Our Oral History

When I was a kid my Mom told me to “believe nothing of what you hear and only half of what you see.” (I always thought she was so witty. Then I learned she was simply quoting Ben Franklin.) If she said it once, she said it a thousand times. Over the course of my life, I’ve realized just how right Mom was.

Nowhere is this more apparent than when I started working on my family history. All of my research into the various branches of my family tree started with a bit of oral history – a story I remembered hearing as a child from my parents or grandparents, or one I learned later in life as I “interviewed” my mother and her siblings about what they remembered about our ancestors.

It turns out that, while oral history is often the best starting point for researching your ancestors, the stories are often filled with misconceptions – and sometimes – outright lies. I know that it’s unavoidable. As the stories get passed down over the generations, the storytellers get something a little wrong, or we try to fill in the blanks even if we are not quite sure of the truth. Sometimes an ancestor is motivated to insert a lie into the story, as Rose’s children did when Rose was abandoned to the Asylum. The result of all this is that, like a game of “telephone”, the version of the story told many decades later is often nothing like the truth. There are invaluable kernels of truth and I think it’s important to preserve and share our stories. But, in the end, oral history is really just hearsay.

A perfect example of this lies in some papers written by my grandmother, Kathryn Hinman Merry. Nana was a great storyteller and was interested in her genealogy. It was my Nana who shared all these stories with me when I was a child. At one point in her life, Nana documented what she knew about her relatives. She dedicated a page to “Alice Violet Merry’s Parents”.

Kathryn Hinman Merry’s notes on Alice Merry’s parents

The following is a transcription of Nana’s notes.

Looking at Nana’s notes, you see some interesting history of our family. The problem is that not all of it is true. Rosetta was born in London (in 1854). But her parents were NOT jewelers. David Silverstein was a shoemaker and Dinah Solomon was a tailoress. Rose did die “insane” in Hamilton, but not until 1934. James could not possibly have been educated as a Stationary Engineer in England. He was only 14 years old when his family immigrated to Canada – where he initially trained in the blacksmith trade. It wasn’t until later in his life that he became a stationary engineer for the Hamilton Cotton Company. James’ sister Jane did live in Dundas, but she died in 1894, a year after her only (adopted) child also died. There was NO family left in Canada after 1902, except Rosetta Silverstein Fielding, who spent 32 years in the Hamilton Asylum for the Insane until her death in 1934.

Now, I am incredibly grateful to have Nana’s notes about our family. I also possess written and oral family histories from my grandfather, my uncle, and my father-in-law. These stories are treasures to me. I believe that this oral tradition is important to keep and to share. But, as I research and share our family stories, I keep Mom’s advice in my head. “Believe nothing of what you hear and only half of what you see.”

I fancy myself a bit of a Family Story Myth Buster. My favorite part of genealogy is finding a family story that got twisted over the years and doing the research to set the record straight. It explains my obsession with finding out what really happened to Rose. The paper trail left by our ancestors is amazing. There are ways to document their lives. When this documentary evidence gets added to the oral history, it reveals a story that is much closer to the truth of what happened.

I plan to use this site to share many of the stories I’ve gathered over the past decade. Most of the stories will include my research. But I also plan on sharing bits of our “history” that come in the form of letters, tapes, and interviews from members of our family tree. We have a rich oral tradition in our family and I don’t want these stories to be lost to our future generations. These stories contain a lot of truth, but remember to bring your grain of salt along for the reading. I hope the next young genealogist in our family will find them helpful in providing clues to their research.

One comment

  1. What a difference it makes to have the handwritten notes transcribed for our reading pleasure. THank you for doing that. It makes a difference! It certainly was a lot of work.

    Like

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