Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Capricious Credibility of Oral History

Let me begin by saying I love oral history. It is one of the first things that interested me in my family history and genealogy. I was never one those children who groan and seek escape when a grown-up would intone, “When I was your age…” Instead, I would sit in rapt attention, eager to hear what would follow. The stories helped me to understand the speaker as a person, to realize that he had once been as young and ignorant as I. My family’s stories became my stories, wrapping themselves around my heart and subtly guiding me in my own life.

And, of course, there were those evanescent stories of people long dead, whom I had never met. These stories were wonders, enveloping dusty bones with living flesh and blood. People who had died even before my parents were born became known to me. I learned to love them almost as well as I loved those whom I had really met.

Of course, it helped that I had some talented storytellers in my family—and ones who loved to reminisce. But as my study of genealogy became more serious, and I myself grew older and more discerning, I began to realize that only some of the “facts” recalled really were quite reliable, but others were often speculation or wishful thinking cemented into belief through the years.

It is interesting to look at different branches of the family and see how the oral tradition has affected my genealogical research. For instance, my great-aunt Elsie CROCKER had an amazingly accurate memory, and the foresight to type out a memoir of her childhood. She wrote of her parents’ families back in England, so that despite the relatively common surnames of UNDERWOOD and AMOS, it was a simple task to find the correct families in the census records: all I had to do was find the family in the right area with the right children. Though she made occasional mistakes, I am often astounded by her accuracy. For instance, in a 1999 conversation, when Elsie was almost 92 years old, she told me that her parents and older brother came to America on a ship called the Mayflower (not the famous one), which left England 6 May 1903 and arrived in Boston 20 May 1903. When I found the ship’s manifest, it turned out that the ship was indeed called the Mayflower, and it departed from Liverpool, England on 7 May 1903 and arrived in Boston 16 May 1903. I only hope that when I am in my nineties I can remember the date (within four days) of an event that happened before my birth!

Ship manifest of the Mayflower, 1903
The BROSIUS ancestors, by contrast, are much harder to trace, due partly to the inaccuracy of the oral tradition. The sons of John S. BROSIUS, or at least some of them, believed that their father had come from a town called Sedan in the Alsace-Lorraine region of France, and given the name of his hometown to the town of Sedan, Kansas. While it is true that Sedan, Kansas is supposedly named after Sedan, France, and it is possible, and even probable, that the BROSIUS family originated in the Alsace-Lorraine, John S. BROSIUS was born in Crawford County, Pennsylvania, and had probably never even visited France. According to the 1860 census of the United States, his father, Adam BROCIUS, was also born in Pennsylvania. I have thus far been unable to trace the BROSIUS family prior to their appearance in Crawford County.

Perhaps my favorite exaggeration, however, is the BROSIUS boys belief that their maternal grandmother, Angelina (EVANS) WADE, was an American Indian. The idea, as far as I can tell, seems to derive solely from her habit of sitting under a tree and smoking a pipe after dinner!

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