Do you have a family legend in your family history? Chances are that you do, whether you know it or not. Family legends are not necessarily a bad thing. Family storytelling can strengthen individuals and families. They remind us of our heritage and can give us a sense of identity. However, oral histories have a way of changing over time. They are also often rooted in truth. Therefore, when researching a family legend, start with what is “known” and attempt to verify those facts or uncover the real truth. Sometimes the facts may be less glamorous than the family legend. In other cases, “truth is stranger than fiction.” Here is a simple example of researching a family legend that I recently researched.
We have a story in our family that I have heard many times over. The story is simple enough. The older brother of my great-grandfather was named for the 2 Mormon missionaries who baptized the family in Kentucky in 1896. More specifically, my great-great-grandparents, Lackey and Artie Branham were taught by an Elder Judson and an Elder Tolman. In 1896, one month after Lackey joined the Mormon faith, they had a son named Judson Tolman Branham.
- Lackey Branham was baptized March 1896.
- Judston Tolman Branham was born April 1896
- Artie (Mullins) Branham was baptized June 1896 (probably waited due to her advanced pregnancy)
Early Mormon Missionary Database
Judson Isaac Tolman
Judson Isaac Tolman was born in Tooele, Utah in 1870, but relocated to Idaho in 1881. In 1895, at the age of 25, he was called to a 3-year mission in the Southern States Mission. This placed him in the correct place at the correct time. I was reasonably sure for this alone (and the uncommon name), that this was the missionary that baptized my great-great grandparents. This family legend was proving to be “mostly true.”
Next, however, I went to the FamilySearch Family Tree to learn more about Judson Isaac Tolman. There is actually a link from the missionary page to his or her record in FamilySearch. Here I found a goldmine of information attached in the sources and the Memories. For example, Judson I. Tolman wrote a memoir or brief autobiography of his life.
Here is an excerpt from Judson I. Tolman’s autobiography that talks of this time period of his mission (1895-1896):
Late in October, Elder Cluff and I were notified to go south about 75 miles to meet with other missionaries in a conference, and at the close of the conference we were assigned by our Mission President, Brother Kimball, to go to Kentucky as the West Virginia District was assigned to another mission. We went to the designated place, and I was assigned to labor in the East Kentucky District, presided over by Elder Rydalch, and was given as my companion, Elder Langston of Washington County, Utah, a very backward man of slow speech, but very friendly and congenial.
The Branham family was living in Prestonsburg, Kentucky less than 50 miles from Elliott County. There were other details that were corroborated by looking through this man’s historical documents.
Debunking the Family Legend
In this case, the family legend was mostly true. Debunking the legend turned out to be an incredibly fun and enriching experience. I was able to learn a great deal about Judson I. Tolman, who was very influential in the lives of my great-great-grandparents.
However, sometimes debunking a family legend can be a little more disappointing. Finding out you don’t have a Cherokee indian ancestor, or learning that a family member was a deserter and not the war hero family lore says he was can be a very painful experience. Remember to document your research well. After all, the lack of documentation is how family legends are propagated in the first place!
Share a family legend you have been able to prove or disprove in your research!