Thursday, July 31, 2008
The one think that makes for a love/hate relationship when researching ancestors is a legend. Every family has legends that surface every time there is a reunion. Sometimes legends have more than one protagonist, several antagonists, and several sub-plots and plot twists.
One such legend that always surfaces among the Goffs is, "When the pilgrims were landing on the Mayflower, the Goffs were already here." This is probably true, but proving it is another matter. Since nobody has actually documented the parentage of my ggg-grandfather, Richard Goff, it is pretty hard to document how we get back to the Jamestown Settlement from here.
Another such legend is that of my gg-grandmother, Martha Webb. Martha was born to Willis and Margaret Webb (nee Stewart) in 1845. My great-grandfather, John "Spoony" Webb, was born in 1865. There are all sorts of tales about how Margaret Webb hid her children away inside of caves so that the Yankees wouldn't shoot her boys or rape her daughters. The east Tennessee hills must have been a horrible place during the war, particularly since the volunteer state was the first to fall to the Yankee juggernaut. However, legend has it that Martha was raped by a soldier boy of Cherokee descent who had worked for her father as a farm laborer prior to the war. After his treacherous deed, the boy went off to war, and did not return to make an honest woman out of Miss Martha. Consequently, the legend says that Martha willed herself to die after her son was born, leaving John "Spoony" to be reared by her parents.
Now, none of this story can be documented. Even though it is the story that has been told since 1865! We know the Civil War ended in 1865. John "Spoony" was born in May of that year. It is possible that his father went off to enlist. It is also possible that such a story was invented so as to disguise the promiscuity of Miss Martha. The only thing we can know for certain, is that Martha died and is interred in Carpenter's Cemetery outside of Glenmary, Tennessee, resting quietly next to her parents. Her tombstone displays only her name, Martha Webb, and the word "daughter."
Legends have no place in serious genealogy, unless, of course, they can be proven by documentation. Legends, however, are the very things that make family history exciting. They give poignancy to otherwise very ordinary existences. History is written by scolars while ordinary everyday people are making it every single day. We need the legends and the oral histories of our parents and grandparents, because we need to know the people who made the way for us. It would just be a whole lot better if they could be easily proven.