The Telephone Game

We’ve all played it. As kids, we do it on purpose, we are sat in a circle with some camp counsellor or teacher, and we play the game, and it’s funny. We start off with something like “monkeys like bananas” and end up with “My Mom’s keys are always lost.”

As adults we do it all the time, now whether the original message gets changed on purpose or because as adults we’re all scatterbrained, who knows, and sometimes its funny and sometimes its disastrous.

In the family history game, however, I think we score off the charts in the telephone game.

Here’s an example:

When I first starting working on my own family history, a lot longer ago than I care to admit, I started off with quite an accumulation of breadcrumbs that I thought were absolutely solid kernels to build on. Turns out eating one of those breadcrumbs sometimes led to solid information, but more often than not was like biting into a piece of fairy bread and waking up 50 years later in a totally different place.

Now, don’t get me wrong, the majority of those breadcrumbs were solid, non-fairy food, that helped me corroborate and build on the work my predecessors had faithfully undertaken. And you can’t judge people for passing on what has been said, time and again (although maybe not always the same way). around the table at family gatherings. Often what I discover is the breadcrumb itself isn’t wrong, but the interpretation, over time, is what leads you into the fairy mound.

One of those fairy breadcrumbs that we all ate, was that my family came to the US from Waterford, Ireland. We believed it so much that my Dad and I took time when visiting Ireland when I was 15 or 16 years old to go all the way down to Waterford to see where we came from. A few years later I discovered that we did, sort of come from Waterford.

But it wasn’t Ireland.

It was Waterford, NY. And my family came through there as they headed upstate to settle in what is now Rensellaer County, New York after coming into the country via the Port of New York.

There’s a bit of a difference there.

Where we last were in Ireland, prior to emigrating, was actually Louth. A wee bit up the coast from Waterford (to be fair, almost two thirds of the way up the east coast of Ireland). And there are still members of our family there today, who my father recently met, that we might never have found if I’d stuck to the interpretation of the Waterford connection that I first heard.

As I mentioned, the breadcrumb wasn’t fully fairy, but over time, the telephone game morphed it into something else entirely.

Those potential fairy breadcrumbs cannot be ignored, however.

Here’s another example.

Quite a few years ago I undertook some research for a friend. She wanted me to find information about her biological father, who had connections to Providence, RI. Also of Irish descent, similar to my family. His surname was Miller.

Let me just point out, that looking for an Irish man surnamed Miller, in the mid 1900s, is like looking for a needle in a haystack full of identically appearing needles. Thankfully, almost as an afterthought, she shared with me a vague recollection that she thought he might have been a taxi driver or chauffeur.


While there were more Millers than you could shake a stick at, apparently only one had donned the livery, and, after collecting more information that I could bring back to her and her family for verification, we found that was indeed the Miller we were looking for.

So, I guess the moral of the story is, yes, go after those primary sources and direct evidence, but don’t discard the breadcrumbs due to vague recollections and dubious timelines. You may not know yet if it matters, but it will certainly help you if you include this kind of information when you are trekking down the winding road of family research.

Accept the fact that we are all in the midst of a never ending session of the telephone game, and hold onto those crumbs….you’ll be glad you did!

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