When A Surprise Truth About Family Story Is Exposed-Do These Three Things

“Fred and August (Rightmeier) came to America in the year 1864 at the age of 14 and 16 years.”  – written by Melinda Rightmeier in the family Bible.

As we have explored my family history, surprise truth has exposed details that have delighted, given me pause, and stirred up great gratitude for the courage and perseverance shown by my ancestors.  We had precious little, to go on

In one of my earliest blogs, I wrote:

“My maternal great-great-grandfather, Frederic Konrad Rightmeier,  immigrated to the United States in 1864 at the age of 14.  (I say immigrated, but in reality, he and his brother were stowaways on a ship to New York.  It is said they jumped ship in New York harbor and swam ashore, but that is another story).  The reason for this desperate trip is that my ancestors were tenant farmers for the local landowner.”

The “stowaway and jumped ship” details were passed down at family gatherings amidst the many other great anecdotes the Rightmeier men are famous for.  Of course, there was no way to verify, or not, these details but it made for great family imagery of our entrance to this country.

Illegal Immigrants? The Surprise Truth

That is, no way to verify until Ancestry.  Recently we upgraded our membership to this resource.  My husband is the site guru and spends many a productive hour ferreting out family details.  This stowaway story had unanswered questions.  For instance, if true:

  • there must be some record in ship logs of the incident.   I mean two young boys discovered by the ship’s steward as they sailed into port, then jumping into the harbor would at least require an entry for the day.  Right?
  • how did two stowaway illegal immigrants become naturalized citizens seven years later?  We have the record of their naturalization, but would there not be questions about how they got here?

So I asked my ever-curious spouse if he could find some mention of this.  Well, he did, but not what I expected.  It turned out much more mundane than the family lore.  He found the names of the two boys on the ship’s logs as – ahem – passengers!

The Real Surprise Truth

It took the OCR for my husband to read, but here they are listed in steerage.  I suppose that was not much better than stowaway, but they were paying passengers.

surprise truth
The New York

The two boys arrived on 5 Jul 1864, at the Port of New York, on the steamer “New York.” They had departed Bremen, then went to Southampton, England, and on to New York.  Their hometown shows as Varenholz, Germany.

All of which matches the simple entry in the family Bible by Melinda Rightmeier, Frederick’s wife:

surprise truth
Melinda Rightmeier’s entry in the Family Bible




The Evolution Of Story

So how did the “stowaway and jumped ship” story come about?  Did someone mistake the word steerage for stowaway?  Did the boys out of impatience and/or excitement actually jump into the harbor rather than wait to disembark with the masses?  Perhaps they had had quite enough of the lowest part of the ship and needed a bath!

When You Write Your Story

There are bound to be some surprises as you set out to capture your story.  So what do you do with these awkward discoveries?  Here are three tips:

  1. Be gracious and avoid judgment.  Even if a story turns out to be an embellishment of the facts.  For all, I know Fred and August let this story take on a life of its own.  Or, as I suggested, in the passing of the event orally through the years, others misunderstood.
  2. Give the purveyors of the story the benefit of the doubt.  OK, so telling an untruth is not cool, but it did make for a great family story.
  3. Set the record straight.  Depending on how recent the story is, this can be tricky.  In my case, it has been almost 160 years since the event.  All those who perpetuated the lore are long passed.  If, you find yourself with a living “storyteller”, go to them, one on one, and ask some questions kindly.  “Where or from whom did you hear this?”  type questions.  When appropriate let them in on what you have found.

The important thing is, not to allow the fear of what you might find, to prevent you from capturing those long-lost stories, or documenting the “now” events. ‘

So I am setting the record straight:  My ancestor, Fred Rightmeier paid for passage on the New York and arrived legally in New York.  He then lived with and worked for seven years with a family until he came of age and became a naturalized citizen.

What family story do you want to write?  Start with what you know, even if it falls into the folklore category.  It is still your story!

Please comment and then download the free PDF to get started.

I am a former air traffic controller, pilot, Aircoupe owner, married 42 years to a great guy. We live in a 125+ year old historic Victorian, enjoy cats, vintage anything, precious friends. My passion is Giving Lost Stories A Voice – Giving Found Materials Fresh Form and Purpose!

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