Family Stories the Victim of Cold Hard Facts

Jeff in Ohio

Sergeant
Joined
Oct 17, 2015
As collectors, we find items that according to family legend are identified to a particular person, event or place. Sometimes the item itself proves that the story is incorrect. One example is the Model 1873 trapdoor springfield rifle proudly shown as an ancestor's civil war arm - the fact that the trapdoor rifle has the date "1873" clearly marked on the lockplate should be a warning that the arm could not have been carried in the Civil War which ended in 1865.
In my family, a antique looking arm was said to have been brought back from service in World War I - it was a trapdoor ZULU marked single shot 12 gauge shotgun, made from any antique arm, and sold widely as a cheap shotgun in pre-World War I days via the Sears Roebuck catalog, but I am certain it was not a combat arm of any country in the War!
 

lupaglupa

1st Lieutenant
Forum Host
Joined
Apr 18, 2019
Location
Upstate New York
Usually there's a grain of sand/truth at the center. So your ancestor fought in the CW and owned this firearm. At some point those two facts get put together in a way that makes everyone believe both the man and the gun were in the War...
 
Joined
May 1, 2015
Location
Upstate N.Y.
Matching a Civil War (or any later war) firearm to an individual is a rare occurrence. First a large percentage of Civil War firearms were not serial numbered, so all look the same by manufacture. Even those with serial numbers were rarely recorded to an individual. If a record is found then you have providence. Just because there is an engraving doesn't mean it happened during the Civil War. There were presentation pieces which should be traceable. Serial numbered pieces give you a very small advantage. There is the SRS list which only puts it to the last place known not the individual. Those list are way less then 10%. Many Civil War soldiers weapons were upgraded both by the Ordnance Dept. and spoils of war. The weapon remained the property of the Government. Upon discharge most were given an option to purchase, but not necessarily the one they carried. So sure, G-G Grandpa was in the Civil War and a weapon was associated with him. Was it the one he carried, purchased at discharge or purchased two years later to put food on the table? Some were legitimately brought home and put in the attic and forgotten about till they passed. Now the heirs find the treasure and start writing it's history as they can piece it together. Also initials carved into the stock could have been done long after the war. One also has to factor which arms were issued to each regiment/unit.
I own an Enfield that is documented to the estate of a Captain in the 124th NY. Did he carry it in the War? No, it was presented to him by his men. So yes he and the weapon were both in the Civil War.
 

Jeff in Ohio

Sergeant
Joined
Oct 17, 2015
I've got a Colt Navy made about 1860, and in a range that many went South, with good provenance that it was owned by a fellow who was captured as he crossed the angle of the wall at Gettysburg at the climax at the battle. Did he keep this gun after he was captured? NO. If it was taken from him as he was captured, was it returned to him after he was released? NO.
Do i believe it was a gun owned by him at some time? YES
 
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bankerpapaw

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Dec 26, 2007
Location
Rome, Georgia
As collectors, we find items that according to family legend are identified to a particular person, event or place. Sometimes the item itself proves that the story is incorrect. One example is the Model 1873 trapdoor springfield rifle proudly shown as an ancestor's civil war arm - the fact that the trapdoor rifle has the date "1873" clearly marked on the lockplate should be a warning that the arm could not have been carried in the Civil War which ended in 1865.
In my family, a antique looking arm was said to have been brought back from service in World War I - it was a trapdoor ZULU marked single shot 12 gauge shotgun, made from any antique arm, and sold widely as a cheap shotgun in pre-World War I days via the Sears Roebuck catalog, but I am certain it was not a combat arm of any country in the War!
I have my Grandfather's Double Barrel shotgun. It's a good shotgun, but come to find out it was a "Hardware" store shotgun.
 

LCYingling3rd

Private
Joined
Apr 25, 2021
Very nice post. It is difficult to verify family stories or supposedly "identified" historical items. I have been collecting for years and don't consider anything identified unless I can trace it's provenance with some confidence. Usually attributions are shaky at best.

A friend tipped me off about a grouping found in an attic in northern PA. I went and met the fellow who found it. He had bought the property and recently moved in. It was mostly letters, some photos and other ephemera. The original owner had served briefly, but his wife's brothers both served and there were quite a few letters between family members. There was the owners discharge, his old wallet, his cane, his 1850 wedding picture and certificate, a posed, old soldier gathering photo, and a few other items...one of the photos was a family portrait, probably from the 30's, with the old gent and his family in front of that very farmhouse. So the provenance was pretty solid to me and I picked up the grouping.

I document as much as possible so I got the new owners name and information, wrote down the entire transaction process with dates from me getting the tip to me paying. I then did the genealogical research. What I have left to do is get the pension records for the three fellows. My belabored point is that, if I ever do decide to sell it, or my kids or grandkids do, the grouping's provenance is as close to airtight as possible.

I have inherited family items as well and do the same thing. (My great aunt gave me the trousers my great, great grandfather of the 7th VA Cavalry wore! But a cousin has his Spencer...) Collecting ACW is wonderful, but you have to pay attention to the details....like the date 1873...LOL
 

Story

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 5, 2011
Location
SE PA
For the peanut gallery, it behooves to check under A) a rifle's buttplate or B) a revolver's grips, as sometimes owners wrote their name in pencil on the wood there. If you're reticent about damaging the piece, take it to a professional for disassembly.

That said (and as I've mentioned in passing before), the converse can happen - the purchaser figuring out more of the history than the seller knows.

I have an 1859 Sharps (no SRS hit nor did *the* Sharps expert author find anything on the serial #) that I can circumstantially point to maybe possibly having been issued to Company I 15th PA Cavalry.

1) The previous owner was part of a family that can trace it's lineage back to the Revolution in my area.
2) His knowledge of the carbine was scant - "as far as I know, it's been in the family for 80 years. My grandfather told me he played with it as a kid".
3) I did my thing on his family and yes, he did have a direct ancestor who served in the aforementioned unit (1862-1863).
4) Co I 15th PA Cav was issued Sharps carbines at the time the direct ancestor served.
5) When I circled back for more details, the seller had expired. The trail ends cold.

So, my tale and $4 will get you a cup of Starbucks or a tin of percussion caps.
 
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TerryB

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Dec 7, 2008
Location
Nashville TN
Everybody in my Mississippi genealogy claimed to have fought with Forrest...all but Marcellus Pointer, that is. He was a staff officer with Wheeler. No one else actually served under Forrest for the duration, though many were attached to him at various times. Then there's the stuff about eating rats in Yankee prisons and their captain, an ancestor, sumggled food into them. That supposed captain was an ancestor, but never a captain. Another ancestor was a captain and a POW, but how do you go about smuggling in food unless you are some kind of trustee due to your being an officer? Yet other stories are borne out by census records and separate lines in the family, as well as from former slaves. When I was a kid, I believed every one of those stories. Now I just believe my research.
 
Joined
Jun 7, 2021
Usually there's a grain of sand/truth at the center. So your ancestor fought in the CW and owned this firearm. At some point those two facts get put together in a way that makes everyone believe both the man and the gun were in the War...
Since I retired in June, I've been sifting through (at long last) all the keepsakes from my family and trying to match the oral histories with the facts now available online. It seems there is a grain of truth, and sometimes a lot more, at the center of the stories, but I've not found one yet that was 100% right. My goal is to produce a notebook that provides whatever documentation is currently available online for each artifact or story. I took the stories as gospel truth when I was a child, but our children will have more respect for them, and more inclined to repeat them, I think, if I can show data that backs them up.
 
Joined
Nov 1, 2018
My boss told me had a musket that an ancestor picked up off a War of 1812 battlefield here in Canad-istan. When I checked it out, he was quite disappointed when I told him it was an 1842 Lorenz.

He also had an "Austrian" sword his parents brought him as a gift when he was serving with the Canadian military. After much effort trying to identify the sword, somebody on a swords forum positively identified it as a sword from the Massachussetts Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company...and my boss was even more sorely disappointed about that, since the dealer that sold it to his parents swore it was Austrian.

So yes, the cold hard facts are often at odds with "family history".

Great thread topic!
 

seanfidheall

Cadet
Joined
Jul 31, 2021
My friend is an antique arm collector. He has regaled me with countless stories like you describe. A typical one. This man had an old family rifle and he swore was used at the rev war battle of Camden. My friend pointed out to him that it was a Ohio built rifle from the second quarter of the 19th century. But the man would not be dissuaded. He told me he doesn’t bother trying to enlighten people about their family heirlooms anymore.
 

Jeff in Ohio

Sergeant
Joined
Oct 17, 2015
This thread started with my memory of a quote from some writer about "a beautiful theory killed by cold hard facts." When i googled that phrase, I learned that it is but a variation of dozens of similar phrases written over the decades!
That's likely a sign that this phenomenon has been observed by many folks in many countries over the years!
Jim Supica, a long time antique dealer, and then the curator of the NRA antique firearm collection, wrote a wonderful essay about how he judges the likely validity of stories about arms, and the one you describe he calls a time-traveling item. He gives the example of some old Colt Single Action Army revolvers displayed in Columbus, New Mexico, labelled as wielded by Pancho Villa's invading Mexican forces in 1916 - the revolvers looked like they had suffered decades of wear and tear in in the Sonoran desert, but the serial numbers showed they were manufactured by Colt some years later than 1916!
 
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