Finding the Truth in Family Tales
By Juliana Smith 16 September 2009
For many of us, our first foray into the genealogical world may have been through a family story that captured our interest. A military hero, a “rags to riches” story, or perhaps the “black sheep” of the family, all hold the promise of a rich story that will capture the imagination of even the most uninterested family members.
We also often find leads in theses stories that we hope will further our quest. Unfortunately, we also often find “embellishments” in them. Sometimes the stories that are passed down are closer to fiction than fact, and many should come with disclaimers. “Names and facts may have been changed to protect the storyteller, entertain the audience, and confuse the family historian.”
So how do we sort out the truth from the embellishments?
Document the Story
The best thing to do when you hear a family story is to write it down--right there and then. Take notes or if the storyteller isn’t averse to the idea, record it. Stories tend to grow and change with each retelling, so try to get it down right away.
Since many of the stories we hear may have already been retold many times to different family members, ask different family members what they heard. Often times you’ll find very different versions of the same story depending on who heard it. Look for the common threads in the story and work on proving or disproving discrepancies. What aspects might the person have “embellished” and why? Perhaps humble origins were exaggerated to elevate the ancestor’s social status. Or maybe family members were confused. Looking at timeframes can sometimes help. Your eight year old ancestor in the 1860 census probably wasn’t that Civil War hero as your aunt claimed, but maybe his father or uncle was.
The story of how John Menkalski temporarily changed his name to Wagner was passed down two generations by his daughter--my grandmother. Regarding his arrival in Cleveland, we recorded this story:
[My father] moved to Cleveland from Philadelphia and he went to get this job and the guy says, “Your reference is wonderful, but we can’t hire you. You’re too good.” And the guy in back of him was a German and he didn’t have as good references and stuff, but he could “sprechen sie deutsch.” The next day he says – this was before the war broke out with the Germans -- “If you have to be a German today, I’m a German.” So the next day he put another jacket on and a slouched hat and he went to that same job and he sprechen sie deutsch and his name was Mack. He got his job and worked there 27 years building bridges--an engineer.
While I’ve never been able to locate him using the given name “Mack,” I was able to find the family in Cleveland in the 1910 census, using the surname Wagner, and his Alien Registration in 1940 stated that he had at one time gone by the name John Wagner. In the 1920 census he reverted to using Menkalski, most likely to avoid anti-German sentiment during World War I.
Analyzing the Story
Everything fit in the Wagner story—except for one thing. For all those years in Philadelphia, there was no trace of John Menkalski (or Menkala or any of the other variants that I’ve seen). Could Grandma have been wrong about when he changed his name?
Grandma was born in Cleveland in 1906, so she probably wasn’t born when he went for his first job in that city. If she was, she would have been too young to remember it. Someone must have told her that story, most likely her father or mother. Her older brother Hank was born in Philadelphia in 1904 and John immigrated to the U.S. before the turn of the century, so he had spent some time in that city. Perhaps he had adopted the name Wagner before moving to Cleveland.
The 1900 census did reveal a John Wagner living in Philadelphia on Callowhill St., but he was single at the time, boarding, and his year of birth was off by three years. The one encouraging link to John Menkalski was the fact that this person with the German surname of Wagner gave his birthplace as Russ. Poland—a tenuous link at best.
The link strengthened when I found two immigrants arriving from his hometown, one of whom was Marian Menkala. The column that listed who they were going to join in the U.S. said that he was the nephew of Jan Wagner and the companion was his brother-in-law. Just after the names was a faint address on Callowhill St.--that same street from the 1900 census