If you count what my mother knows, it goes back a few generations. The oldest story I know is that my grandfather on my father’s side was born out of wedlock and that great-grandmother was the scandal of the family. She died very young, in her 30’s I believe.
On my direct maternal line, oral history goes back to g-g-g-g-grandmother (b. about 1790), who was born in slavery, the half-sister of the white daughter of the house. My g-g-g-g-grandmother went as a slave/maid with her half-sister when the half-sister married a plantation owner. The half-sister had several children and died in, I believe, childbirth as a fairly young woman, leaving three children. My g-g-g-g-grandmother succeeded her, in all but name, as the widower’s wife and gave birth to a light-skinned daughter, Celia, who could not inherit. Celia’s father arranged for her to pass for white and marry a white man several states away in North Carolina, and made a large financial gift, almost equal to a a fourth of the estate he expected to leave. Celia and her husband had fifteen children, all of whom lived to adulthood. Most of their sons made carved furniture, including a dresser now in my mother’s possession, that they made as a wedding gift to my g-g-grandmother, their second youngest sister, Kitty Ann. Kitty Ann married a farmer from Illinois in the early 1860s and died at nineteen, giving birth to my g-grandmother.
My husband’s family’s written and oral history goes back to the 1490s, with traditions and chatty little diary entries, so that we know which among the approximately 800 documented ancestors and peripheral relatives didn’t bathe often or wore a torn cap or laughed too loud or was a little unbalanced or said mean things about his wife or had lost a ring finger in a farming accident.
On my mother’s side, we have a little documented information (copies of wills, marriage certificates, etc.) going back to 1650 here in VA (which is pretty rare, since so many records were destroyed during the Civil War)… My mother has first hand information as far back as my great-great-grandfather on her mother’s side. Several of her great aunts lived to an advanced age and told her stories of their youth and their father. He was without a tombstone until my mother obtained one from the government (he was a CSA private) and had it erected on Memorial Day a few years back.
My father’s family history has been much more difficult to learn, and no one would have any of it if it weren’t for me (if I can toot my own horn). I first approached my father several years ago about it and he told me “Daddy never said anything about his family. He had a brother who lived over in town (Fredericksburg) and a sister that was crazy, but that’s all anyone ever knew.” Knowing there had to be more to the story I started with a copy of my grandparent’s marriage liscence and went to work.
It was an amazing journey, if only because none of the information I found was known by any of the family. My great uncle, for instance, was identified as “Colored” on his first marriage certificate. A letter from the minister to the Clerk of the Court asking that the certificate be corrected “because these people pass for white according to the community” was certainly the talk of the dinner table at the house. I also obtained my great aunt’s medical records. Yes, she was crazy - but only because she was confined to a state mental hospital for more than 35 years (she didn’t speak for the last 33 years of her life). She had stabbed her husband after finding him in bed with another woman and was sent away as “insane.” Another story I learned from newspaper accounts was that an early relative had been convicted of stealing some copper wire from a mine. I looked up the court records and his punishment had been “33 lashes, well laid on.”
Unfortunately, I was only able to trace that side of the family back to 1750 using the available records. Then - nothing. The family just sort of appeared. In an effort to get past the wall I submitted my DNA to a research project and have since learned that my father-side DNA is a match with families coming from the northwest of England.
My father has been fascinated by all of this, and explained that there wasn’t any interest in his father’s family because “it was hard to too worried about your ancestors when you didn’t know if you were going to have enough to eat and you had to go to work when you were 6 years old.” My grandfather had been sent away to live and work on a dairy farm at 6 when his mother died.
Our printed genealogy, at least the one with my surname, goes back to about 1580 definitely, and putatively to the 1300s.
But orally there’s hardly anything.
Our printed genealogy, at least the one with my surname, goes back to about 1580 definitely, and putatively to the 1300s.
The genealogy includes some interesting details like a will or two, and my early progenitors in New Amsterdam are actually discussed in a couple of separate sources (see “Old Bowery Days”, published 1930). But in terms of my father telling me something told to him by his father told to him…there’s hardly anything. I didn’t need the genealogy to know that my father’s grandfather was in the Civil War, but then one would know something like that.
“Most families” dunnow, mine has personal anecdotes dating to my great-great-greatgrandparents’ marriage (well, only for two sets of same, the two from the Basque and Navarrese sides). I also have personal anecdotes for one generation further, on the Italian side (that’s the generation which stopped in Barcelona on their way to Argentina when she started delivering her baby too early and ended up staying) and I know their daughter-in-law’s family owned a particular farm and where it was.
As for not personal stuff, my second-cousin-who-would-have-been-lord-if-the-manor-hadn’t-been-sold keeps the family tree… but only until c. 1700. Why until the early XVIII century?
Because that’s when Felipe V, recently risen to the thrones of Castilla and Navarra, having declared Aragon “conquered land” and thus part of Castilla, dissolved all the Parliaments and Councils of Aragon, and replaced their laws with those of Castilla, could not do the same to Navarra. After all, Navarra was, of the three kingdoms, the one to which he had the highest blood right.
Whenever he sent a royal decree which went against our Law and Tradition, the Permanent Deputies of Navarra would answer back “contrafuero: se obedece pero no se cumple” “against the Law: we obey but we can not do as you say,” a sentence which my Catalan mom claims explains a lot about the Navarrese spirit… this is a land where silence means you’re thinking of a polite way to say “that’s completely dumb,” it doesn’t mean assent. In order to change our Laws, he would have had to call a full session of the Navarrese Parliament, which he knew would not want to drop our own Law and Tradition for Castilian Law. So he claimed that the people who had the right to sit in the Navarrese Parliament did not, in fact, have it. Anybody who claimed this right had to provide “Blood Proof,” listing his foreparents up to those who had earned the right for the first time or who had sat in Parliament for the last time. Since the Navarrese Parliament hadn’t been called for over 100 years and our records had been burned down in the early XVIth century, this was quite a task. But there were copies of the records in Barcelona, as well as partial copies which had survived.
Most families in Navarra and in Euskadi (which also had its own laws, more similar to those of Navarra than to the rest of Castilla, thus Felipe V tried the same tactic) have such Blood Proofs. My 11th grade history teacher was from Ciudad Real; she’d never lived in either Navarra or Euskadi before marrying a Navarrese and moving here. So when, after asking my class of 40 to bring in family trees “as far back as you can,” all 40 of us went back to the 1700, she was ready to faint… when my brother, 6 years later, showed up with some photocopies from one of the Proofs, she was hyperventilating fit for that scene in When Harry Met Sally.
I know that there are ancestors on my mother’s side who were in the USA during the Civil War, and I know that one female’s maiden name was Cordes, a surname which has otherwise disappeared from the ranks of known kinfolk. I guess the Cordes woman would be my great-great-great-grandmother, so I can go back as much as five generations with that one line.
My mother’s mother’s mother was orphaned at a young age (4 or 5?) in what is now Germany and shipped to the USA as a “servant girl”. Her full maiden name (Laura Amelia Hess) is known, as are several stories of her adulthood, but her parents’ names and histories were apparently not known even to her. She died several years before I was born.
My father’s mother’s mother lived in Cleveland, the city in which I was born and in whose suburbs I grew up, and she (born 1882, died 1971 when I was 12 years old) is the most distant ancestor I remember interacting with. She emigrated from what is now the Czech Republic, and I know that her father (who never made the crossing) was a veterinarian in “the old country”.
I’ve seen pictures of myself with my mother’s paternal grandparents, but the wife died when I was a toddler, and the husband’s role in my life was only as a voice on the phone and sender of birthday cards until he died around 1973.
My grandparents have all passed away, but my mother’s father’s youngest sibling is still alive. I wonder how much of the family lore will die with him. One of his and Grandpa’s sisters was killed at the age of 6 in a car accident about 100 years ago, so she was one of the earliest auto-fatality victims in Baltimore. The only known direct evidence of her existence is a book she owned, and in which she wrote her name a few months before the accident that claimed her life.
My dad traced back our family name to a 7th century saint who resided very close to where he grew up in the 1940s and 1950s. He made a family tree going back three generations before him to around the early 1800s but before that records are scant in that part of the world. There are references to people with our name (rare enough so can be safely said to be some sort of relation) going back in legal documents into the 1700s and 1600s and our family home from the 1700s is still standing (as a ruin) on my uncle’s land. The family home from the 1840s is also in the family and my 1st cousin lives there. On my dad’s side his uncle fought in the IRA in the War of Independence and on my mother’s side my grandfather also fought in the IRA in that war. My paternal grandfather was born in 1889 and died in 1984, I have a single memory of him giving me cinamon lozenges. I know stories about my dad’s grandfather because apparently he was really tall, 6 foot 6 inches or something like that. My dad’s uncle emigrated to the USA after the War of Independence where he was one of the first victims of World War 2 in America. He was knocked down by a taxi in December 1941, supposedly during a mass panic that the Germans or Japanese were going to aerial bomb New York City. His daughter was born 5 months after he died.
The only direct stories I have are told to me by my parents, dating back to the 1890s at the earliest.
My grandma’s family immigrated to the US sometime in the 1890s. My mom was told that grandma almost fell into the ocean while standing on the dock and was caught by the back of her pinafore. She was supposed to be two years old. I would like to confirm this story but can’t find the ship records for their family. I thought Magdalena Mueller was an uncommon name but a few years of searching taught me otherwise.
My great-grandfather was killed in a hit-and-run accident. The story is that he was hit by a woman who was married to a prominent attorney in the town, who happened to be in the car with another man at the time. She hid the car at her sister-in-law’s house but it was discovered. There was an eyewitness but as the family story goes, ‘she got off because of her husband’s position in the community’. Newspaper stories of the time (1925) confirm the accident and the trial. I haven’t seen the trial stories yet but my cousin has.
Another story says a great-aunt was shot and killed by her husband during a fight. He claimed self-defense but was convicted and sent to prison, where he was murdered.
My mom talked about her grandparents, who raised their daughter’s children after she died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. Mom used to say that her grandma was good to the boys but was really strict with the daughter and how she (Mom) felt sorry for her cousin.
My dad told me the story of a couple of my great-uncles who were in an accident in the 1920s that killed one and severely injured the other. I remember this guy; he had extreme scarring on his legs from a fire and near the end of his life lived with my grandma.
We also have the usual Indian-ancestor-who-was-an-Indian princess story, and of course I can’t confirm that either. My cousin, the avid genealogist, swears that her grandma told her that Grandma Belle was Indian, washed her hair in cornmeal, and smoked a corncob pipe, but even she can’t find anything that confirms Indian ancestry.
I have a great-grandparent who has multiple marriages and I have yet to find death or divorce records for any of his wives. Can’t find a death record for him either (anyone in Lawrence Co, Ohio who might be able to help me out?). Anyway, my direct line from him is through children with a woman with whom I can’t find a marriage record. They were never recorded living together in any of the censuses either. All I can conclude from this is that either he was a real dog, as one genealogist wrote to me, or that there must be a really interesting explanation for all these women and all these kids. I wish I had these stories!
My mom was always concerned about having flowers on all the family graves for Memorial Day and since she died we have continued the tradition. It involves making the 2 1/2 hour trip to Marion OH and we always make a tour of various places in town where the families lived and show our kids. “This parking lot is where Grandma lived, this little house is where Grandma and Papal lived, this is the neighbor’s house that was a little shack in the back and had a fancy brick front.” I love telling the stories I know to my kids and finding out more about our families. I think it’s important that they know who they are in more than the literal sense.
As far as honest-to-god, real oral tradition, it goes back to maybe my great, great grandparents, around 1900-ish. Most of it is describing what they did, and where they lived.
There’s some more “mythical” stuff about ancestors prior to that, who were involved in the KKK, etc… (apparently my grandfather and Dad found a KKK robe, and a piece of a Confederate battle flag, and pistols in an old trunk at my great, great grandmother’s house after she died in the 1950’s. Apparently she wasn’t aware of what all was in the trunk, and Granddaddy & Dad were pretty spooked by the KKK stuff.
Beyond that kind of thing, there’s not much oral tradition, but there’s a surprising amount of written records; we have diary entries and letters mentioning the Federal troops occupying Galveston and other parts of Texas, as well as a series of letters from some long-lost great-uncle to his girlfriend in 1849 while he was going to California via Panama for the Gold Rush. Apparently he died of yellow fever or something on the way, or at least that’s the story I’ve heard.
(maybe that’s the oldest oral tradition we have- telling how the letter author died?)
From other posters here, it looks like the American Civil War is a sort of benchmark for a lot of us, who can name who’s-who that far back.
For me, earlier than that becomes a general family story with no individual stand-outs.
But I did have one aunt who recently did her research (via the Mormons, of course) and soon therafter I received an exitment-charged phone call from my mom:
“Aunt Trudy did our family tree, all the way back to 16th Century Germany. And you’ll never guess who wer’re related to!”
“HITLER???” (oh boy oh boy oh boy!)
"NO!" (my mom was proud as punch to be related to some obsure sheitzgraf)
(BTW, I read somewhere that it’s a mathmatical impossiblity for anyone to be more than a 16th cousin to anyone else, so there’s still hope for me IRT uncle 'Dolfie)
My grandfather told me that *his *grandfather died in his eighties, while he was on a date. I thought that was far too good a story to disbelieve.
An ancestor of ours was tried as a witch in Stamford, CT in 1692 (found not guilty). Between hers until the Civil War era I can’t recount any stories. There is a genealogy, but no annotation. From the 1860’s on I have colorful tales of Drinkin’ Uncle John, and how Jesse James’ mother used to scare the neighborhood children (one of whom was my great-grandmother), and how assorted couples met.
That is going back from my maternal grandmother.
My maternal grandfather’s grandparents came to the US from Poland by way of England for a year or two. I can share some facts about them, but no real stories. I do know stories about his parents, and his childhood.
I don’t know much about my dad’s family, nothing further back than my own grandparents.
Back in the 1880’s one relative wrote an extensive genealogy of my maternal grandmother’s family, from the 1720’s to the present(1880’s) So in that line there’s a lot of info, with documentation. But the stories only start with my grandmother’s own grandfather. He was a Union soldier, and interned at the notorious Andersonville prison camp. He lived through it, but told his granddaughter(my grandmother) how he had regular bouts of stomach problems the rest of his life, from bad food and water, and from kicks from the guards. One great-grandfather was an immigrant from Germany, he stowed away to get to the States, as he was about to be drafted into Bismarck’s armies. My maternal grandfather(another line) spoke some English before going to school, but got in trouble with his mother when he repeated to her something his schoolfriends told him to say. She washed his mouth out with soap, whatever it was, and we never even learned the word! My maternal grandmother is full of stories, so we have a lot from her. I own a cane that belonged to her father, and even used it once when I sprained my ankle. Mom says he was blind the last couple of years of his life, when he lived with her family, and she remembers the cane tapping down the path to the outhouse.
I have a line of family traced to about the year 900, but only have a few personal stories from the mid-to-late 1800’s. I do have some artifacts- antique doll clothes made in 1875 to 1890 by a g and gg grandmother.
I have an appointment today (in about two hours) to pick up an antique family bible that may have some other information stuck in its pages.
That is amazing!
I’m impressed by that also.
Looking back that far, there is very little actual information- usually just a name, birth year and place of birth. Frequently, there is no female name, - just a line of men’s names.