Researching a Family Legend

Family History Legend

Do you have a family legend in your family history? Chances are that you do, whether you know it or not. Family legends are not necessarily a bad thing. Family storytelling can strengthen individuals and families. They remind us of our heritage and can give us a sense of identity. However, oral histories have a way of changing over time. They are also often rooted in truth. Therefore, when researching a family legend, start with what is “known” and attempt to verify those facts or uncover the real truth. Sometimes the facts may be less glamorous than the family legend. In other cases, “truth is stranger than fiction.” Here is a simple example of researching a family legend that I recently researched.

A Namesake

Lackey and Artie Branham Family

We have a story in our family that I have heard many times over. The story is simple enough. The older brother of my great-grandfather was named for the 2 Mormon missionaries who baptized the family in Kentucky in 1896.  More specifically, my great-great-grandparents, Lackey and Artie Branham were taught by an Elder Judson and an Elder Tolman. In 1896, one month after Lackey joined the Mormon faith, they had a son named Judson Tolman Branham.

Church records show the following:
  • Lackey Branham was baptized March 1896.
  • Judston Tolman Branham was born April 1896
  • Artie (Mullins) Branham was baptized June 1896  (probably waited due to her advanced pregnancy)
However, I have recently learned that Judson Tolman was one man. The other missionary may have been Elder Langston. This is a simple mistake, and certainly nothing scandalous. It probably started harmlessly enough. Perhaps someone assumed Judson was a last name. Mormon missionaries travel in pairs, right? Wouldn’t you name the child for BOTH missionaries? Who really knows how the story began to change, but it has been repeated many times across many generations now.
Researching Elder Tolman and learning the truth was a simple matter of looking at the Early Mormon Missionary database.

Listing on Early Mormon Missionary

Early Mormon Missionary Database

The Church History Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon Church) recently launched a new online service at The database contains information about members who served as missionaries between 1830 and 1930. It is based on two primary sources. The first is s a set of ledgers called the “Missionary Registers.” The Missionary Registers kept a record of missionaries beginning in 1860 and contain other interesting biographical data including birthplace and parents’ names. The second source is an index compiled by Assistant Church Historian, Andrew Jenson. This roster was created in 1925 and was an attempt to document missionaries that served prior to 1860. Church History staff used this index as a starting point and did much of their own research to validate and improve on the roster.
One of the coolest things about the Early Mormon Missionary database is the links to the digitized source documents themselves. Missionaries did not always “volunteer” to serve. Instead, they received a “call” from Church Headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah. It was customary for the member to respond to the call in a letter. Most of the individuals in the database have a link to the letter they wrote in response. It is thrilling to read their own words written in their own hand.
Image Courtesy of the Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Judson Isaac Tolman

Judson Isaac Tolman was born in Tooele, Utah in 1870, but relocated to Idaho in 1881. In 1895, at the age of 25, he was called to a 3-year mission in the Southern States Mission. This placed him in the correct place at the correct time. I was reasonably sure for this alone (and the uncommon name), that this was the missionary that baptized my great-great grandparents. This family legend was proving to be “mostly true.”

Next, however, I went to the FamilySearch Family Tree to learn more about Judson Isaac Tolman. There is actually a link from the missionary page to his or her record in FamilySearch. Here I found a goldmine of information attached in the sources and the Memories. For example, Judson I. Tolman wrote a memoir or brief autobiography of his life.

Here is an excerpt from Judson I. Tolman’s autobiography that talks of this time period  of his mission (1895-1896):

Late in October, Elder Cluff and I were notified to go south about 75 miles to meet with other missionaries in a conference, and at the close of the conference we were assigned by our Mission President, Brother Kimball, to go to Kentucky as the West Virginia District was assigned to another mission. We went to the designated place, and I was assigned to labor in the East Kentucky District, presided over by Elder Rydalch, and was given as my companion, Elder Langston of Washington County, Utah, a very backward man of slow speech, but very friendly and congenial.

Prestonsburg, KY in relation to Elliott County

The Branham family was living in Prestonsburg, Kentucky less than 50 miles from Elliott County. There were other details that were corroborated by looking through this man’s historical documents.

Debunking the Family Legend

In this case, the family legend was mostly true. Debunking the legend turned out to be an incredibly fun and enriching experience. I was able to learn a great deal about Judson I. Tolman, who was very influential in the lives of my great-great-grandparents.

However, sometimes debunking a family legend can be a little more disappointing. Finding out you don’t have a Cherokee indian ancestor, or learning that a family member was a deserter and not the war hero family lore says he was can be a very painful experience. Remember to document your research well. After all, the lack of documentation is how family legends are propagated in the first place!

Share a family legend you have been able to prove or disprove in your research!

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