Family lore: A tale of two grandmothers
By Janet Brigham Rands
It was a story I heard so many times as a child, it formed the backdrop for everything else in our family: In 1863, my second-great-grandfather Niels, his wife Karen, and their two children sailed from Denmark to Liverpool, then from Liverpool to New York City. During the voyage, Karen gave birth to a stillborn baby. The baby was buried at sea, and Karen died in New York, but the family never knew where she was buried.
The story was recounted numerous times by my great-grandfather in his diaries and accounts, as he relived the trauma of losing his mother when he was four years old. The numerous times he wrote about his life, he always started with that story.
Long before I developed an interest in family history, I was compelled by Karen’s story. Why didn’t the family know what happened to her body? What were young Jens’ final images of his mother? Why couldn’t he leave the story behind, many decades later?
The story remained in the realm of family lore until I was in New York City a few years ago. I wondered how I might find Karen’s death records, and imagined having to spend days searching in libraries and archives. Before the trip, I looked up vital records information for Manhattan and found an archive not far from the hotel where we would be staying. I also looked up Karen’s voyage on the Mormon Immigration Index and noted all the pertinent details, including the notations of the baby’s birth, death, and burial, and the mention of Karen’s death.
Within 5 minutes of my arrival at the archive, an assistant had helped me find and load a microfilm that should contain the information. Within another 5 minutes, I was reading an image of Karen’s death certificate. Within another 20 minutes, I held a certified copy in my hands.
The lore was correct, to a point. The baby was born at sea, but lived two days and was buried at sea on the third day. Karen died in New York Harbor two days after the baby’s burial, her body taken from the ship on a small boat, then taken through Castle Garden, then to a city morgue, then to Ward’s Island for burial in an unmarked grave alongside deceased immigrants from a nearby hospital.
It took me about an hour to find the truth behind the lore of Karen’s death, and a few hours studying Manhattan historical maps and documents to locate the site of the graveyard. I still cringe, however, at the cause of death listed on her death certificate: “the effects of prostitution.” The coroner, evidently assuming the worst about an immigrant, failed to recognize signs of childbirth and infection.
This tragedy became the backdrop for the remaining decades in the lives of my great-grandfather and his sister. A few years after losing their mother, they lost their father to tuberculosis. My grandfather managed to thrive into his 80s; his sister did not.
In this story that became family lore, the lore was only a few details away from what appears to be the correct story. In other such stories, the devil is not in the details, but rather in the whole story.
Another family line on my mother’s side also emigrated, in this case from Buckinghamshire, England, as Mormon converts and pioneers. The matriarch of that family lost her husband in Illinois when he was 52. She trekked with family to what is now Utah, outliving him by 20 years.
Two stories of her life have been published with the same photo, one biographical sketch listed under the surname of her first husband, the other under the surname of a second husband. One version describes her as an educated young woman from a wealthy, titled English family. In this account, she was disowned for marrying beneath her station. She became a pioneer physician in the West, according to this version.
In another account published in the same set of biographies, she comes from humble circumstances and distinguishes herself by caring for others and being a good mother.
A search of census and community records finds no evidence for the first account, but ample evidence for the second. Census records indicate that her father was a laborer and her mother was a lacemaker, which was a common cottage industry. Family lore of her kindness appear to be substantiated by family accounts, but nothing substantiates the tale of wealth, privilege, and education.
The real story, then, is not which background is correct, but why descendants would fabricate the details of wealth, education, and family discord. Within the lore lie the seeds for a more intriguing inquiry: Who in the family apparently felt compelled to create a fantasy genealogy, particularly when her life already was heroic? This question is more difficult to answer; addressing it risks alienating branches of the family accustomed to believing they sprang from landed gentry.
These are the questions of family lore. Which parts are valid, and which result from the distortion of time, from mistakes, or even from mistaken pride? Although it’s impossible to determine all the facts of family history, it can be illuminating to dig deep enough to identify discrepancies.
In the case of my great-grandmother dying at sea, the discrepancies are understandable because of the age of her son who later recounted the story, as well as the confusion of the circumstances. In the case of the apparently spurious wealth and title in the other story, the discrepancies are illuminating because they point to an apparent need to establish status in a hierarchical frontier culture. Both tell a story, although probably not the story the tellers thought they were telling.