The Tree Tip # 5: Fanciful Stories and Darker Truths – Sorting Out Family Lore


February 26, 2012 by LeVoyageur

In family lore we find a source, the usefulness of which is often in the amorphous nature of its content. Unreliable, even if sometimes undeniable, stories handed down from generation to generation serve as one of the few remaining examples of ‘oral tradition’ found in modern societies. Stories framing particular ancestors or family lines in particular ways can have a potency about them with a startling, inebriating effect. Certain stories are so often repeated, we know they must be true. And whether or not they are actually true, doesn’t really matter. Sometimes we would rather know the tradition than the facts.

In the sense that family lore binds us together more tightly as a family, we can all appreciate the winks and nods that come along with the same old tales heard every holiday. Part of the beauty of family is in the stories we tell, the traditions we keep, and the memorable personalities who often keep alive the distant memories and remarkable tales.

There is nothing inherently wrong with lore; but it cannot be denied that lore is sometimes wrong. Often, in fact. From the perspective of a family researcher, the task when confronted with lore, conflicting accounts, and suspicious characters is to sort out fact from fiction. Whether or not we choose to correct everyone else as to the truth of a certain matter is up to us – it may prove unpopular to be the kill-joy who has determined beyond a shadow of a doubt that g-g-grandpa Joe was in fact not Kit Carson’s Cheyenne interpreter. Some legends must remain.

As an example of how lore and fanciful stories can prove both frustrating and fruitful, I offer a story from my family history that has long formed part of the background of my own research.  Beginning when I was a teenager interviewing my grandmother and her sisters, my great-aunts, I came upon a ‘dead-end’ line. One set of great-great grandparents offered no clues to their backgrounds. To complicate matters well into the age of databases, g-g-grandmother Roselba died in her second childbirth, meaning that the line continuing with g-grandmother Mary was unique. G-g-grandfather was named James Peltier, a common name in 19th century Michigan where he was said to have originated from.

G-g-grandmother Roselba, I was told, died in London, Ontario. Her ‘maiden name’ was Souvia and she came from royalty! That is all anyone could ever tell me. She would have died nearly 30 years before any of my great-aunts were born, when their mother Mary was a baby herself, so it is not surprising that the information they had would have been sketchy. Other details about the extended family of g-grandmother Mary were also sketchy, with just one aunt making it into my records, also by the name of Mary, along with her husband Ben Zumbuch.

Fast forward to the digital era.  Although I continued to do family research, I had largely stopped researching this line, frustrated by the elusive records. However, my sister became interested and began asking me questions about Roselba specifically and I reentered this line of research hoping to come up with something. I rehashed old stories and in my research found a record that, while it didn’t have the right names, kept coming up and kept saying to me – ‘you’re on to something here.’

That record was the marriage registry of one James Peltier of Connors Creek, Michigan, and one Rose Monarque of London, Ontario. Monarque? That’s an awfully strange coincidence when the family lore says Roselba was royalty.  I saved that record and continued on. The registry contained the names of James’ parents and his hometown, which proved helpful later.

Remembering my hand-drawn family charts from 30 years ago, I recalled the names Ben and Mary Zumbuch, with Mary Zumbuch being an aunt of g-grandmother Mary. This hint proved to be most useful, as it was this relationship that in the end proved to tie everything together. In finding a 1900 Michigan census listing g-grandmother Mary and her father James Peltier as living with aunt/sister/brother-in-law Ben and Mary Zumbuch, and then finding the marriage registry of Ben and Mary (Peltier) Zumbuch, I was able to confirm family relationships that led me back to the marriage registry of James Peltier and Rose Monarque.

Further details crystallized as well and the vague memories of my elderly aunts and grandmother came into focus through the prism of modern technology. Richard Peltier, said to be the name of James Peltier’s father, was instead an older brother, appearing repeatedly in family records. But what of the name Souvia? A name like that doesn’t just appear in the memories of several people without cause. In her own research, my sister discovered the answer to this. Through another set of databases she found a sister to Rose Monarque, based on census and church records, to have married a man by the name of Souvia.

In the end, a generation of ladies (my great-aunts) who never knew their grandmother, instead knew of her sister who had the name Souvia. In their minds, it is clear, that name became their grandmother’s maiden name. How the idea of royalty became part of the family lore, I cannot say, other than to point to Roselba’s surname Monarque. Perhaps g-g-grandfather James Peltier liked to embellish the past. It is possible he simply longed for his wife who died so young and imagined her as a princess in his heart, passing that idea down to his only child and grandchildren.

This bit of family lore contained a kernel of truth that helped direct me to concrete information. It also, possibly, contains elements of a story that was all too real for a young husband and his small daughter to bear. There can be many reasons why we choose to tell, and believe, nice, fanciful stories rather than remind ourselves of less than happy truths. I bear this in mind when I encounter other stories that may contain truths as dark as they are sad.

In sorting out family lore, there is great opportunity to discover answers to genealogical mysteries. There is also, it must be said, a chance to respect with some stories a sort of ‘statute of limitations’. It raises the question of ‘how soon is too soon’ to reveal the truth behind a particular matter. As with family lore itself, a little common sense can go a very long way in determining your way forward.

3 thoughts on “The Tree Tip # 5: Fanciful Stories and Darker Truths – Sorting Out Family Lore

  1. Sheryl says:

    Thanks for the wonderful post. I had never thought about it before–but you’re right. Much of family history is really an oral history that binds families together.

  2. James LaForest says:

    Thank you Sheryl. Every family has so many ‘stories!’ Thank you for reading and commenting.


  3. rosewater12 says:

    You have nearly awakened an interest in me to research my family. The Clemens’ clan, of Mennonite origins, had its moment of grandeur crossing the Atlantic bravely. Then called Moravians, John Calvin remarked on their faith and courage. They were from Switzerland and I feel a mindless bond to the Alps.
    However, after they arrived in the New World, they seemed to lose whatever panache they had. They ran to Canada to escape the War of 1812 and returned to the USA to become faceless, quiet, non-entities, content to be the Plain People of society and to just keep out of trouble.
    I dont find us interesting.

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