Monday, March 29, 2010

Lessons from Genealogy, #2-#4

Union Cavalry capture Confederate artilleryImage via Wikipedia

#2. Family myths are often just that.

My grandparents on my mother's side always bragged about their Confederate war heroes. I never found any. I found one guy who started his own cavalry unit, then fell off his horse and died during a parade--before they ever left home. Lots of slave owners--nothing to brag about there--but no heroes.

For the longest time, the most interesting people I'd found on her side were these wonderful old lesbians who ran a farm together deep in the Virginia countryside in the 1800s. Sometimes truth is better than fiction.

My dad's dad always bragged about his Revolutionary war ancestors and how they got all these gobs of land for their service. The only one I found was a supplier, never a troop. And he did get land, but it was land confiscated from his Royalist neighbors.

#3. Sometimes family myths are truer than you might think.
Mom's mom always told us grandkids we were descended from French kings. We used to joke that, more likely, we were related through palace concubinage.

Once when I was a kid my Dad drove me through some little eye-blink of a town in Appalachia in the wee hours of the morning and pointed to this crumbling, dark, old house and said, "That is where your Grandmother is from!" And sure enough, initially all I found was some runaway Huguenots. French? Sure. Royalty? Not hardly. And over on the fringes, I found a couple of poor Portuguese who came here because there was nothing for them in Portugal. So I thought, well, that is that. No French kings. She made it all up.

In the South, back in the 1800s, "tracing"--and they used that word loosely--your lineage was a Big Thing. Most families, outside of Virginia, were dirt poor and always had been. Most people saw Southerners as backward and indolent. So it was nice to be able to say, 'Oh, our family descends from Charlemagne'. This had a little extra punch when everybody was all into chivalry and reading too many Waverly novels. It was such a big thing that there are books still in print on family lines that are "guaranteed" to trace back to Charlemagne. I had pretty much written my grandmother's fairy tales off to that sort of thing.

But to my amazement, I eventually found that one line of her family indeed does lead straight back not to French royalty, per se, but through a bunch of English royalty back to a pretty impressive line of Normans and Poitevins. . . all the way to Charlemagne himself.

I wish she were alive to see it.

#4. Sometimes there are complete and total surprises.

Dad's mom never talked about her ancestry. Her dad was illegitimate, a matter of considerable shame at the time, and she grew up poor. Yet that's where the Confederate heroes were--her paternal grandfather and her great uncles fought in that war from its start to its finish.

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1 comment:

Mo said...

When I was a kid we were often told interesting things by my Gramma Nellie. I think they were all lies too. She was an intertaining old Irish Gal!