Presentation Notes: 2007-2008

Turning Fiction into Fact

Presented by Laura Prescott - June 11, 2008

Notes by Jeanne Carley

Did your Aunt Sue ever relate her descent from an Indian princess? Or has your grandfather always maintained that his ancestors were three brothers who came to America? Have you ever had suspicions about some of the stories you've heard from your family?

At the luncheon-annual meeting of Cape Cod Genealogy Society, Ms. Prescott gave an amusing talk dispelling many of the common legends associated with genealogy. Most of them concern:

Most of these myths came through oral tradition and were extended online through the Internet. Within these stories, she admits, a kernel of truth does exist, but some are "downright lies". However, sometimes, they are indeed, truthful. With a great deal of humor and alacrity, she illustrated how to turn our fictional tales into fact.

Laura PrescottA researcher for the New England Historic Genealogical Society, Ms. Prescott gave examples of her own family research. She knew of two Prescott lines: one, a farmer in New Hampshire, and the other one, a "wealthy and famous man" from Massachusetts, thought to be related. After concluding her research, her ancestor, naturally, was the New Hampshire farmer. She became more proud of him when she discovered he was a Revolutionary soldier, according to, a new Web site by Robert C. Anderson of NEHGS. It put the lie to the myth.

Ms Prescott found a few more myths, debunked them and again found them back online. She cited Dick Eastman's site for shattering the myth about the "three brothers" and the "Ellis Island name change" story. By checking a "famous Thomas relative", she found 25,000 persons with the Thomas name (no relation).There seems to be no end of "forged families". She also discovered no Indian royalty and no Indian princess, but perhaps the daughter of a chief. However, Ms. Prescott did find a Mohawk ancestor from the Turtle clan.

Not only are there myths circulating on the Internet, but lots of sites dispelling them, she said, which includes disputing the work of the New England scholar, Donald Jacobus. One of her ancestors had "missed the Mayflower" supposedly because she was pregnant. It is well known that babies were born on the Mayflower so that couldn't be the reason, she surmised. Her relative, a Peake, "was born in New Amsterdam in 1624." Another of her family stories concerned a photo of a proud soldier on horseback --also-called a "Civil War officer hero." When she found the military records of Samuel Wade Young online, it was another "burst bubble"; he was just a Confederate private. She also took an unproved story about the unknown burial place of her Protestant Uncle Gus and located him in a Catholic cemetery, simply because he had married a Catholic, something her relatives hadn't known.

Ms. Prescott cited as a resource for images of historical documents derived from the National Archives (more than on Heritage Quest.) She also mentioned Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian by Elizabeth Shown Mills, for use in documenting sources in your software programs . Her key suggestions to researchers were to look at deeds as well as wills, to review all sources, educate yourself on history, explore other sources, do collateral research on relatives and neighbors and use common sense or "think outside the box". The speaker reminded her audience to use Persi and for a surname search, to create time-lines with facts and stories (this helps to find out which things are untrue), and utilize the US Gen Web to learn the history of an area.

Other Web sites recommended by Ms Prescott include Cyndi's List (hoaxes, myths, pitfalls, rumors, "little white lies") and the "Making of America" project. [Editor's note: Making of America (MOA) is a digital library of primary sources - books and articles - in American social history from the ante-bellum period through reconstruction; it was initially begun in 1995 as a collaborative effort between the University of Michigan and Cornell University. For the collection at Michigan, see; for Cornell, see] Also on Ms. Prescott's list are other college Web sites - look for special collections, family lines, and other genealogy.

In conclusion, she stated, some stories are actually true --a client brought her an actual fact about the legendary Irishman, Daniel O'Rourke, instead of an expected myth. "You can either debunk them or find out whether they are true," she said.

See the Presentation Notes Index for summaries of other presentations given at the Society's monthly meetings.