We've all learned to spot them, those telltale signs that a family history might not be exactly, well, history. That's the stuff of genealogical legend, those stories that begin more like fairy tale than fact: "There were three brothers...."
Perhaps we have become over-sensitized to such signs. I know I have, any time I read an account in an over-poetic biographical sketch from a century past, seeking to put the best spin on the tale of a local celebrity's roots. Perhaps, as I work my way through the family of my mother-in-law's fourth great-grandfather, Lyman Jackson, it comes as no surprise to find in the biographical sketch of one of his descendants—a judge in Atchison County, Kansas—such a "three brothers" story encased in the summary of his life and ancestry.
The story started out innocently enough:
Judge Horace M. Jackson was born near Albion, Penn., July 11, 1839, a son of Lyman Jackson, who was the son of Michael Jackson, whose father was also named Michael, and was a native of Ireland.
Granted, since we've learned that Lyman Jackson died in 1835, the story has already taken on a mythical air. But with one flip of the page where the judge's story was printed in Sheffield Ingalls' History of Atchison County, Kansas, we run headfirst into that story of those magical three brothers:
Michael Jackson, the founder of the family in America, came from Ireland and settled near Hartford, Conn.... He had three sons, one of whom...died in service as a soldier.... Another son went south, and the third was Michael Jackson, the direct ancestor of Horace M. Jackson.
While those three sons might have added a nice touch to the judge's family legend, my concern was with examining that family line to see whether the remainder of the entry contained enough truth to serve as trailblazer for my own Jackson family history questions. After all, the text provided names of spouses and dates of birth for members of that family line. Yet, I didn't feel confident in using those details after seeing the introductory error in the very first paragraph.
After all, if Lyman Jackson were this man's father, either Horace had to have been born years earlier, or Lyman's date of death was inscribed incorrectly on his headstone.
Thankfully, reading further, I did discover that Judge Horace Jackson's father was actually David Bardsley Jackson, and it was his grandfather who was Lyman Jackson—perhaps a slight oversight on the part of the book's editor.
In addition, the entry detailed the various places where the family migrated after leaving Pennsylvania—helpful information that might not otherwise have been traceable, depending on when the family moved. The entry also provided occupational details, described what home life was like for the newlyweds in the family, and gave the names of the judge's siblings, including married names for his sisters.
Of course, I might have been more easily persuaded to initially believe those useful details if we hadn't started off on the wrong foot with a glaring mis-match of son's birth and father's date of death—not to mention inclusion of the "three sons" trope that has become a glaring warning sign to genealogists. Looking at it all philosophically, though, I suppose we can chalk this up to a great learning experience in the warning signs advising researchers to proceed slowly and with caution whenever we find a resource other than confirmed documentation we've learned to trust.