March 28, 2019
Many families pass down stories and legends about their ancestors; the stories often glorify the gallantry of an ancestral soldier or perhaps recount the tragic death of a pioneer. They can even be the catalyst that starts a family historian on his/her research.
In my own family my maternal grandmother, Fannie Terry Dawson, told most of the stories, such as the tragic tale of the death of her mother when Fannie was only nine months old. Another was the tidbit about her great-grandfather who served in the first parliament of Canada. But, my favorite story was the one about our “Maori blood.” I can remember sitting in Grandma’s living room during our weekly Sunday afternoon visits and hearing her describe her evidence for our supposed Maori ancestors: many of my aunts and uncles had coarse, dark hair and dark eyes, and Grandma’s mother had been born in New Zealand.
When I was young, I saw no reason to doubt Grandma’s story and was, in fact, excited to be able to claim exotic Polynesian ancestors. Like most of the people in northern Utah, as far as I knew, my roots were strictly western European. Nearly everyone I knew had ancestors from Scandinavia, Great Britain and Germany with maybe a smattering of folks from the Netherlands or France. No wonder my cousins and siblings and I were proud to think of ourselves as part Polynesian.
Naturally, then, when I started to research my own family history as an adult, one of my first goals was to try to verify some of my grandmother’s stories. Most of her stories, such as the one about my great grandmother’s early death and the member of parliament from Canada, did turn out to be accurate. A search through various records was all it took to show Grandma knew what she was talking about in these cases. However, proving my family had roots in Polynesia didn’t prove quite so easy to verify. My research soon focused on my grandmother’s mother, Jane Ann Burnett, who was the only ancestor I could find who’d been born in New Zealand. She must be the Maori, I reasoned. Never mind the fact that her parents were clearly listed on her New Zealand birth record as James Burnett and Fannie Orchard, not exactly Maori-sounding names. This was a bit of a setback, but I continued my research, only to find that both James and Fannie had been born in England, in 1825 and 1845, respectively. A quick dip into English and New Zealand history showed that, unless there was a Maori settlement in Warwickshire or Hertford that no one had ever recorded, neither of them were Maori.
By this time, I was convinced that there was a big problem with Grandma’s story, but my cousins were still sure that somewhere there must be a Maori hanging off of our family tree. A few years passed, and DNA testing entered the picture. I took an autosomal DNA test, and my ethnicity showed up as 100% European. Several of my cousins and a sibling and a couple of nieces and nephews also took DNA tests; none of them showed any Pacific Islanders either. I even took another DNA test from another vendor – still nothing but European DNA.
Finally, I had to admit that Grandma’s story was wrong. I’ve heard the statement that most family legends have some basis in fact, but I have to wonder about my family’s Maori legend. Both the paper records and DNA totally discount any Maoris in my family background. So, where could the story have originated? I’ll probably never really know, but some of my ancestors did immigrate to New Zealand in the 1800s, and they settled next to a large Maori Reserve. Maybe they saw Maoris in the area and thought that their family resembled them? Who knows?
The one thing I do know is that some of my cousins are never going to let the Maori story go. Every time I see one of them they mention a different member of the family and say, “See, look at that picture of Aunt Mary, she definitely is the Maori, isn’t she?” I admit that I like the Maori story and often tell it, with the caveat that it definitely isn’t true. It is a good story, so I guess I’m not too surprised that my cousins cling to it as truth. I suppose the moral of all of this is to be careful what stories you pass along to your family because once they’re out there, they’re never going to go away. Once a Maori, always a Maori – at least in my family’s eyes!
Researcher, Director at Large