Finding the Myth in Family Mythology

Many families have a myth. Start talking about family history and someone will remark that they are related to someone famous (living or dead), that they have Native American ancestry, that there’s an estate somewhere with money that they are entitled to, silver that is still buried in the ground from the Civil War, or that there is royalty in their lineage.

Not every story is a myth. If we can trace our roots back far enough, we can probably find prominent people in our history from whatever continent or country we come from. Many of us are related to famous people and certainly some of us have Native American ancestors in our family tree. Sometimes, though, these stories are just that – stories.

Growing up, I was told we might have some Native American heritage. The tribe? The Tuscarora. Once I was in high school, I realized the branch of my family that might be Native American was actually from Tuscarawas County, Ohio and there the family myth began! There was another myth that we were somehow related to one of the presidents but so far, I haven’t found evidence of this (although I haven’t spent much time trying to prove that). My sister’s in-laws told her they were related to the Sperrys of the Sperry Flour Company and after quite a bit of digging, my sister did manage to make a connection, however slight. My uncle told me that my great great grandfather once shot a man but I haven’t yet found proof of that (and I’ve looked) so it’s up in the air as to whether that is a myth. (Interestingly, another one of my great great grandfathers DID shoot a man, so anything is possible.)

I love hearing these family stories, whether from my family or my friends’ families. The difficulty comes when I am doing serious research on a family tree. I have the ancestors and the stories that they tell me and this is what I begin with. Once I start gathering documentation and working backwards, I realize some of the family myths are just not adding up with the facts. With the advent of Ancestry online trees, I have the ability to check and see if others have the same family lineage that I have been given on their trees and they usually do. I check for documentation that I did not come across in case someone has scanned a Bible record or a letter or a missing newspaper article that fills in the gaps and explains why that person is in the tree besides just hearsay. I usually am not that lucky.

It seems that everyone in my husband’s family claims descent from a shadowy figure named Rigdon Martin who was born around the time of the American Revolution and immigrated to South Carolina from Ireland. Myth? Truth? He’s been the Martin family brick wall for decades. He had a son named Rigdon Martin whom I can document on the census and from some of his children’s death certificates. I can tell from one of the censuses that there is a senior Rigdon Martin but I don’t have anything definitive that the two are related other than timing, the odd name, and the location. It’s reasonable but not proven. Unfortunately, the county they lived in is a burned county – most records destroyed during the Civil War.

My husband took a Y-DNA test and he did discover that almost all of the men said that their earliest known ancestor came from Scotland or Ireland. Mike only did a 37 marker test and most of these men had various Scottish or Irish surnames other than Martin. Okay, the Irish part of the legend seems to be true but is the oldest Rigdon Martin the immigrant? And is he the father of the younger Rigdon? Mike did match all 37 markers with a Martin from North Carolina. His earliest known ancestor is a John Martin from the 1840s in North Carolina.

This got my research out of the box. The box was the “myth” – Irish immigrant, late 18th century, South Carolina. Did our Martins came from North Carolina? Mike’s DNA match should share a common ancestor with Mike. I need to find it. Maybe THAT ancestor came from Ireland. The North Carolina Martins seem to think the immigration was earlier in the 18th century. What has been passed down for generations still needs to be reexamined in a different light and from a different angle.

In many family mythologies, there is a bit of truth. The truth just sometimes needs to be teased from a story and dusted off and put in it’s rightful place on the branches.

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

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