Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Ancestors, real and imagined

One of the great things about America is that we can claim heroes and heroines from around the world as our own because we tend to be related to people from all around the world. As it happens, though, historians think that rather too many people, notably Americans, are claiming the most famous Flora MacDonald as an ancestor. From an article by Ben McConville on scotsman.com's Heritage and Culture website:
SHE IS one of the bravest and most romantic characters in Scottish history, immortalised in the Skye Boat Song for the selfless deed of helping Prince Charles Edward Stuart flee from Hanovarian forces after Culloden.


"In general, without impugning the assertions of those [whose claims I have not verified], it is quite common for people in the US, and Canadians who later emigrated to the US, to mistakenly assert Flora descent because it is a romantic line and their grandparents may have been the source of the inaccurate information," says MacDonald.
That would be Mark MacDonald, historian for Clan Donald USA. Not to put too fine a point on it, but according to this article MacDonald only knows of two direct descendants in the U.S.
Hugh Peskett, the genealogist who traced former US president Ronald Reagan's Scottish and Irish roots, said one explanation for the high levels of Americans believing they are descendants of Flora MacDonald might be down to a case of mistaken identity.

Pestkett, who is the Scotland editor for Burke's Peerage, the British and Irish genealogy specialists, said: "Flora was and still is a popular name in the West Highlands. There may be families who are MacDonalds, but not necessarily the MacDonalds of Kingsburgh. But there is a Flora in every generation and so it enters family tradition. I am afraid that most of these probably will not stand scrutiny of the records. Some, of course, will be related to Flora MacDonald as she will have hundreds of descendants."
Full article

This might be semi-related: I have a good friend who used to make a living selling all sorts of old things at flea markets. He says that he sold lots and lots of old photographs and daguerreotypes featuring people - portraits of any sort, for that matter - which were largely bought by people who were building up a bogus past (or at least toying with the idea). He knew this, because the couples and little groups would hold chats among themselves before handing over their cash.

The conversations would run along the lines of, "Here, look at this one - he looks like he could be part of the family. We could call him Great-uncle Frank. What do you think?"--- "Yeah, why not? He looks like he'd run a dry goods store. Shall we say he owned one in Chicago?"---"Too boring, and too easily traced"---"Nah, he lost everything in the Great Fire..."

Some customers, my friend said, seemed to be doing it in jest; clearly having fun giving their imaginations a good run. A few, he thought, might have had criminal intent of some sort in mind, carefully crafting a fake identity (those folks also loved old class rings, as it happens). Others, though, my friend felt somewhat sorry for, because they seemed to be adopting the old photos - as in I don't know my past and you've obviously lost your family and history too, so why don't we pair up? I got the feeling, listening to my friend tell me this story, that sometimes he felt strange about selling pictures of no-longer-identified people to persons tossed out on the world without proper ancestors. My friend said he was surprised how many people displayed a need for old photos to pass off as part of their roots.

So get out there and share your family stories, will you? You don't want your grandkids reduced to gathering up imaginary great-grandparents at flea markets, do you?

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