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Oral family history can be lost in three generations

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Aaron Holt, archives technician at the National Archives Fort Worth, said it is not unusual for genealogists today to have conflicting stories about an ancestor if oral history was not passed down in a deliberate way through the generations.

“I tell people all the time that it only takes three generations to lose a piece of oral family history,” Holt said. “It must be purposely and accurately repeated over and over again through the generations to be preserved for a genealogist today.”

If that piece of oral history is about an ancestor’s death, Holt said the chance of the truth being lost is even greater.

“For example, if a parent died three generations ago, the person to most accurately pass on the correct information about the death would be the surviving parent, who would tell the children. If the children are young when their parent died, they will not have accurate information unless the living parent repeatedly and accurately tells the children the story until it is engrained in them.

When they become adults, they must do the same thing for their children. If none of this is ever written down, it is increasingly difficult to get the story right through the generations.”

Holt said that in generations past, people did not talk about death and that makes it more difficult for a genealogist to sort out fact from fiction today.

“Until not too long ago, people didn’t talk about death, especially to their children,” Holt said. “There was a superstition that if you talked about it, you were calling it, and no one wanted to do that.”

Case in point: This writer grew up being told that a great-great grandfather disappeared during the time of the Civil War and was never seen again. There were three different theories about how he died, but no proof for any of them. His wife was left with eight children. His wife died in 1911 and is buried alone, but her husband’s information is engraved on the tombstone with what was assumed to be the date of his disappearance.

This writer’s father was told the same thing by his father, who was the grandson of the ancestor who died. A death record recently surfaced for this great-great grandfather. This record has this ancestor’s death on March 31, 1864, location of death, list of people in the room at the time of death, and where the ancestor would be buried. The ancestor’s wife was by his side at the time of his death and had all the right information. Why was this information lost by the time grandchildren came along two generations later?

The children left behind when this ancestor died ranged in age from newborn to 14. If their mother, who was now widowed, did not spend a lot time making sure the children got the right information about their father’s death, they could not pass it down even one more generation. This is clearly what happened.

Being a single mother raising eight children on the South Texas frontier was a higher priority than passing on oral history. The real story would have never been found had the record not finally surfaced in an online database 149 years later.

It is important for genealogists to remember that family stories are just that, stories. They are not facts unless there is strong oral history or a document to back them up.

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