There is so much written out there about how many times family stories aren’t true. Especially with the advent of DNA testing, it’s easier than ever to prove or disprove long-held family beliefs. I had an interesting experience recently, however, that I would like to share. There is value to talking with older relatives and listening to those family stories because sometimes there is truth to them.
Our family stories can sometimes lead us to discover something completely unrelated about our heritage. Occasionally, we be able to find out whether the story was true, or whether it was fabricated. If we are lucky, we might be able to learn what inspired the story. And sometimes, we learn something really, really sad, which is what I learned during my exploration of a story I was told about a year ago.
Talk to your oldest relatives to learn what they remember about family history
I’ve been spending a lot of time lately researching my great-great-great grandfather. His father’s name was Anton Reitz, who was born in Germany about 1844. About a year ago, I was able to speak with an elderly cousin who is Anton Reitz’ great-grandson. My elderly cousin is one of my late grandmother’s oldest first cousins, and while he never met Anton Reitz, he did know Anton’s youngest son.
Anton’s youngest son, Charles, never met his father because he died before he was born, but he did remember stories that he was told about him growing up. And I was grateful that Charles told his grandson some of those stories, and his grandson, Richard, was able to relay those to me.
Imagine, a family story passed down from the 1880s and being repeated in 2018! It’s a family story more 130 years old, which to me is incredible – true or not.
Make sure you take notes when older relatives tell you stories
My biggest regret when I spoke with my cousin was that I didn’t have anything to write with. No pencil, no paper, not even a stick of eyeliner to scrawl down a name or a date. I tried as hard as I could to remember everything that he told me. There is one particular bit of information that he gave to me that I thought was interesting.
Richard relayed to me that Anton was married when he left Germany and that he had had a family there. I’m not sure exactly what Anton said to Charles, but I do know that Richard’s dad and maybe even Richard put their own spin on the story. Maybe they added more details to make it make sense, or make it mean what they wanted it to mean.
Basically, the family belief was that Anton had left his wife and children behind in Germany and had come to the United States by himself, and that we had cousins – descended from Anton – who were living in Germany, perhaps living today. Even by today’s standards, it’s kind of scandalous to imagine that my great-great-great grandfather abandoned his wife and kids in Germany and left them to fend for themselves. And then, believing that he just remarried here and had a brand-new family, forgetting his old life completely.
An old family story might only have an element of truth to it
The story that I told you above would absolutely be scandalous, if it were true. And if it were true, or if I believed it to be true, it could send me on a wild goose chase searching for the descendants of my great-great-great grandfather, Anton Reitz, who might still live in Germany. Anton’s German-born great-grandchildren, if they existed, would be my parent’s second cousins once-removed.
And by the way, I know that life is complicated, and that if Anton Reitz had left his family back in Germany, he might have felt that he had a good reason to do so. I know that even today some people leave their home countries with the best intentions and end up living lives that are different than what they imagined they might be. Maybe they plan to send money home and eventually bring their family along with them?
But… he didn’t abandon his family. In fact, he brought his family with him to the United States. Anton Reitz, his wife, and two daughters, traveled together to the United States and arrived in 1872.
Look for small clues that might verify or contradict your family story
When I heard the story about Anton Reitz and his “first” family, I regarded it as an interesting story that was likely untrue. I had already built my family tree on this line and I felt like it was pretty complete. I had not seen any evidence of any descendants of Anton’s supposed first marriage, nor had I found any records or documents pertaining to it.
When Ancestry DNA did their recent ethnicity estimate update, however, I was intrigued by some of the changes and it led me to take a fresh look at my tree. It’s clear that I have a fairly recent ancestor from Scandinavia, and I began to wonder if perhaps it was through Anton Reitz’ line that this ancestry came into my DNA.
Of course, I didn’t learn what I actually set out to learn, but I did learn something interesting about the family story that Richard told me.
There were two clues about Anton that gave me pause and caused me to look into whether or not he really did have a family before he married Charles’ mother:
- Anton was about 38 years old when he died a few months before Charles was born. By 1880 standards, that’s old to be just starting a family! I don’t really know for sure, but it seems likely that most men would have married well before their late 30’s.
- On the 1880 census (before Charles was born), Charles’ mother, who had already been widowed twice, is listed as living with Anton and several other children. The kids all have different last names, but there was a girl listed by the last name of Reitz who was born when Charles’ mother would have been married to someone else (i.e. not Anton Reitz). It didn’t make sense to me at the time, but I assumed that maybe it was a mistake.
By checking into the daughter who was listed on the census as being born in Germany (clue!), I learned the truth of the situation. I was able to locate a passenger list that showed Anton, a wife, and two daughters leaving Bremen, Germany and arriving in New York City. The youngest daughter’s age and name was a perfect match to the daughter who was listed on the 1880 census as living with Anton. It made perfect sense to me, now that I realized that this daughter was Anton’s daughter that he brought to the marriage with my great-great-great grandmother.
Some family stories have sad endings
I had figured out that the family story did have some truth to it. Yes, Anton had been married in Germany, but he had not abandoned his family like his descendants believed. I had to figure out what happened to his first wife and their daughters.
First, I continued my search into what happened to the girl listed in the 1880 census. Sadly, she passed away when she was only 17 years old. Her youngest half-brother, Charles, was barely five years old. Maybe she had been sick for a while and he didn’t remember her, which could explain why Charles never mentioned anything about her to his grandson, Richard.
Once I learned about her fate, I thought I would see if I could find out what happened to her mother and oldest sister. Unfortunately, I found death records for them, too. The whole family crossed the Atlantic together in search of the American dream. Anton Reitz first lost his daughter, then his first wife. He married, started a new family and brought his last remaining child along, only to die himself a few years later.
And his daughter, the one born in Germany, saw her whole family pass away, and died, too, before she even reached adulthood and could start a family of her own.
While I am glad that I now know the truth about this story, the tragic ending did make me long for time when I thought it was possible that we did have cousins somewhere in Germany that might be wondering whether they have American cousins searching for them.
I hope that my story inspires you to talk to some of your older family members to see what you might learn, and helped give you ideas about how to look for clues about the accuracy of family legends – plus, what you might learn instead.
Do you have old family stories or legends? Have you been able to figure out whether they were true or not? I’d love to hear from you in the discussion below.
Thanks for stopping by today!