Stories of Our Ancestors – The Lures of Genealogical Research

May 24, 2022 Others

Knowing the stories of our ancestors makes them come vividly to life for us. Isn’t this one of the greatest lures of genealogical research? They tug at our imagination and inspire our admiration: for without their unbelievable courage, we would not be who we are. We all have them: stories handed down in our families of interesting, eccentric, tragic, even infamous relatives. But how many of these stories stand up to the scrutiny of genealogical research? Among my own friends in the genealogy world, certainly less than half prove to be true. Oh, but those that do…

Three years ago, I received a brief family history from a distant McMillan cousin – six handwritten pages covering over one hundred years from the family’s immigration to Colonial America and subsequent settlement. This history contained two amazing stories, which genealogy specialists combined made me wonder. The second one involved a War of 1812 incident. Ananias McMillan, a soldier stationed with his family at Detroit, along with his 12-year-old son Archibald, went to bring in their cow one evening when Ananias was suddenly shot and scalped by Indians, who then kidnapped Archie. Months later, the U.S. Army effected the release of the boy, returning him to his mother.* The account had sufficient names, dates, and places to research to determine its veracity. But that first story…

Sophia McMillan (1843-1909), author of the history, wrote just four sentences about her great-grandfather’s tragic arrival from Ireland:

“Started to this Country with his widowed Mother and her Infant babe, when he was 14 years old. They were shipwrecked on the way. His mother mother-like grasping the situation, gave her chance of life to her son, tossed her Purse to him, Bade him God Speed should he reach this country: A few moments later he saw two Pieces of the Ship come together, Crushing Mother and Babe, and sink to rise no more. I have heard his Daughter – my grandmother – say he always saw that sight when he closed his eyes, and the Oceans roar was ever in his ears.”

That horrific scene, coupled with the Indian scalping and kidnapping, caused me to dismiss these stories as family myths told around the fireplace for evening entertainment. But after verifying the Detroit story with city and county histories, my mind returned to that shipwreck. Unlike the second account, this first one seemed to lack sufficient detail to research. No date, no ship’s name, no location of the disaster. But the age of 14 proved to be the key. Knowing the death date and age of Sophia’s great-grandfather Jonathan, I could fix the shipwreck at approximately 1737, and certainly the location had to be off the coast of New England, since Jonathan had survived and wound up in Maine.


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