Wednesday, April 24, 2013

My Grandma was a Cherokee Princess and Einstein Hated Cell Phones

One of my favorite posts on Facebook that crops up every once in a while is a photo of Abraham Lincoln and a quote:

Honest Abe is right, no doubt about it. But it's clear that he didn't say that. Right away you know it's a joke.

The problem of believing the  written or  spoken word  has long been an issue for humans. Consider another quote making the way around social media websites attributed to  Albert Einstein.

"I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots."

Now, this quote sometimes accompanies a photo of Einstein, sometimes it is attached to an image that features people with their zombie-like stares on their cell phones. Did Einstein hate technology? Did he fear for the future? Who knows, but there's a problem with this quote.

Einstein didn't say that.

According to the blogger at the Quote Investigator, this quote does not appear in the work, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, edited by Alice Calaprice. Variations of this quote  have been in circulation for years but none of them seem to  be the words of Einstein.

So how is it that I see that quote about once a week or more, in English and Spanish, on Facebook?
Well it's like those forwarded emails you get. Where someone makes a statement about the President, or a certain group of people, or whatever and then sends it to their  friends and family. And then that person forwards it. As that vintage shampoo commercial said "and so on and so on and so on..."

And if you forward it enough it starts to seem like it's true, afterall it's all over the Internet.

Now this is where the genealogy comes in

Family stories are a lot like that. If your grandmother tells you a story consistently over her life about her grandmother, is it true? Are you related to Cherokee princesses or someone that rode with Jesse James or descended from George Washington?

Now I'm not calling grandma a liar. We hear things, people reinterpret them and tell them and pretty soon it's like that childhood game of telephone. In some cases, stories might be told to explain something we have no explanation for. Grandma must have been Native American because she had darker skin then the rest of us or we have the same surname as this famous person and my dad looks like that person so it must be true. Sometimes stories may have a sliver of truth but were "enhanced" for the sake of telling a better story. And then there's stories that grandma was telling to pull your leg but you never knew that. (I still love the fact that my maternal grandmother told one of my cousins that if he ate a watermelon seed it would grow in his stomach.)

One of the great things I get to do every month is lead a discussion for the National Institute for Genealogical Studies on an article written by Connie Lenzen, CGRS entitled, Heritage Books and Family Lore: A Jackson Test in Missouri and Idaho from the NGS Quarterly, March 1998.

In this article Connie is researching family stories, specifically those that we find in heritage books but this could include those that are told to us. Connie provides steps to determining the validity of a family story.  These steps are:

  • Consider the Source
  • Determine the Probability that the Event Occurred
  • Place Individuals in Time and Location
  • Thoroughly Comb Extant Records 
These steps help us to ascertain the probability of a story even before we begin any serious research. If you are told your grandfather rode with Jesse James but he was an infant when James was robbing banks, then that story is not true. There's no reason to continue the research.

Genealogically, we have numerous sources to help us determine probability including maps and gazetteers,  newspapers, and histories. We then can go on to extant sources, those sources that still exist, such as government records, church records, newspapers, and manuscripts.

While it can be flattering and easier to just repeat the stories that you have read or heard, take some time to check them out. Otherwise in two generations those stories will morph into something like "My Cherokee Princess grandmother hated cell phone just like Einstein."


Is there a way to tell whether those forwarded emails that are true? Yes, Snopes is one source you can use to search out urban legends and follow the trail to how they developed. 


Rob said...

Thanks for pointing out what should be obvious, Gena.

I have to laugh when people bring up Cherokee Princesses. Native tribes have Chiefs, Elders and leaders, not Kings and Queens. Therefore, no Princesses.

Unless your Native ancestor descends from royalty on Hawaii, please stop passing on this story. It's just silly.

Mariann Regan said...

Families do love their stories, whether true or not. To the family, it can be almost irrelevant whether the truth checks out.

When I was researching for my family memoir book, everyone told me a different version of the time a sharecropper tenant tried to assassinate my grandfather with a shotgun. There were wildly differing versions: year, who was there, what happened next . . . everyone clung to their own version.

Finally, we found a newspaper report on the shooting, complete with lots of details. That didn't settle the issue at all, though.

One cousin expressed the group sentiment: "Hmph. You can't believe everything you read in the papers."

Gena Philibert-Ortega said...


Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Those family legends die hard and I think the Cherokee Princess one is one of the classics.


Gena Philibert-Ortega said...


That's a great story! I know I've had similar interactions with family including one where the story made absolutely no sense but they then decided not to tell me anything more because I wouldn't believe it anyway.

Thanks for sharing that. I appreciate it.


Anonymous said...

While growing up I was told I had a grandmother who ran off with an Indian Chief, that one of my grandfathers was Lew Wallace, that I was descended from Chester A. get the idea! All because the surnames matched. Well, since I started searching my genealogy, I have, like so many others I'm sure, discovered that I'm either not descended from the famous person or they were so far down an allied line that it wouldn't have mattered! So, the search continues. Thanks!

Gena Philibert-Ortega said...

I think we all have those stories. And it's easy to assume the same surname means that you're related but after you do years of research you really start understanding how people who share a surname in the same physical area are not always related.

My favorite interaction was with someone who thought they were related to a famous person because they shared the Smith surname :)

Thanks for commenting!