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Buchanan Estate Scam: Detecting and Navigating Genealogical Hoaxes

Family Histories and Papers

Below are some of the most interesting or important sources cited in this presentation. Much more material exists, especially at the local and family levels. As you pursue the records of specific relatives who may have been impacted by the hoax, be sure to study area newspapers, courthouse quitclaim deeds and civil suits, local museum or library vertical files, published family histories, and your own family papers.

Family Histories Compiled or Published Before the Hoax (Pre-1931)

Pre-hoax works are not necessarily accurate. They still require your own assessment and evaluation of sources and conclusions. However, they do lack the skewed perspective that the estate scam propagates. The selection provided here, published in 1911, was a book Buchanan researchers could turn to in 1931, as the supposed Buchanan estate distribution was announced. Fabricated trees often include “ancestors” found in the pages of this volume. In the scam versions, extra children were added to the featured families or other genealogical alterations were made in order to accommodate and attach the family line that the living generation of Buchanans would recognize. Once they saw their own grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on listed in the pedigree they easily believed it extended to generations whom they never knew.

Family Histories Compiled or Published During or After the Hoax (1931 to present day)

This book published during the height of the Buchanan estate scheme bears the hallmarks of the hoax narrativethat is not say that the author's work is necessarily incorrect, but the research must be flagged for further scrutiny. The author aims to connect her family to that of President James Buchanan and even mentions an undocumented candidate for the mythical benefactor, a “William Buchanan who died in Texas.” The information the author provides on the more recent generations of her own family is likely to be lead-worthy, but the 18th century ties of her direct ancestors to the President’s grandparents require serious evaluation due to the influence of the Buchanan hoax.

Legal Documents

The Civil Court case litigated in Houston, Texas, between 1935 and 1936, concluded the Buchanan estate scam. Of course, the after-effects of the hoax continue to impact genealogists today as the falsified paperwork of the scheme continues to resurface.

The Harris County, Texas District Clerk External has digitized and placed online the 70-page file for Civil Court case no. 000225972, Margaret Argyle ET AL vs. Lorenzo D. Buchanan. There is no fee to view or print the complete, unofficial case file. If you desire an official, certified copy from the court, you have the option to order it for a fee. Here is how to view, print, or order the file:

  1. Visit the Harris County, Texas District Clerk External website and select "Search Our Records."
  2. Login (Create a free account if it's your first visit.)
  3. Make sure the "Civil / Family" tab is selected.
  4. Go to the "Case Number" field and enter 000225972.
  5. Click "Search."
  6. Click on case file "Margaret Argyle, ET AL vs. Lorenzo D. Buchanan."
  7. Select "Images."
  8. Click on the "Image No." icon to view and/or print the 70 page file. There are no fees for these options. These images and printable pages denote that they are unofficial copies. If you desire an official court-certified copy, you can click "Add to Basket" and pay the related fee for official copies.

Library of Congress Vertical Files

The Library of Congress Local History and Genealogy Reference Services maintains vertical files for families that have contributed or generated papers over the years. The Buchanan family has two such files: Buchanan and Buchanan Estate. The latter deals exclusively with the estate hoax. (View the complete list of the subjects in the Vertical Files for further records.)

In the Buchanan Estate vertical file are copies of the following items:

  • "Memorandum – Buchanan Estates" compiled by the Librarians at the Library of Congress in 1931, as a response to the numerous inquiries received regarding the alleged Buchanan estate.
  • "Big Estate, Heir Unknown, Is Racket, Says Roosevelt" article (transcript only), New York Herald Tribune, 12 November 1931.
  • Letter dated 7 November 1965, from the Library of Congress to the Honorable Richard H. Fulton, U. S. House of Representatives. The letter indicates that the Congressman had inquired on behalf of a constituent regarding a Buchanan estate claim. The Library responded with an explanation of the 1930s Buchanan estate scam, attaching a copy of the Memorandum and New York Herald Tribune article.