that my grandfather told me. I went to the Windsor Locks Town Hall and spent an entire day poring over the land records to search for the evidence that would back up the stories. To my surprise, everything I was told could be verified in the land records, plus there was additional information that my grandfather did not mention. I was most surprised that my grandfather knew the exact amount of money that his father had owed on all of his mortgages. I was glad that I had heard the story from my grandfather and investigated it. Once I had all of the deeds abstracted, I laid them out in the order of the events and I would have had a hard time understanding what the big picture was without the background story.

I could have easily taken these stories at face value, but I would have missed out a much larger understanding of who my ancestors were. In my notes, I could have said that my great-great-grandfather was a constable, but I would not have known what that meant for him. I would have also missed how larger world events have shaped my family. Without knowing the full story, my great-grandfather’s actions would have seemed like normal transactions. I can point to things that my great-grandfather did during the Depression that have allowed me to do certain things, and I’m thankful that I have the whole story. So the next time you hear a family story, investigate it no matter how inconsequential or silly it may be. You never know what you will find once you begin looking for that “modicum of fact.”



[1] Online database. New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2009 – ., vol. 9, pp. 1-4 <>

About Jason Amos

Jason received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and his Master of Science from Simmons College’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science, focusing in archival management. He also received a certificate in Genealogical Research from Boston University. Jason began at NEHGS as a volunteer and then as an intern with the R. Stanton Avery Special Collections before moving into Research Services. Jason enjoys writing narrative reports and searching for every piece of information relating to an ancestor that helps reveal what their life was like.

11 thoughts on “Tradition as deceiver

  1. Excellent post. I have found that all family traditions are part fact and sometimes part fiction. Often they are a blending of family stories. My favorite true one came from an interview my father gave that I was reading after he died. He claimed to have testified in the Tokyo Rose (Iva Toguri) trial for her defense. My husband quipped, “well you know your Dad was a bit of a story teller.” Well that was all the challenge I needed, took me about ten minutes to find the witness list and there he was. Also found him listed in local newspapers. And after my Mom died I found a letter written by Iva thanking my Dad. Unfortunately she was scapegoated and found guilty. President Ford pardoned her. Even everyday people often have historical connections.

  2. You are so right! I am still trying to match the family lore about my great-grandfather with the information I have already found about him. I did verify a story about his son Charles, my great-uncle. The family tale was that he died playing polo in Virginia in the 1890s. Well, by the time I found out the real story, through an obituary which a newly found on-line cousin provided, Charles had been in the US Army at Fort Riley, Kansas where they had a very active polo team. According to his records at the National Archives, his horse threw him and fell on him crushing his skull. I visited his grave at the base in Fort Riley. It gives one a wonderful feeling to enhance and correct family stories.

  3. My mother told the story about my grandfather running off at age 13 to be a drummer boy in the Union Army during the Civil War. His father caught up with him at the enlistment station , took him home, packed the family up, and moved to Canada to stay until the war ended. I found my great grandparents in the 1990 Census with two younger sons. The youngest was 16 and born in Canada!

  4. My grandmother insisted that WE were related to Gov. William Bradford of the Mayflower, just because HER mother was named Mary BRADFORD Gooding. And, Mary’s mother was named Mary CUSHMAN Shaw. Neither of those middle names have any connection to a BRADFORD OR A CUSHMAN. I decided to try to prove that connection. So far, nada! But, I found about 7 other Mayflower passengers in our family genealogy. Both Bradford and Cushman remain an illusion but if I hadn’t tried to prove the connection, I wouldn’t have found Alden, Mullins, Doty, Cooke, Howland, Warren, Gorham.

  5. Family LORE,( the stories handed down within the family that become accepted as truth over time) is different from family TRADITIONS, (habitual practices, like whether you open Christmas presents on Christmas Day or Christmas Eve, or always have Thanksgiving sweet potatoes with pecans or marshmallows.) Mr. Amos had made a wonderful case for verifying family lore and for not being surprised or disappointed if it doesn’t turn out to be quite accurate. I love that he found truths that outstripped the stories; many people have to contend with disappointment or denial, when the facts don’t verify their family lore. But even if the secondary definition of tradition allows its use, common usage cries out for a semantic correction. Using words indiscriminately are how those stories get out of proportion in the first place. Family Lore might explain why a family Tradition was added but the two are still distinctly different.

  6. When I speak to people who are considering researching their family history, I always mention that they should take their traditions with a grain of salt. Some more than others. Some stories get attached to families as a way to connect with the larger history.

    The largest events to be wary of are: Native American ancestry, Mayflower ancestors, ancestor at Valley Forge or Gettysburg, and immigrants that saw the Statue of Liberty and passed through Ellis Island.

    In my case: DNA tests find I’m 100% European (disappointing), no known NE connection (NJ/PA Appletons of unknown provenance prior to 1810), youngest half-brother of Aurand immigrant at VF, disproven rumor about Gettysburg (though a cousin was a prisoner at Andersonville), all my ancestors arrived more than a decade before Liberty erected and the one certain NY arrival entered the country as a seaman, not an immigrant, before EI opened.

  7. I got started in genealogy to verify two family stories. On my mom’s side we were supposedly descended from Ethan Allen and on my dad’s from a pirate. Research shows that my mom’s Langworthy ancestors marched with Allen on Ticonderoga. The pirate was probably a Revolutionary War privateer on Long Island Sound and that story obscurred HIS ancestor who came in the Great Migration and helped found Stonington, CT. I prefer the true stories, but I would probably never gotten as far in genealogy without the incentive of verifying the tales handed down.

  8. There was a family legend that an ancestor on my paternal grandmother’s side was a cabin boy on the Mayflower. I thought this was pure poppycock, but in the process of researching her mother’s ancestry I discovered seven Mayflower passengers in four families (Soule, Cooke, Warren, and White)! No cabin boys, but George Soule was indentured to the Winslows, and he is generationally the closest, so that’s probably where that tradition arose. I have successfully proven descent from George Soule and Francis Cooke and his son John to the satisfaction of the Society of Mayflower Descendants, which makes proving Richard Warren very easy, as his daughter married John Cooke. I am still flabbergasted by these discoveries!

  9. My mother is still telling this unchanging story about her grandfather. “When he landed at Ellis Island, the clerk asked him his name. He said, Mikal Snausen, and the clerk said, ‘I can’t spell that! You’re Charles Johnson.'” Sure enough, he ended up as Charles Johnson, but he was way too early to have come through Ellis Island (his obit says 1868), and on the 1865 Norwegian census, his name is Mikal Johannessen, living on Snausen farm. I believe that the family story is what she says, word for word, every time she repeats it. Since I can’t find his record either leaving Norway or arriving in the US or Canada on his way to MN, I can’t say what name he used to enter the country. All I know is that Charles Johnson is the only name I find in US records, beginning with the 1880 census in WI. Johnson makes sense as an Americanization of his patronymic. Charles sort of makes sense, as his maternal grandfather was Carl. But in trying to track this down, I found something even more interesting about my g grandfather. In 1889 in WI, he led the only mob of Norwegian-Americans in US history to end up lynching another Norwegian. There’s lots of documentation on this bit of history. It may not be something to be “proud” of, but it definitely appears to be the truth. Even my mother accepts this story!

    As another example of a legend, I have a letter another Waggoner sent my father when my dad was researching for a book he wrote about his family in the mid 1980s. Mostly my dad’s book is as well researched as he could do without computers, but I can’t say the same for the letter from this other guy (which didn’t make it into my dad’s book). He claimed there was a Waggoner on the Mayflower. Since I have a Great Migration ancestor (1638) I’ve looked at the Mayflower list, and I think a Waggoner would pop out at me. So far, it hasn’t.

  10. There are several versions of the origin of my ancestor Pierre Crapo aka Crapoo aka Perez Crapoo..One of his descendants, Henry Howland Crapo in his two volume “Certain Comeoverers” speculates with tongue firmly planted in cheek…my branch of the Crapo family really had a distorted version – I was told they were French aristocracy escaping the French Revolution. That would be exciting except it would be 100 years too late…Some have him as stowaway on his older brother’s warship that wrecked off the coast of MA….I could go on and on…If he was indeed shipwrecked on the MA coast in the late 1600s, he could have been aboard the privateer DeMoyne’s ship that did wreck there in 1678..however, I lean toward him being one of the children from the Channel Islands brought over as ‘servants’ by Philip Angelais/English..and the name comes from Crapaud which, was apparently, a term for Jersey residents..Perhaps if he was old enough to give a name, no one could understand him as I believe the Island people had a distinct dialect…I’m sure I’ll never know..but I do miss the estate/inheritance I may have missed by my family’s version….Jerri Crapo Rudloff

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