Genealogy reality check: When it comes to famous ancestors, research is required

Genealogy reality check: When it comes to famous ancestors, research is required

Do you have any famous family connections in your tree? A king, queen, chief, general, notorious rebel, or noted scientist? What about tales of a distant cousin who was a Hollywood star? A well-known pirate? A famous inventor?

We have an interesting family legend, relayed to us by our late aunt: Granny Wallace, née McCartney (in the above below, the lady on the right) hailed from Liverpool, England ... and was distantly related to a famous mop-topped rocker from the 60s on the left!

Famous ancestors genealogy

As someone who grew up with the Beatles (and Wings!) and learned how to play the bass guitar by listening to "Taxman" and "Helter Skelter," the idea that there might be a distant family relationship was intriguing, even intoxicating.

However, extreme care has to be taken with family legends. Without real evidence, half-remembered stories or hazy tales from previous centuries can take on a life of their own. Pride, exaggeration, incorrect correlations, or hasty assumptions can create a compelling story that deviates from the truth. As genealogists and family historians, we are obliged to dig into the facts.

We started with the low-hanging fruit. Was Granny Wallace from Liverpool, England?

A great aunt who we interviewed in 2003 said Granny Wallace came from Canada, but had been born in Ireland. But the great aunt was only 6 or 7 when Granny Wallace passed away in 1913, so that information may have been second-hand.

Evidence in census returns and vital records

We turned to the paper trail. While we were unable to find Canadian records, U.S. census returns from the late 1800s indicated Granny Wallace and her husband were indeed born in England in the 1840s. Encouraging, but hardly a slam-dunk connection to the Liverpool McCartneys, as no town or city of birth was given.

Next up: vital records. Although state birth records were instituted in England starting in the 1830s, they were not universal until more rigorous laws came into effect in the 1870s. Moreover, birth records for people can be difficult to find if you don't know the parents' full names, especially if the surname and first name are relatively common. This was the case for Granny Wallace.

What about death records? We knew when she and several of her children passed away in New York state. Death certificates often require going in person to a local city clerk's office, or mailing in an application, which is what we did.

Granny Wallace's daughter's certificate arrived first, indicating that while her father was born in England, her mother (Granny Wallace) was born in Ireland. But no locations were written on the certificate.

Then Granny Wallace's son's certificate arrived. It contained the birth locations we had been looking for: Belfast, Ireland for Granny Wallace, and Cumberland, England for her husband.

Cumberland is in northern England, but it's not Liverpool. In fact, the distance between them is 100 miles. Even more significant: The McCartney family was from Belfast, on the other side of the Irish Sea.

Death record famous ancestry

But the next piece of paper, received yesterday (see above), indicates that the Beatles family legend may have been totally misplaced: The death certificate for Granny Wallace shows her father's surname was McCarthy, not McCartney.

More research is needed to confirm Granny Wallace's roots. We may also check Paul McCartney's family tree, to see if they came from Belfast or environs (see a list of links to famous family trees, below).

We may not be related, but putting on our detective's hat was a lot of fun, just the same! Check out the video (Facebook/Instagram) which includes more photos and records from our search.

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