When I first began researching my family history, my grandmother suggested that I visit her older sister and ask what she remembered about our ancestors. I arranged a visit and she told me a wonderful story about her grandparents, John Louis and Esther Best Traxler. According to my aunt, John Louis Traxler was born in Holland in 1821. He found it necessary to leave Holland for the privilege of practicing religion according to the dictates of his conscience. He decided to head for the Canada. He traveled through Ireland where he met Esther Best, an Irish princess. They fell in love and desired to be married. Esther’s family refused her request to marry a commoner, so she left Ireland with John. They immigrated to Ontario, Canada where they settled and raised their family. At the time I first heard this story, John and Ester’s story was one to which that I could readily relate. I had recently followed my conscience, left the religion of my childhood and joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I had also recently married and moved from my childhood home in California to my first home with my husband in Virginia. I eventually learned that while John and Esther’s story is truly an enchanting one, there is little truth to it. Only the last part about their settling and raising their family in Ontario is true.
It is not at all surprising that they raised their family in Ontario, given that both John and Ester were both born there! That was their story according to the records I found. Records are where you are more likely to find the truth. Start with yourself and work backward in time, finding the records that establish the facts about your family. (Seasoned family history researchers will tell you that records can also contain misinformation, because they are created by people too.) If you find records don’t agree, go back to the earliest created record as it is most likely to contain correct information. While family stories can help you with hints of where you might find records, be careful that you don’t refuse to consider records just because they don’t support the stories you have been told. As you collect family stories, think about them in the perspective of the time in history they occurred. For example, Ireland in the 1800’s was an occupied nation and under control of the British. While the history of Ireland is rich with adventures of the High Kings of Ireland, there was no domestic royalty in Ireland during Esther’s lifetime. Canadian census records indicate that William Best, Esther’s father had emigrated from Ireland. Considering when he shows up in the Canadian census, he probably was a famine immigrant. So at least Esther really was of Irish descent even if she wasn’t born in Ireland. The truth as found in the records about John has nothing in common with the story my aunt believed to be true. The true story is just as interesting, if not more so.
The Traxlers emigrated from Germany not Holland. They came through the port of Philadelphia before the American Revolutionary war and settled on land between Philadelphia and Bethlehem in Pennsylvania. John’s father, Peter Traxler was born near Bethlehem just before the beginning of the war for independence. When the war broke out, Peter’s father who was also named Peter had to make a choice to either remain loyal to King George or fight for independence. He chose to join a Loyalist military unit remembered for their valiant, maybe even vicious, devotion to the English King. When the Revolution was successful, the Loyalists had to get out of the Colonies. They fled to Ontario where King George rewarded their service to him with bounty land. John Traxler’s maternal grandfather, George Fields, was also a Loyalist and his name is on the Pennsylvania Black List of convicted traitors. The Fields were among the first settlers of Niagara, Ontario, Canada. With the war over, the Traxlers and the Fields worked to make a life in a new country.
So how does one deal with the reality of an ancestor being a traitor or a slave-owner or a murderer, etc.? That is a very personal matter. I make an effort to remember that my ancestors were people who had strengths and weaknesses just like me. We all are shaped by the culture and the time in which we live. Peter Traxler and George Fields made a choice to fight for what they believed to be right. If the War for Independence had failed, they would have been heroes instead traitors.
What about poking holes in beloved family stories? That too is personal decision. You will have to take into consideration the temperament and attitude of your family members. We all know people who are open to considering other points of view and even that there may be a better version of history and others that are not. You may find that there is more than one version of family stories that happened more recently. People do see and remember events differently. There is nothing to be gained by offending family members over family history. After all, it is hoped that a shared history will bring us closer together. I find it personally acceptable to have carefully researched genealogy stored in records while the beloved stories that may not agree with the records are enjoyed at family gatherings. It might be helpful to recognize the difference between genealogy and family history. A genealogy is a well-documented record of names, dates and places while family history is the stories. So enjoy the stories even as you realize that most good storytellers don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story!
Christine Bell has been seeking her ancestor for almost forty years and continues to find joy in each one she finds. She volunteers in a Family Search Family History Center where she helps others find their ancestors. As a convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Saints, she is grateful to be a member of the Church. She is a wife, mother of six grown children, grandmother of five going on six, and currently living in the western United States. Christine enjoys spending time with family and creating quilts for family, friends and Humanitarian Services of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.