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Lifestyle Stories

Look for the truth in family legends

Tribune correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 08:56 AM

Do lore and legend have a place in a genealogist's family history?

Certainly they can be the very heart of a family's annals - if they're not pure myth.

So how does a responsible chronicler separate the wheat from the chaff? The first thing is to closely examine the stories heard at Grandma's knee. Different stories will call for different confirmation approaches.

Sometimes stories get skewed very slightly as they are passed around the family. Just a little tweaking is required to get them on the fact track. Sometimes we can't find evidence to support a story. We can still include it in our family histories but must add a disclaimer that no evidence has been found to support it.

Start with a good plan

Developing a solid research plan is a good start to proving or disproving a story.

My husband's Aunt Jo recently gave me a history she put together based on stories her mother had told her. She didn't try to verify them, instead compiling them as "stories Mother told."

Here's one of the stories, and here's the research plan.

Washington Whiddon owned a big plantation on the Chattahoochee River in Clay County, Ga., "near" Fort Gaines. He died in 1887 when his youngest son, John, was 17 years old. John's siblings were grown and out of the home, so John shouldered the responsibility of burying his father, taking care of his widowed mother and running the plantation.

When John was 18, he loaned a man money. Months later, the man asked John to meet him at "some crossroads" so he could repay the debt. Meanwhile, one of John's sisters dreamed the man killed John, so she begged him not to go to the meeting. He didn't listen. At the meeting, a fight broke out. An unknown third party shot the man, but John was arrested and charged with murder. After six months in jail, he was cleared of the charge.

Because I can access censuses on my home computer through Ancestry.com, a first step in the plan is to find Washington Whiddon in the census records. I found him living in Henry County, Ala., in 1860, 1870 and 1880. But according to the story, he lived and died in Clay County, Ga. Quizzing Aunt Jo, I learned she had added Clay County to the story; Grandmother actually had said only "near Fort Gaines."

Looking at a map, it's easy to spot a possible explanation for this: Henry County, Ala., and Clay County, Ga., are separated by the Chattahoochee River. A farmer whose Alabama land bordered the river would be physically closer to Fort Gaines than any Alabama towns, so he would naturally sell his products and conduct business in Fort Gaines.

That educated guess is the basis for the next step in the plan: Look at the land records for Henry and Clay counties. A quick check with the Church of Latter-day Saints website, www.familysearch.org, shows that Clay County deeds from 1854 through 1922 and Henry County deeds from 1824 through 1900 have been microfilmed.

Check the Mormon website

I can order those at the Mormon Family History Center and read through them to see where Washington owned land. I also determined at the website that probate records are available for both counties, so I can see how Washington's estate was processed when he died.

Those bits of research - determining in which county Washington owned land and which county probated his estate - likely will clarify that part of the story. (Learn about researching the Mormon church's microfilm at www2.tbo.com/content/list/life/genealogy.)

Something as serendipitous as finding John's sister's diary (if she kept one) or letters in which she wrote about her dream probably is the only way we'll ever know for sure if the dream part is true. I won't count on that happening.

However, there might be a way to learn whether John was arrested on murder charges. Mormon microfilm is available for the Clay County Superior Court minutes from 1854 through 1905. A murder case would have been processed in that system. On the other hand, Henry County's microfilmed records look deficient. If I don't find anything in them, it will be worth a trip to Henry County's courthouse to see what original court or law enforcement records are available.

The land, microfilm and court records of these two counties should provide evidence to substantiate the lore of John's arrest. Absence of evidence won't disprove it, but my revised version of the family history at least will detail the research that was done.

A final thought on research plans: Don't make them too expansive. A plan to research the land, probate and court records is sufficient for a start. If the first plan doesn't answer questions, subsequent plans should be developed until all possible records have been explored.


Sharon Tate Moody is a board-certified genealogist. Send your genealogy questions and event announcements to her in care of Getaway, The Tampa Tribune, 200 S. Parker St., Tampa FL 33606 or stmoody0720@mac.com. She regrets that she is unable to assist with

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