We Are All Unreliable Witnesses (and memories can’t be trusted)

Since I’ve started genealogy, I’ve discovered that almost everything we do, think, say, and recall is riddled with inconsistencies and errors. Not that I didn’t know that before. One look at my idea of fashion proves that point.

An example: I’ve heard the story repeatedly that my maternal grandfather William A. Cook lied about his age to gain entry into the U.S. Army during WWII. Turns out, it’s completely untrue. My favorite cousin sent me a discharge paper from his personal wallet. His original birth date is on the document. He used his original DOB on everything that’s come up so far.

Among other things, I’m waiting to see when and if he and my maternal grandmother Nellie Cook were ever married. Family says that a marriage license had been seen but that grandma had scratched over the dates repeatedly. While I haven’t visited any of the likely 6 county courthouses yet, no one has any source verification, other than “they were married.”
This picture of my grandparents was taken in Rich, when they lived relatively close to White Church and cemetery there.

 Start with NOTHING as a precondition.

One of my earliest blog posts dealt with the errors and inconsistencies of our family stories.

Now, more than ever, I am convinced that much of what we “know” from memory is a large Swiss cheese.(And the more motivated we are to be revisionists, the easier it is to convince ourselves…)

As I learn more about cognitive function and memory, I wonder what percentage of my collective memories might be wrong.

Since having my DNA tested, I can now say that I have NO detectable American Indian bloodline. For some reason, another close family member had still believed that we were at least a small part Indian.Where the stories originated, I’m not sure. As with most issues, the family member kept insisting that “so and so” told him/her that we had Indian ancestry. When I mentioned that I had asked several of the elder generation and told them I was getting DNA-tested for confirmation, all stated that they had no idea where the mistaken idea of Indian ancestry originated. Still, the family member persisted – no amount of facts would sway him/her.

But as it was repeated, it became a truth, probably forever. That’s how family myths get passed down erroneously. 

Perhaps a future genetic marker will contradict the genetic information I’ve discovered, but I doubt it. One of the great values of new technology is that it wipes the slate clean, truth or otherwise, whether we like it or not.