Genealogy Myths: The Family Treasure

13 Mar 2013

This week we are running a series on genealogical myths. Yesterday I wrote about the myth of the three brothers (or two brothers or four brothers, etc.). It is amazing how many people have such a story in their family. Today, we move onto another interesting tale that is often passed down: the family treasure.


Treasure of Villena.


Many families have a story that the family left behind valuables before emigrating. This is especially common with families whose origins are in Europe. The story is not at all unusual, and usually comes in one of several different permutations.

The first version is that the immigrant was a member of the aristocracy or royalty. As such, they were due to take part in the family fortune. Now let’s just address this situation from a realistic point of view. If you were from such a wealthy family, would you leave to live a working-class life or one of abject poverty? In older times, would you leave a civilized world to live in the wilderness? In royal families, only one individual can inherit the crown. The descendants of the lesser royals became nobles. Again, since only one descendant can inherit the title, the lesser nobles became members of the landed gentry. Eventually, the lesser gentry became commoners. It was these commoners and their descendants who emigrated, not their wealthier relatives.

A second version of this story involves property. It seems that the immigrant was a member of a family with great property holdings, and the family was unable to locate him/her when the patriarch/matriarch died. Once again, this is a highly unlikely scenario. Those who were better off financially migrated in far fewer numbers. And, for the most part, they kept in touch with their relatives back in Europe. Very few of them “disappeared.”

Part of these traditions may arise from unscrupulous individuals in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The same individuals who manufactured and published false genealogies (many of which are freely available online now, by the way, because they are out of copyright) would sometimes make up stories of family wealth back in the old country. For a fee, they would work to prove this to the powers at be in the old country to get the American heirs their “rightful inheritance.”  These were frauds perpetuated to obtain money from gullible individuals who were later told a sob story about why things didn’t work out.

Even in the rare instance that an immigrant was the heir to a fortunate back in their homeland, this would mean nothing for descendants in practical terms. When probating an estate, either testate or intestate, the administrator/executor worked to identify and locate all rightful heirs. After a certain point, if rightful heirs could not be located, the probate judge delivered a final decree for the distribution of the estate. The likelihood of any judge reopening the settlement of an estate after centuries (or even decades) have passed is highly doubtful. So when you come across these stories in your family history, just smile, acknowledge them, and move on.