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Genealogy Myth: The Three Brothers

The following article is from Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter and is copyright 2005 by Richard W. Eastman. It is re-published here with the permission of the author. Information about the newsletter is available at

Genealogy newcomers often trip over the "three brothers" story. It has been repeated thousands of times. I have yet to see one instance in which it is accurate.

The story always starts with something like this:

There were three brothers who immigrated to America. One went north, one went south, and one headed west, never to be heard from again.

It is an interesting story, and you might almost believe it. After all, how else can you explain the fact that the same surname pops up in so many places?

What fascinates me is that there are always three brothers, never two or four or five or six. And didn't they have any sisters? Why did they go in three different directions? Couldn't two of them go someplace together while the third struck out on his own? Why does each one take a different trip?

An examination of thousands of immigration and naturalization records shows that brothers usually remained close-knit and usually resided near each other after immigration. The "three brothers" myth apparently was invented and repeated by lazy genealogists who could not be bothered to find the truth. It is a poor excuse for rationalizing why the same surname appears in multiple locations.

When searching for surnames in immigration records, you normally will find more than one immigrant of the name. In many cases, each immigrant did not know the others and moved to wherever he pleased. Later genealogists tried to justify the appearance of one surname in multiple locations and assumed something that is not documented in any records.

Be wary of the three brothers myth. You always want to confirm such claims to establish that indeed there were three brothers instead of three unrelated men with the same last name. Yes, someplace in history there probably were three brothers somewhere who split up and went separate ways. But 99.9% of the "three brothers" stories you will hear are fictitious. Before you accept the "three brothers" story in your family tree, do yourself a favor: find documentation that proves the names of their parents.

Speaking of genealogy myths, in a future newsletter I will write about Cherokee princesses.


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Yes, there were three brothers in my family tree and they appeared to go separate ways, but with much research and some luck we found them to be living nearer than previously thought. Your story is very ironic, but true.

In my case I do have '3 brothers' but there was a twist - 'and a cousin'. Yes they were all on the ship together to Australia. Only thing is - who was the cousin? This was complicated by the only family with these men. Her maiden name was the same - yes she was a cousin. Was this 'the cousin'? No. It was one of the men. Of course all with the same surname. Finally 'the cousin' was 'found' and turned out to be the brother of 'the wife'. Generally they all stayed together in the same area for many years before branching out.

So - I do have 3 brothers and a cousin (plus a family and a story).

Another ironic one, for me there were three brothers, and a sister! One brother settled in Illinois, One in Nebraska, one in Iowa, and the sister settled either in Illinois or Nebraska (cant find info on her family). But all three brothers stayed fairly close and kept up with eachother, and all three of them moved between Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska quite often.

Yes, I too descend from three brothers who came to the USA from Germany via The Netherlands...and came over a span of 14 years between 1888 - 1902. All three ended up living in central Wisconsin in cities nearby to each other. They left several brothers behind in Germany, according to one of their obituaries, which we hope to learn more about someday.

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