Evaluating a Family Story for Accuracy

In genealogy, we encounter stories that seem amazing, but we have to stop and ask, are they true? Read one family story and learn how to evaluate it for accuracy.

The follow handwritten account references the death of my 3rd great grandfather, Joseph Geißler. This legend has been handed down through the generations.

Death story about Joseph Geisler in Margie Wasson’s scrapbook in her handwriting.

The story reads:

Henry Geiszler

“Henry’s father was on horseback and rode into Fort Hayes. Guard yelled Halt. He only spoke German and as the story went didn’t understand. So the guard shot him and he died. His widow married a Billman and loved on a farm in Georgesville. As a boy, this is where my dad visited and remembered his grandmother driving her horse.”

How would you go about deciding what is fact and what is fiction in a family legend?

When you have a family legend, you can work through the story to determine the validity of the story. First, identify the persons and the places in the story:

  • Henry Geiszler’s father is Joseph Geißler.
  • Joseph’s widow is Caroline (Mack) Geißler Billman.
  • She married Michael Billman
  • The Billmans had a farm Georgesville, Franklin County, Ohio.
  • “My Dad” is Margie Wasson’s father George Joseph Geiszler, son of Henry Geiszler (of this writing). “His Grandmother” once again is Caroline Billman.

So, the 2nd great-granddaughter of Joseph Geißler wrote down the story about her 2nd great-grandfather’s death. She also mentioned her father’s trip to the 2nd great-grandmother’s second husband’s farm.

Determine if the facts mentioned in the story make sense

How do I prove or disprove that Joseph was killed outside Fort Hayes because he was German and told to ‘halt’ but didn’t understand?

Did Joseph no understand the word “Halt”?

“Halt” has the same meaning both German and English.

If Joseph was told to “halt,” he would have understood the command. Why would someone make up this story about not understanding a word that has the same meaning? Was this an attempt to cover the actual facts of the death.

What can we learn about Fort Hayes?

Fort Hayes was not in existence in 1863. Camp Chase preceded Fort Hayes. The Columbus Barracks existed before Fort Hayes at the time of Joseph’s death.

Why are their inconsistencies?

Joseph did die at the time of the Civil War. He was an immigrant from German and it’s unclear whether he learned English in the few years he had settled in Ohio. He attended a German language Catholic church, so perhaps he didn’t understand English. These are the verifiable facts.

Everything else is now suspect.

It’s entirely possible that Joseph was killed in miscommunication episode with the soldiers preparing to protect Columbus during the Civil War. However, this could be a cover story for an uncomfortable demise.

No matter what story is handed down in your family, even if it is written, DO NOT accept without vetting the story. Evaluate all information to find the truth.

Do Not Discard False or Questionable Stories

Record the family legends and stories in your families, including the questionable ones. Take time to raise questions and record those alongside what facts are suspect. You can put to rest the false stories and challenge relatives to seek a more accurate truth. Don’t be surprised when your family dislikes the legends you prove false.

Devon Noel Lee

Devon Noel Lee is passionate about capturing and preserving family stories so no one alive today has to be researched, or forgotten, tomorrow. She has authored 6 how-to books, a memoir, two published family history biographies, and over 60 family scrapbooks. She's an enthusiastic speaker who energizes, encourages, and educates at the same time.

6 thoughts on “Evaluating a Family Story for Accuracy

  1. The 'Halt' thing is interesting, it sounds as though there is more to this than meets the eye. Good luck with unravelling it.

  2. Thanks for sharing your husband's family history tidbit. I bet you're so glad to have those scraps of paper. And the accuracy. Yee-haw! I think there may be truth in the legend, but what it is will need to be deciphered.

  3. First thing is did was translate "Halt!" into German. It's "Halt!" so if that is what the guard actually said, he couldn't have been shot because he didn't understand. Something else must have been happening.

  4. Interesting fragment of family history. My husband's grandfather left scraps of paper with names and dates…90% of which turned out to be accurate. So it's very possible this family legend has basis in fact, even if the details aren't completely accurate. Good luck!

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