We all have them: Family Legends that have been passed down through the generations.  Some of the stories may be about the origin of our last name, or a story about an immigrant from Germany.  Others may be about the family black sheep.  Whatever the story, it is often good enough to be retold again and again, and is almost always accepted as pure truth.

When do we accept these stories for truth, and when do we recognize them as fiction?  How can we trace the origins of these stories?  Oft times, the best way to get to the heart of the truth is through genealogical research.

For example, I grew up in Texas with the maiden name Alamo.  Despite all the jokes I got in grade school that my ancestors fought in the Battle of the Alamo, I knew the origins of my last name came from Cuba. My great-grandfather had immigrated to Washington D.C. in the early 1900’s.  As family story went, great-grandfather Raul’s real last name was Mendoza. However, after arriving in the U.S., an official told him he needed an American name, and asked him if he had any preference.  Great-grandfather Raul said, “I want a last name people will remember me by!”  The officiator then put his name down as Paul Alamo.This story was told to me by two of Raul (Paul) Alamo’s children, and accepted as fact by all of us.

When I began doing genealogy research, I immediately looked for the records that would take our family back to Cuba.  What I found surprised not only me, but the rest of the family as well!  Raul was indeed from Cuba, but his surname wasn’t Mendoza!

Raul Alamo's 1917 Ellis Island immigration record (Click on image to enlarge)

“Raul Alamo” came through Ellis Island in 1917, and again 1926.  A closer look at the immigration records revealed the name of his mother in Havana as well: Josefa Mendiondo.  This was a real find!  I curiously noted that her surname Mendiondo sounded similar to the family legend of Mendoza.  Another government document I found of him later, listed him as Raul Roberto Alamo Mendiondo. This left me puzzled. Was his original last name Alamo or Mendiondo?

It took learning about Spanish naming customs to understand why the family story had become so twisted.  In Latin culture, an individual takes on two last names.  The first of their last names is their father’s first surname.  Their second last name is their mother’s first surname.  Women do not change their surname at marriage, but carry the surnames of their birth throughout their whole lives.  Once coming to this country, most Latin immigrants will drop the second surname to comply with traditional American naming customs.  Thus, with the example above, my great-grandfather’s full name was Raul Alamo Mendiondo.  His father was an Alamo, and his mother was a Mendiondo. She stayed a Mendiondo her whole life, despite marrying Mr. Alamo, which is why she is listed on her son’s immigration by her “maiden name”. I have come in contact with family from Cuba who knew my great-grandfather as a boy and have confirmed this fact.

Thus, I found that there was a hint of truth to our family legend—Raul Alamo did in fact come from Cuba, and his name was Americanized (Raul to Paul).  However, his children, not understanding the concept of dual-surnames, mixed up the story.  Someone along the way mixed up the uncommon surname Mendiondo, with a much more common surname Mendoza.  Not realizing how this name fit with their father, they assumed it must have been his original name, and was changed to Alamo upon his arrival.  I believe the fact that our whole family eventually lived in Texas, where “Remember the Alamo!” is a common saying, led to the made-up story of great-grandpa requesting he have a last name “People can remember me by.”

Though Raul was from Cuba, two of his children were born with blond hair and blue eyes. This was a completely mystery for the entire family. Raul was of a dark complexion, and even listed as “African” on his immigration record. Where did those recessive genes, that two of his kids inherited, come from? Discovering that his mother’s surname was Mendiondo helped explain this phenomenon: Mendiondo is a Basque surname, not a Spanish surname.  Somewhere in his mother’s ancestry, blond haired / blue eyed Basque heritage existed!

What I learned from this experience was to take family legends with a grain of salt!  Stories get mixed up over the years, especially if the story is being transferred between cultures (such as the above between a Cuban immigrant to his American wife and children). It’s important to note that I was told this story by my great-aunt while she was in her 60’s.  She was under 10 years old when her father died—leaving at least a 50 year gap between her hearing the story and telling the story—plenty of time to get the facts mixed up!

Although this family legend was full of fiction—it was also important to remember that the story came from somewhere, and thus carried some truth with it. Knowing there was a surname that sounded like Mendoza, helped me correctly identify my great-grandfather in immigration records.  All in all, I still find great value in my family stories. Through genealogical research, I have been able to sort out the fact from the fiction in these stories, and pass them on correctly to future generations.

What family stories have helped you find your ancestors?

Originally published 13 September 2011 at blog.progenealogists.com

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