06 May 2007 by Published in: General musings 16 comments

Family legends are amazing things. Stories get passed down through families generation after generation, and they become the gospel truth whether they have any basis in fact or not. Some of them are really amazing. Based on these family legends, people persuade themselves that they’re related to famous people when there simply is no evidence that such is true.

Today, I got an e-mail from an acquaintance in Australia who passed along an e-mail from an individual, wanting to know whether I could help answering the question. Here’s the gist of it:

My husband is a descendent of Philip Henry Sheridan by Mary Jane (some say Mary Ann) Hankins of Ohio–his wife during the Civil War. Their son Will, who took his step-father’s Johnson name, and daughter Emma, were born during the war.
Mary Jane met the train every day for quite awhile after the war, but Sheridan had other plans, and, later, anothr family.
A few years ago, someone read an account of Sheridan’s wife and infant visiting his camp in Tennessee, but couldn’t remember any further info. Neither have I been able to locate any records. (Tried to check Ohio online.) Can you help?

This is particularly interesting, because Sheridan only ever married once, at 45 years of age in 1875. In short, he never had a wife during the Civil War. Now, I suppose it’s possible that he could have had illegitimate children, but there is absolutely no record to suggest that he was married during the war, and there is likewise nothing I’ve ever seen to suggest that he had any children other than his son Philip, Jr., who was born in 1880 and only lived to the age of 37. I had to tell my friend from Australia the truth, which is that there’s no way that this family legend could be true.

Where people get this stuff is really a mystery to me, and how they’ve managed to convince themselves that family legend is true is even more remarkable. I wish I knew where it comes from, but it frustrates me to no end. I hate to burst people’s bubbles, but the truth is much more important to me than coddling someone’s illusions of familial grandeur.

Scridb filter


  1. Steve Basic
    Sun 06th May 2007 at 9:41 pm


    Have been dealing with the same issues here with my Father doing work on the Family tree. Some of the stuff he has unearthed was so off the wall, and yet thought to be the truth in a certain part of our family. The one that was most upsetting, is that a part of my family thought my Dad’s Grandfather took his own life, and had no idea that he was robbed and killed in Minnesota.

    If for some reason you ever find out I am related to Sickles, please don’t tell me. I have enough problems. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Hope all is well.


  2. Sun 06th May 2007 at 10:21 pm


    The whole thing simply amazes me. I understand the desire to link oneself with greatness, but for heaven’s sake.


  3. Dave Powell
    Mon 07th May 2007 at 6:31 am

    The stories I have heard like this tend to be about someone else, and get mutated into Sheridan.

    So there is a good chance the basic facts are true (or true enough) but the officer in question is some nameless colonel or brigadier that later family legend upgraded to PHS.

    One of my family legends is that an ancestor on my Paternal Grandmother’s side was a civilian clerk for Grant in 63 and 64. No proof, and I have never tried to verify it, but it persists.

    Dave Powell

  4. Mon 07th May 2007 at 8:21 am


    As you know I do a lot of the geneology stuff on my blog. If a family legend actuallly encourages someone to do a little research then I am all for it.

    For years I used to hear that my family was direct descendants of the Mayflower, which everyone in Massachusetts claims anyways. So I did the research and it turned out to be true. But once I knew, it amazed me how little that actually meant to me.

    Sometimes we are better off not knowing.


  5. Russell Bonds
    Mon 07th May 2007 at 10:00 am


    Similar experience. A friend gave my book on the Andrews Raid (Stealing the General) to various family members for Christmas presents, whereupon he was told by his wife’s grandfather that they were direct descendants of Union spy and locomotive thief James J. Andrews. Fantastic, but plainly a family myth–Andrews never married and had no children (he was engaged to be married when the Confederates strung him up in Atlanta). I didn’t have the heart to point this out.

    I had another person who was very angry with the way I depicted her “ancestor” in the book–again, ancestor must have been broadly defined since the guy never had children. (Have you ever experienced that reaction–people unhappy with your portrayal of a certain person in your books?)

    I suppose there is no history more subject to distortion than family history.

    With best regards,
    Russ Bonds

  6. kcrx330
    Mon 07th May 2007 at 12:43 pm

    Are you the same Eric Wittenberg who wrote a comment on a Gettysburg Discussion Board (long, long ago) in reference to a book entitled, “The Devil’s to Pay” by Michael Phipps? If so, can you please email me @ kcrx330@comcast.net. In your comment you say he is your friend. If so, I have some news you might want to know. Thanks, Kelly

  7. Mike Nugent
    Mon 07th May 2007 at 3:41 pm

    As Eric knows I’m one of the guides at the “Joshua L. Chamberlain Museum” in Brunswick, ME. I can’t tell you the number of people who show up claiming to be Great or Great-Great grandchildren. Bottom line is that Chamberlain’s son never married or had children. His daughter had three daughters but none of them had children so the direct lineage died out with the passing of his last Granddaughter several years ago.

    The most outrageous though was one clown who claimed to be a descendant of Buster Kilrain, apparently unaware that his “Great-Great-Grandfather” was an entirely fictional character!

    In my own case the “family legend” ended up being true although it didn’t involve anyone famous. I grew up with a very vague story about a G-G-Grandfather who was a CW vet. After some digging (including finding mention of him in “Gettysburg’s Forgotten Cavalry Actions” by some lawyer in Ohio) I was able to confirm the tale and found out he served in the 6th US Cavalry – giving perhaps a genetic explanation for my longtime fascination with horse soldiers.

  8. Mon 07th May 2007 at 4:28 pm

    I remember a few years back getting an email from someone who claimed to be directly descended from an illegitimate child of Wesley Merritt – and supposedly an Indian female. Now I suppose that could also be true – who knows what went on on the ol’ frontier… but it’s yet another example of these types of stories.

    If I had a nickle for every “descendant” of Grant, Lee, Custer, Sheridan – you name it – that I’ve run into over the years I’d have retired long ago.


  9. Mon 07th May 2007 at 5:59 pm

    My mother, bless her soul, wrote tons of letters working on the Mayflower link. I tried to help her when I had time and we got back to a Nathaniel White born in the 1700’s, but I couldn’t get interested because it didn’t matter if I was tied to the White family.

    The one family she did manage to tie together was on her mother’s side and it turned out my great-great grandmother was a sister to George Lawton, the father of Henry W Lawton. In the process of my involvement, as the internet opened new doors, I connected to a number of Lawton families and started getting fat envelopes with family trees and ‘lots of cousins’.

    My wife, being Spanish, is heavily into genealogy and has published quite a bit of the family records and histories for New Mexico. She’s amazed at the number of people who want to somehow erase the fact that there is some Native American history in their background (some of those priests were busy people), or again, there are many who ‘want’ somehow to find that they are of Native American heritage.

    Her word of caution to people is that when they want to start opening all those closet doors, they should be prepared to find a number of ‘clunkers’ in there.

  10. Mon 07th May 2007 at 9:22 pm


    It’s nice to know that I’m not alone here. As I said, this stuff just flabbergasts me. Debunking myths is one of my life’s missions. ๐Ÿ™‚


  11. Rob Wick
    Mon 07th May 2007 at 10:32 pm


    Same thing holds true for Lincoln. There are people now who still claim to be direct descendants of Lincoln even though the last one died in the 1980s. IIRC he even had to defend himself in a paternity suit. His defense?…He had had a vasectomy long before this person was even born.


  12. Matt Soule
    Mon 07th May 2007 at 11:42 pm

    I was doing some family history and found no heros. However, I bumped into one man who is due some respect. If he is indeed related to me, it is so distant it is in name only at this point. His name was Silas Soule. There is a fine summary on WIkipedia, but for those unaware, I will give you the following summary.

    Soule was in Co. D., 1st Colorado cavalry. On 11/29/1864 he refused Chivington’s order to attack a group of innocent Cheyenne, mostly women and children. This became known as the Sand Creek Massacre, one of the biggest mass slaughters in U.S. history. Chivington was furious and branded Soule as a coward. Soule later testified against Chivington and was thereafter killed by a man named Squires. Lt. Cannon tracked Squires to NM and brought him back to Denver to stand trial. Squires escaped and Cannon was poisoned. Squires was never caught.

    I could not help but think of him when I saw the brother of Pat Tillman testify about the Bush administration’s lies about his death.

  13. Tue 08th May 2007 at 7:38 am


    That is a great story. My Great Great Grand Mothers Uncle was in The First Colorado Cavalry as well. He was not in the company in the mascre though. That unit was split up after its conversion to cavalry from infantry and its battles in New Mexico.

    That is great that he took a stand on his beliefs.


  14. Scott
    Tue 08th May 2007 at 9:26 pm


    I’ve been trying to track down Sheridan’s supposed relationship with the Indian woman “Francis” during his prewar days in Oregon. I’ve been unable to find any originally primary source material regarding that relationship prior to 1900.

    The story you related seems very doubtful. No doubt Sheridan probably wished he had experienced the process of babymaking but all indications that I have indicate that he was anything but a ladies man and extremely shy and uncomfortable around the opposite sex. Hence, I think that the large age difference with his wife was a result of the unease he felt around women when he was a younger man.


  15. Jim Morgan
    Fri 11th May 2007 at 7:50 am

    I grew up being told that my g-g-grandfather had been Surgeon General of the Confederacy. As a kid, I never thought much of it but accepted the story. Some years ago I got around to checking and, sure enough, it ain’t so. My g-g-grandfather, James Mitchell Hicks, was in fact a medical doctor (graduated from what is now Tulane Med School in 1860; I have his diploma on the living room wall). But he served as an infantry officer with the 41st Mississippi and didn’t practice medicine until after the war.

    Nonetheless, family lore built him up into the Surgeon General of the Confederacy. Ain’t history fun?

    Jim Morgan

  16. Stefan
    Sun 13th May 2007 at 3:55 am

    BTW, Sheridan & his wife Irene had four children, one boy and three girls.


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