Getting it right is an essential element in preparing a record worthy of all acceptation of our family history and genealogy. To do so, family historians and genealogists need to use correct research, documentation, sourcing and verification practices.
Experience with Grandpa Russell Petty
When I was a young man in college in 1967 and just getting seriously interested in genealogical research, my grandfather, Russell Petty, set me down and began to share his recollections of our ancestors. Grandpa Petty told me of his youth and his ancestry as well as stories about people and family members who had lived in the times of the Prophet Joseph Smith.
What a thrill it was for me to hear these stories literally at his knee. Hearing the details of family history from one’s own grandfather is a cherished and almost sacred experience. It is the passing of family knowledge from one generation to another. Such sharing is an important historical linking of generations that does more than pass along genealogy; it is a sharing of testimony from the past drawing us together by turning our hearts to our fathers. We in turn share those stories and testimonies with our children and grandchildren, trusting in the words of our beloved grandparents.
Ah, but this is where the problem begins. My grandfather never knew his grandfathers; they had died either before or soon after he was born. Consequently the stories he told about them and their forebears had come down to him second hand through his parents, grandmothers, and other relatives. Genealogy in his day and that of his grandparents was very dependent on the efforts of an older generation in a time period when few if any original sources were easily available for reference. Unlike today, with our modern research capabilities and technology, they relied upon oral tradition and writing letters to family members rather than original record research as genealogists do today, to discover, preserve and share their family history.
My G’pa was born in 1900, just 6 years after the first genealogical library in the Church opened in 1894. It had 100 books for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to use in discovering their ancestors so they could do temple work for their kindred dead. This collection would grow to become the greatest library in the world devoted to genealogy, The Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, www.familysearch.org . But not being a genealogist himself, in 1967 Grandpa’s stories of our hallowed past were actually little more than genealogy gossip (information passed from person to person, without verification, and changing a little bit, like the game of “telephone,” with each telling). And remember, I was then a young genealogy enthusiast. I didn’t simply sit there and soak in the details of his stories to someday share with my grandsons. I took mental notes, and wrote them down the first chance that I got; and then I set out to document and prove that sacred family record. My training in genealogy was to get it right.
Uncovering the Truth in Grandpa’s Stories
Grandpa’s story of his great-grandfather, Robert Cowen Petty, being a sheriff in western Tennessee in the 1830’s, and arresting Elder Wilford Woodruff, then an LDS missionary, which led to Robert’s introduction to the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ, was close to the truth; almost…. Robert was actually a deputy who with a band of armed men, including a minister, arrested two Mormon missionaries, Apostle David Patton and Elder Warren Parish. He then protected them from the mob in his own house for the three days before their court trial and eventual release. He later became a friend of Wilford Woodruff.
Grandpa Petty told of another ancestor, William Taylor Dennis, who joined the Church in Mississippi as a wealthy landowner, freeing his 300 slaves before making the trek to Zion. He told of William’s father-in-law, James Bankhead, of whom little was known because “all of the records were destroyed” in the counties where he lived in Tennessee and Alabama.
The reality I learned through research and documentation was that William Taylor Dennis had lived on the plantation owned by his brother-in- law, William Duke, who owned dozens of slaves. When Dennis and his family moved to Utah in the early 1850’s, they brought several slaves with them, who were afterwards freed. Tracking down his father-in-law, James Bankhead, turned out to not be such an ordeal. None of the records in those Tennessee counties where our family lived had been lost, and research into deeds and court minutes revealed treasures of data. Thus, I learned early on to love and appreciate the stories of my grandparents, but to research and document them for myself.
The Influence of the Written word on Truth
The natural progression beyond oral tradition in genealogy is the written or published account. Recording information on paper makes a story seem so much more factual. But without verification and documentation a written story is nothing more than a story. I often quote Petty’s Paradigm on Prevaricated Pedigrees© as an example of this:
If you have an idea, It’s a possibility;
If you write it down, It becomes a probability;
If published, It becomes a fact;
And if quoted, It becomes gospel truth.
We have seen this concept so much in real-life genealogical studies, that it isn’t even funny. “But I saw it online so it must be true!” Family group sheets submitted by Church members and family trees posted on public Internet websites often appear with little or no valid or reputable documentation or sourcing. Like the stories of my Grandpa, they are all to often full of inaccuracies. And instead of correcting this genealogy and family history, scores of other researchers copy the lineages and pedigrees, and then republish them under their own names, thus perpetuating the falsehoods and mistakes of previous accounts.
More unfortunately, if temple ordinances have been performed using such family information, then the resulting data takes on a more revered quality… “truth.” Family Bible information also has this power. Although a Bible record maybe very accurate, some zealous family members have been known to record genealogies in their family Bible extending back generations beyond their personal knowledge, and begin to drift into family fiction. I’ve even seen false data recorded in Bibles to add authenticity to dubious traditions. The infamous Pelham Humphries Oil Well Scam resulted in dozens of Bible records being introduced to the courts to “prove” the qualifications of various claimants: “After all, if it is in the Scriptures, it must be true.” Serious genealogists need to get it right by verifying the written word with documentation acquired through sound research practices.
Getting the History Right
One of the major problems with published genealogies is the failure of researchers knowing or understanding the facts and true historical settings of their ancestors. To do accurate research and documentation, a researcher must know the historical context of his subject. This is illustrated in the case of Solomon Fay and Azubah Packard of Richmond, Vermont. These names are found on a prominent genealogy website, in the section known as “Public Trees”. Solomon Fay was born in 1764, and his wife Azubah Packard was born in 1769.
Along with detailed information about their lives and family, the pedigree site includes rare early photographs of this couple (paper prints on cardboard backing).
The people who submitted these images were likely very proud of these family heirlooms. Others who descended from this couple were also impressed; so much so as to copy the photographic images to their family web pedigrees. But here is where knowledge of history becomes important. Solomon and Azubah died in 1826 and 1823 respectively. Photography wasn’t invented until 1839, and wasn’t readily available in the United States until the early 1840’s. Paper on cardboard prints didn’t exist until the 1860’s, being preceded by Daguerreotypes, and Ambrotypes (tintypes). Even though someone in an earlier generation may have written “Solomon Fay and Azubah Packard” on the back of these photos, it would have been impossible for these images to have been that couple. The question still remains, who are the people in those pictures?
In another example, one of my clients shared some pieces of online family history with me, including a marriage notice “published in a newspaper” (or so they thought). The clipping did not include the name of the newspaper or any source/citation information, making it difficult to verify. The entry stated “Mr. Samuel Surratt, age 18 yrs, fifth son of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Surratt of Davidson County, NC, and Miss Martha Rice, age 21 yrs, daughter of John and Eddy Rice of this county were married here today, at the home of the Bride’s in Rowan County, North Carolina on _ day of ____ 1804.” On the surface this would seem like a gold mine of information about a pair of ancestors, except for one little thing. It states that the family of Thomas Surratt was of Davidson County, North Carolina.
Davidson County was not created until 1822; eighteen years later than the supposed newspaper account states. Apparently, someone who needed a vital record source for a lineage application, or just to prove the validity of their genealogy claims, fabricated an “almost” believable piece of documentation. Only by knowing the true historical setting of that that North Carolina county, were we able see the true “worth” of this record.
Eternal Families – Thomas Atkins Gheen
Temple ordinance work should be the result of thorough and accurate research. When I was a young man one of my earliest interests on my pedigree was the Gheen family. While studying LDS family group sheets, I began filling in the gaps on the record of the family of William Atkins Gheen, my 3rd great Grandfather. One of his children was Thomas Atkins Gheen, the eldest son. The family group sheet stated that he had died as an infant in the 1820’s. But as I did original record research for his family I noticed on the 1840 Census that William Gheen had a male child the age of Thomas listed in his household. This led me to search further where I discovered Thomas A. Gheen in 1850 Census in the Nauvoo home of his sister and brother-in-law, Margaret and James Downing, who we knew was the daughter of William Atkins Gheen. Had our true family history been lost over time? Did more temple work need to be done?
Through original research in censuses, military records, and Civil War pensions I learned that in 1846, Thomas Atkins Gheen had chosen to remain behind in Nauvoo, Illinois with his sister’s family, when their widowed mother and brothers and sisters followed Brigham Young west. He eventually became a follower of James Strang in Wisconsin, where he married and started his family. When the Strangites disbanded in the late 1850’s, Thomas was left on his own, and moved to Michigan. With the outbreak of the Civil War, he enlisted with the Michigan infantry. He and many of his regiment were captured following a battle in Georgia in 1864, and he was imprisoned in the dreaded Andersonville Confederate Military Prison. While Thomas was alive, his family was informed by the War Department that he had died in prison.
Following the end of hostilities, Thomas and thousands of other soldiers began their trip home. He never made it. He was among the 1200 men lost on the Steamboat Sultana, whose engines exploded on the Mississippi near Memphis, and sank. Thomas A. Gheen’s descendants lost all connection with his family in the West, while those in the West wrote him out of their history altogether. It was only when the proper genealogical research was done to verify and document the history of this young man that his family and our family came to a knowledge of the truth, and sacred temple ordinances could be provided for this ancestor.
The Truth Shall Make You Free.
The consequences of these examples of false or mistaken identities are that hundreds of other family historians and genealogists can be led astray in their efforts to discover their true ancestral past. Without verifiable documentation, mistakes creep in and corrupt the well-intentioned lineages of otherwise honest, but naive researchers. The passing of information in oral or written form, without careful study, documentation, and citing of sources results in placing both ourselves and others in bondage to untruths. It can result in false and endless genealogies, of which we are warned about in the scriptures.
The oft-quoted scripture in John 8:32 about the gospel also applies to the importance of getting it right in genealogy:
“And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
With genealogy truth, we can find new generations that will bring us and them together in the Eternal Family of Man. In future Meridian articles we will share with you some professional genealogy documentation and citation tips and resources that will help you in producing a record worthy of all acceptation.
James W. Petty, AG, CG is the Board-Certified and Accredited Professional Genealogist, “Climbing the Family Tree Professionally Since 1969”. He is President of HEIRLINES Family History & Genealogy, Inc. (www.Heirlines.com), the “Salt Lake City, Utah BBB Accredited Business” trusted professional genealogy research services firm, providing genealogical and historical research for a world-wide clientele.
For Heirlines-Quality professional genealogy services, resources, and products including free genealogy, LDS Family History advice and expert answers to commonly asked ancestry questions, visit Jim’s website www.Heirlines.com for free consultations and ordering custom family tree research services, and his genealogy blog www.ProfessionalGenealogy.com.