When the truth isn’t simple: Genealogical Falsehoods

I never knew any of my grandparents.  I was born after they died.  They weren’t around to teach or bestow gifts and affection.  But teach they did.  One thing I learned from my grandfather was you can’t take anyone at face value.  He was the first to “do” genealogy in the family of whom I’m aware.  This was the 50s and 60s, so pre-internet but with access to that greatest resource of all — older living relatives.

But what do you do when paperwork doesn’t match the history?

My grandfather (and a host of other relatives) swore that his father was Thomas Monroe Holley and his grandparents were John Pinkney Holley and Ann Carolina Rich.  In fact, there’s a tombstone testifying to this fact:

020Trouble is, the paperwork supports none of it.  His grandfather’s name was John, but that’s about all to be sure of.

As you can see, Thomas was the son of John G and Nancy D Holley.  So what is the origin of John Pinkney and Ann Carolina?  I don’t really know for sure.  Most census records list him as John and the others use a clearly defined “G.”  The only thing I can think of is the youngest son is named, you guessed it, John Pinkney Holley.  I think the assumption was like father, like son.  And it stuck.  None of these relatives my grandfather spoke to are currently alive and weren’t when I was born thirty-one years ago.

I was raised to believe that if something wasn’t the truth, it was a lie.  I guess that was to instill some sort of right from wrong mentality.  Liar has such a negative connotation.  But when I grew up, I realized it wasn’t that simple.  There are so many motivations here, from bad memory to a real honest-to-goodness coverup.  Records weren’t great and common names passed down made for a great deal of confusion.  Was my grandfather a liar?  I’ll say no, but he was wrong.  Genealogists just starting out want to take every close relative at their word, but they can’t.  Not because the relatives are evil liars, but because they are but human.  We all make mistakes.

Question everything.  Accept nothing.  Prove everything.


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