Much of my family history has links to the canal so I was looking forward to the lecture by Robert Arnold, New York State Museum senior historian; Myth and History: Distilling the Truth. He didn't disappoint me when he began his talk with his own family story of how his grandparents met on the canal. In his family, the story is told that his grandmother was standing at the edge of the canal, got knocked in and was fished out by his grandfather. Is this the way history happened or a good family yarn? He's not sure.
He went on to define myths as treasured stories that are hard to let go of. He then debunked the following four myths that are still widely held.
- The first colonists believed in freedom of religion.
- Militia sharp shooters lined up behind trees and thus outsmarted the British to win the Revolutionary War.
- The South had all of the slaves and the North wanted to free them.
- The Irish built the Erie Canal.
He then moved on to a personal myth, one of his own making! His family was from DeRuyter, NY and he found an Arnold Rd on a map. After having to ask for directions he found an abandoned road. On traveling the road he found a likely spot for a homestead and could see his ancestors living in such an idyllic spot. He had visions of getting permission to return and do some archeology with other members of his family to find the exact spot of the old home. When he actually checked old tax records he learned that Arnold Rd. was named for another family. His family had lived right in town. His lesson, "Don't think things are facts just because you want them to be."
He had a warning about the local histories written in the late 1880's that we are all so fond of. Most were written based on subscriptions so if your ancestor's didn't pay, they weren't included. If they were included you need to be aware that they provided the information that was published. Anything that they thought shameful or embarrassing would have been left out. Conversely they may have added an embellishment or two. The family papers I have on Hannah Glover Carlisle are written almost word for word like what I transcribed from one of these history books and now I know why!
I was beginning to think that our written and oral family histories weren't worth much after all! Not at all. He encouraged us to write it down now, as memories tend to fade. Get your relatives to record their memories now and compare notes. You may be surprised at how six different people will have slightly different memories of the same event. Next he spoke about a diary kept by one of his ancestors. It contained mostly the minutia of day to day life. But he was able to verify and learn from it. If there was an entry such as "Charles went to lodge meeting," he was able to look at old newspapers for that date and see that the Oddfellows had a meeting. He also told of interviewing an elderly Aunt who he said was right on about 80% of the time. She was able to corroborate some of what was in the diary. He's not buying the story that oxen dragged the yule log into the house.
Some other great points:
"Most myths have a grain of truth." I've found this over and over again in researching my family history.
"Be skeptical of your sources." Record your family myths - as myths. Then research them.
"All history is local." If you read that your family owned the first car in town, that's great but what does it really mean? You need to understand your family's place in history. Having the first car represents change. "We are embedded in our technology." How did all of the changes affect not only your ancestors but the community as a whole? How did changes to the community affect your family?
Mr. Arnold left us with this final thought: "A pedigree chart is just the skeleton. History is the flesh."