Stretching the Truth vs. Finding the Proof: Family Lore

Photo courtesy of

Yankee drummer boy. (Photo courtesy of

Recently, I was poking around on my newspaper database looking for any mentions of my great-grandfather William P. Donar (1826-1899) or his son William H. Donar (1826-1923)  when I came across the item below which read:

Wm. Henry Donar, of Washington, D.C., followed a New Jersey regiment on their return, some days ago, and was yesterday stopped by the conductor of the Camden and Amboy Railroad, who gave him in charge of the police. He was sent to the Northern Home for Friendless Children, and the secretary of that institution has written to Washington about him. The lad says he is ten years old, the son of William Donar, tailor, who belongs to another regiment.

The article above appeared on page 4 of  The Baltimore Sun newspaper (Maryland) on Saturday, August 24, 1861.

The article above appeared on page 4 of  The Baltimore Sun newspaper (Maryland) on Saturday, August 24, 1861.

Whoa!  What?!

It seems that earlier that week in August of 1861, a 10-year-old boy named William Henry Donar, decided to take up the Union cause. Was he running away from home? Seeking adventure? Emulating his father who was serving in Lincoln’s army?

Now, this little fella just happens to have the exact same name as my own grand-uncle: i.e,  the brother of my grandfather, Peter Donar. This boy also had a father named William Donar (as my grand-uncle did) who served in the Civil War. In addition, his dad,  just like my own great-grandfather, was a tailor by trade.

Could this little patriot have been my ancestor?


…or maybe not…

I read and re-read the brief newspaper article milking it for every clue I could.

First sentence:

“William Henry Donar”:  Yep, that’s the name of my grand-uncle.

“…of Washington, DC: Uh, no. My Donars resided in Albany, New York in 1861.

Last sentence:

“The lad says he is 10 years old,…”: According to my records, my grand-uncle named William Henry Donar (born in 1856), would have been 5 years old in 1861 at the time of this incident–not 10 years old as this William Henry Donar was said to have told the police.

Could this boy have lied to the police saying he was 10 so he’d sound more grown up? Well, maybe…but  come on, most people can tell the difference between a 5-year-old and 10-year-old, can’t they?  Hmmm..on second thought, maybe my facts are wrong–maybe my guy was actually born in 1851, not 1856.  Yeah, that’s a possibility.  Why not? ….

“…the son of  William Donar, tailor…”:  Yes. That’s my great-grandfather’s name, and yes, great-gramps was, indeed, a tailor. I’ve got the census and pension records to prove it.

“…who belongs to another regiment”: Well, that’s also true. My great-grandfather William P. Donar enlisted in a regiment from Albany, New York as a Private in Company C,  25th New York State Infantry.

There was one nagging difference, though:  The newspaper article recounting this young William Donar’s adventure ran in August of 1861. According to my great-grandfather’s pension record, gramps didn’t enlist until  June of 1862–almost a year after this incident occurred.

So what’s going on here? The Donar surname is not all that common as Irish surnames go. That’s probably why I’ve been as successful as I have been so far, in finding information on this family line. In five years of genealogy research–much  of it spent on the Donars–I’ve NEVER found another William Donar living in that geographical area during that era, much less another William Donar with a son of the same name.

Could it really be possible there was another Donar family in that same general time and place with a father and son with the exact same names as my own great-grandfather William P. and and his son, William Henry?  Could there really have been two William Donars, who were both tailors by trade, who both served in the Union army in that era, who both named their sons after themselves?

Seems very, very unlikely…so maybe this kid was mine.

Sure, he had to be…The newspaper reporter was probably on deadline and slipped up on a few of the details in his story getting the age and hometown wrong (“10-years-old” instead of “5-years-old”; “…of Washington DC”  instead of  “…of Albany”).  If so, that little rascal really was my ancestor running off to join the army. Yeah, that must have been what happened. This little renegade definitely belongs on my family tree.

But what about those conflicting dates? My great-grandpa William Donar wasn’t in the Army until almost a year later.

Hey, I know! Maybe this kid’s dad (my grand-uncle) was just talking about mustering in, the kid overheard him, and that fostered lofty ideas of his own. Sure, that’ll work–that’ll make him my grand-uncle.

A lot of the  facts in that newspaper clipping match those of my ancestor’s, right? And with a little twist here and little nudge there, I can kind of make the rest of them sort of fit, right? Oh, what the heck, it’s a cute story. I’ll just pass it on and add it to the family lore. It’s harmless. If it turns out to be wrong, what difference does it make? It’s not going to hurt anybody. Who’d know the difference anyway? Is anybody really going to check? Probably not. So what’s the problem?

Proof–that’s the problem.

Sure, I’d love to be able to say that mini-miltary hobo claiming to be a 10-year-old William Henry Donar, was my very own 5-year-old  grand-uncle–a boy also named William Henry Donar –but  it wouldn’t be accurate (at least not yet), because I haven’t proven it.

It’s called truth, accuracy, being certain. It’s called having the integrity to only publish that which we can  prove.  Sure, it’s very tempting to talk ourselves into something that may not be true, but the fact is, a square peg will never fit into a round hole without a few alterations, no matter how hard we try to force it.

As professional genealogists it’s our duty–our obligation–to make sure the facts we obtain match up correctly with the people we are researching. It’s not the other way around. We’re not supposed to make the people we are researching fit the facts that we find–no matter how close those facts might seem to match or how cute the story we’ve unearthed may be.

I’ve found no follow-up  yet to this little human interest piece which ran in The Baltimore Sun back in 1861. So perhaps I’ll never know if  William Henry Donar, the 10-year-old boy whose dad was a tailor, who ran off to join the Union army that year–does  in fact belong on my family tree. I hope he does, ’cause it’s a doozie of a tale. But I’m not quite ready to claim it as my own just yet.

And that’s OK.

I’ll just put this item on my  growing list of genealogical conundrums to pursue when I have a clearer head. After all, as they say: “You can’t believe everything you read in the newspaper.” I imagine that was as true back in 1861 as it is today.

In the meantime, maybe I’ll start poking around my newspaper database again to see if I can find dear old Grandpa Desmond in there somewhere. I hear from some family members he had a few connections to the gangsters in Chicago back in the 1920s.  Sounds pretty promising to me…


Recently the bricks have been flying on a stubborn brick wall related to someone named Frank Anthony Fay, who is very likely an ancestor of mine who worked in vaudeville, silent pictures, and the early “talkies” at the turn of the last century.

I’m very close to proving that this fellow belongs on the Desmond-Donar family tree. GeneaJourneys readers will be among the first to know if, indeed, it turns out to be true–but only once I’ve verified that fact.

To learn more about this murky, and complicated family mystery see my post from January 28, 2012 entitled: “Frank Fay: Fact, Fiction or Family Legend?”


Copyright © 2014  Patricia Desmond Biallas

This entry was posted in American History, Biographies, Civil War, Military and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Stretching the Truth vs. Finding the Proof: Family Lore

  1. Lorene says:

    What a story! Hope you can eventually find out more about this little guy.

  2. Nancy says:

    What a puzzle! I hope you can find further information to clarify. For me, it’s hard to imagine even a 10-year-old boy following a regiment, let alone a 5-year-old boy. Interesting find and post about it.

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