Genealogy 101a: The Real Story
Copyright 2001, William B. King, all rights reserved
If you've been watching the advertisements on TV or reading the backs of software cartons in WalMart, you might think that all you have to do to trace your family tree is to pop a few CD-ROMs into your computer or log on to a Web site or two and do a couple searches. If that's what you think, I'm here to welcome you to the real world!
For some reason, many genealogical newbies think this is going to be a breeze. Why shouldn't they? That's the way the hobby is sold to them in many books and advertisements and on many Web sites. I can remember sitting in the genealogy room of a public library in Tampa many years ago when genealogy was first becoming a "popular" hobby. An elderly woman came in and wondered around the room for a while, clearly puzzling over where to go first. I was sitting at a table with my charts and family sheets spread out in front of me, and as she wondered the elderly woman stopped to look over my shoulder. Finally, the librarian corralled her. "I wanna look up my family history," the elderly woman explained. The librarian began patiently outlining the drill. Published family histories here, indexes to public records there, census microfilms over there. "No, no!" the elderly woman said. "I want something like he's got," pointing in my direction. The librarian attempted to explain that what I had was the result of years of patient research. The elderly woman left, apparently in a huff. Today it's even worse. People think all information ever created is available at the cost of half a dozen keystrokes via the Internet. I've got bad news for ya: t'aint so! Not even close!
I'm not a professional genealogist--far from it! I have, however, been doing this, off and on, for almost thirty years, so let me give you the benefit of what small wisdom I've accumulated in that time. I'll use my own family research as a sort of case history of what doing genealogy as a hobby is really like. If you're still interested when you get done reading this, then welcome aboard! You'll enjoy it.
I want to concentrate on my King family line, which has been particularly frustrating for me. Before I get to that, however, let me start with a little background. I became interested in tracing my family history in 1973. I don't remember why. I bought a small paperback book--Gilbert H. Doane's Searching for Your Ancestors--and read it from cover to cover. (It's an excellent little book, by the way, and is still in print in revised form.) Then I pestered my parents to no end, seemingly draining them of every bit of family information they knew. (But wait!) My dad finally had all he could take. "Talk to your aunt," he said. So I did.
My aunt Winnie was a trove of family information. More to the point, she also had a typed family history of the Blackstone line, which is the surname of my paternal grandmother. It was about three typed pages long, and on the first page it traced the Blackstones from my great grandfather William Blackstone back to Hugo de Blaykeston, who, as it said incorrectly in a handwritten note, "came from France in 1375" (to England, that is). The research had been done, my aunt explained, by her uncle Franklin Blackstone. The typescript contained one, and only one, bit of documentation, a cryptic reference to something called "Surtees' Durham."
This was exciting. Doane had trained me well, however. I realized that without documentation this was just a piece of paper with a list of names and dates on it. In the Fall of that year I would be starting graduate school at a large west-coast university that had a huge library system (one of the largest in the world). At that time I would endeavor to find out just what the heck Surtees' Durham was. In the meantime, I continued talking to and writing to relatives. Three of my four grandparents were already dead. My materal grandmother didn't know a lot about her family history, but what she did know I managed to tease out of her through a series of letters written over the next few years. She also put me in touch with a great aunt, a sister of my maternal grandfather, who gave me one speck of information that no one else could supply--the name of the town in Germany where my great grandfather Frederick Heydolph had come from. (Other relatives claimed to remember that, too, but gave me the name of a town that didn't exist, not in Germany or anywhere else. Thanks to my Aunt Lillian and the help of a professional genealogist in Germany, the Heydolph line has been traced back in the church records to the 17th century.)
So here's lesson one. Let your relatives know you're interested in this stuff. Write them letters, ask them nicely, but don't let up. If necessary, pester them. You'll find that some of them couldn't care less. Others will be passionately interested in telling you about their children and grandchildren. You may or may not care about this information, but be patient and write it all down. It may just come in handy someday. In the meantime, make copies of or transcribe all the old birth, marriage, and death certificates they pull out of drawers and old trunks. Ask to see family bibles and copy out the information, making careful notes about where it came from and who has the bible. Make copies of newspaper clippings and record who has those as well. You probably already know who your grandparents are, but careful documentation pays off in the long run. (And believe me, it's going to be a very long run!)
My relatives are still pulling old, faded newspaper clippings out of who knows where and sending them to me. Most of them are obituaries, some are marriage notices, and almost none of them have the name or date of the newspaper recorded on them. You should remember, however, that these little tidbits from newspapers were not written by someone who has researched the family history. They were written by relatives, probably older relatives, whose memories may not be entirely reliable. Make note of the information, but don't assume it's accurate. The same goes for certain public records, especially death certificates. The information on death certificates is supplied by grieving relatives and (as we'll see) is not always correct. Collect them. If you can't get copies from relatives, send to the appropriate states for copies. (And good luck!) Be patient. It took me several years to accumulate a file of marriage and death certificates from various state and county record offices. When they respond at all, you'll find that they are quick to send you information about their fees, but quite slow once you send them a check.
Okay, it's now the Fall of 1973. As much as I ever would, I've gotten over the trauma of being a new graduate student in physiological psychology, and now I have a spare moment or two to check out the history library. It doesn't take me long to discover what Surtees' Durham is: it's an oversized four-volume history of Durham County, England, written by Robert Surtees, Esq., and published in the early 1800s. It's a truly beautiful set of books, filled with engravings and old drawings. (Photography hadn't been invented yet.) Nothing you will ever do on the Internet holds a candle to sitting down at a library table and carefully paging through wonderful old books like these. There, in volume iii, is the history of the Blakiston family in Durham County. There's a history of the estate after which the family is named, and there is a detailed pedigree chart of the family. Genealogically speaking, I'm in hog heaven.
These old English county histories are not like their American cousins. American county histories were produced as cheaply as possible for profit and were sold mostly to local citizens of the county. In return, citizens who were willing to buy a copy were allowed to submit a biography of themselves to be published in the book. The biographies are often notoriously inaccurate, as you can tell by comparing bios of two people from the same family. They often contain incompatible information. In any event, the information in the bio was contributed entirely by the family member, and its accuracy depends upon what he or she remembered and cared to reveal about the family. There was usually little or no attempt to check the contributed information. Surtees' Durham, on the other hand, is a true work of scholarship written by a skilled historian. The sources of information are documented. Significantly, almost every link in the Blakiston pedigree was verified by reference to the inquests post mortem. These legal proceedings, I learned, were carried out to determine that a person had, indeed, died, to determine the nature of his estate, and also to determine his legal heirs. References were also made to other comtemporaneous records. This was a reliable pedigree that could easily be double-checked.
Hugo de Blaykeston (i.e., Hugh Blakiston), I learned, did not come from France in 1375. By that time he was undoubtedly long dead, if he ever existed in the first place. The only record of him is from a county visitation (sort of like a census of rich people) that was made centuries later. His supposed son Roger occurs prominently in the 14th century records of northern England. By the time we reach Roger's son, Sir William Blakiston, we are on firm ground. The line is then traced through many generations to John Blakiston, Esq., who lived in the 16th century. He married Elizabeth Bowes. You may recognize the name. It's also the name of the Queen Mother, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. Same family! Through Elizabeth Bowes, I traced ancestors back into families named Clifford and Percy, and from there to Plantagenet. Yes, the descendants of John and Elizabeth (Bowes) Blakiston--and I was supposedly one of them--are descendants of English royalty! It took me about a year to discover this.
I have mixed feelings about being descended from royalty, if indeed I actually am. On the one hand, royal families are well researched, although quite a lot of the published information on them (including that on the Internet) is bogus, I've discovered. On the other hand, some of these people were the most reprehensible people in history. It's like discovering that you're descended from serial killers, rapists, ax murders, and genocidal maniacs! Ah, but there's that word--supposedly. After I wallowed for a long while in the morass of European royal genealogy, I decided it was time to start doing genealogy the right way.
The Blakiston family eventually got mixed up with Cromwell. One of the Blakistons (not my ancestor--although great Uncle Franklin apparently thought so) was even one of the regicide judges who signed the death warrant of King Charles I. Needless to say, after Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, many of the Blakiston clan found it prudent to leave the country. They came to Maryland. The family has also been well researched in Maryland, and I was able to find well documented articles in the Maryland Historical Magazine that traced the family into the late 18th century. These articles cited contemporaneous land and probate records that made the pedigree easy to verify. It was now time to snap the last few links into place.
The correct way to do genealogy is to start with yourself and work backwards. Finding published histories of people with the same surname and trying to work them forward to yourself is almost always a waste of time. That's especially true when the surname is common, like King, but you can learn your lesson even with less common surnames--like Blakiston. However, I had this research, done by my great uncle, which supposedly connected me to this illustrious and historical English family. My great uncle was, so I was told, an accomplished amateur genealogist who spent many decades researching this line. He was not only a member but also a mover and shaker in the SAR. Why shouldn't I trust his work? Here's why!
I have a copy of my great grandfather William Blackstone's death certificate. William Blackstone died in 1928, by which time my great uncle was already an officer of a local chapter of the SAR. On the death certificate the name of William's father--my great great grandfather--is given: Robert West Blackstone, this information having been supplied by my great uncle's brother. Here's the problem. I can't find any credible evidence (evidence that would stand up in court, so to speak) that Robert West Blackstone ever existed!
"But his name is on the death certificate!" you protest. Yes it is. And it's there because when William died one of his sons said William's father's name was Robert West Blackstone, and the guy in the death certificate office wrote it down! His name is also on my great uncle's SAR application, originally filed in 1904. I have a copy of it. It's a list of names and dates and that's it. Not one speck of source documentation from contemporaneous records--or any other kind of record for that matter--is cited. This document traces the Blakistons from Maryland to Delaware and eventually to Westmoreland Co., Pennsylvania, the name mutating from Blakiston to Blackiston to Blackstone along the way. Supposedly, Robert's father James came from Delaware after the War of 1812. James conveniently vanished off the face of the earth some time before 1840. Really! Nobody knows what happened to him. The story goes (circulated on message boards on the Internet) that he was on a business trip back to Delaware when--poof!--he was kidnapped by a flying saucer or something! (Just kidding, of course, but he might as well have been.)
What of the censuses? James Blackson (not Blackston) showed up in Unity Twp., Westmoreland Co., PA, in 1820. In 1830 he's listed as James Blackston. In 1840 there was only Elizabeth Blackston, supposedly his widow. In 1850 Elizabeth was living in extreme western Indiana Co. Robert, who is supposed to be her son, had just started his own family, and was listed on the other side of Indiana Co. as Robert Blackson. Listed with him were his wife, two step-children, and his one-year-old son William Blackson. In 1860 Robert Blacson (no k), his wife and family were in Allegheny Co. and appear to be living in a boarding house. In 1870 Robert was in Indiana Co. again living with another family and listed as Robert Blackson. His wife was in Pittsburgh. In 1880, although they were supposedly still living, they disappear entirely from the census. (And believe me, I've looked!) I have no evidence that Robert ever set foot in Westmoreland Co. or ever used the name Blackstone, much less that his middle name was West. I have been unable to find his will. Granted there are still records to be searched here. There may be a deed, although from the evidence of the censuses I am skeptical that Robert ever owned his own home or land. There must also be a court record of Elizabeth having her husband declared legally dead, which may contain the crucial information I need. There may be estate papers for James. In 1880 William Blackston appeared with his young family in Jefferson Co., Ohio. So I'm not sunk yet. There are still records to be searched for, but I will probably have to go in person to Westmoreland Co., PA, to do it. One of these days I may have the opportunity to do that.
So here I sit with literally hundreds of hours of research on the Blakistons already tucked away in notebooks, and the whole line hangs by a very tenuous thread. I can't tie it to myself because I started searching from the wrong end of the line. Start with yourself and work back. Published histories are fine, but don't believe everything they say. They are often simply wrong. Verify everything from original records.
Some people get a little POed when I tell them this. They have found this illustrious, and long, family tree, and by heavens they are going to clutch it to their chest as their own no matter what. They don't care if it's correct or not and aren't going to go to the trouble of finding out. In these days when information travels on electronic superhighways, the situation is much worse. Now anybody can put any kind of rubbish on a Web site. Ask them for their sources or challenge any little bit of their information, and chances are you'll never hear from them again. I don't get it. I don't understand the mentality, such as it is. Wouldn't these people rather know the truth? Apparently not.
And believe me, if you don't think there's a lot of crap out there, consider this. People are now doing genealogy by hiring psychics to hold seances so they can get information directly from dead relatives! They're phoning up psychic hotlines to ask genealogical questions. People are finding graves by dowsing! One ad in an otherwise reputable genealogical journal claims that dowsing can not only locate the grave but identify the sex and approximate age of the person buried there. If you copy someone's gedcom from a web page and accept it without verification, this is the kind of nonsense you may well be getting!
So here's the moral of that story. There's a lot of rubbish out there, not only in printed form, but especially in electronic form. Read it, make a note of it, but don't trust it. Work back, and verify. Chances are my great Uncle Franklin got it right, and if I hadn't wasted so much time, I'd be able to prove that by now.
That was a longer introduction than I'd intended, so let me move quickly now to see what lessons can be learned from my research on the King family. Here's what I knew to start with, which I was told mostly by my aunt Winnie. John S. King was as far back as anyone could remember. According to his tombstone, he was born in 1819 and died in 1886. He had three children: Leroy Porter King, Othello Walter King, and Eva Mae King. I've listed them in the order they were actually born, but originally the opinion was that Othello was the oldest of the two brothers. All of these children were born in Pennsylvania. I was told that Leroy eventually went to Oklahoma where he worked and prospered in the oil business. He supposedly had two sons, both of whom predeceased him without children of their own. Leroy lived to be 99 or 100 years old and died without heirs. Othello, my great grandfather, married Mary Caroline Bechtel and had nine children who survived beyond birth, the oldest of whom was named after his brother Leroy. I had a pretty good outline of Othello's descendants from family sources. Nobody knew much about Eva, however. She did marry, I was told, and her married name was Perry.
I asked what the S stood for in John S. King. Nobody knew. (We still don't know.) I asked where the name Porter came from. My aunt thought it was the maiden name of John's wife. (It wasn't.) I asked where Leroy went to in Oklahoma. I was told he lived in or near Tulsa. (Wrong.) Other questions got mostly shrugs. So that's what I had to start with.
Othello's date and place of death were known, so I sent for his death certificate. That told me he was born in New Castle, PA, on 9 Oct 1852 (wrong year, as it turns out) and that his parents' names were John S. King and Elizabeth Pfifer. By that time, I'd already learned my lesson with respect to death certificates, so I didn't put too much stock in the Pfifer surname. There was also a note to the effect that John King had been born in Ireland. When I learned that, I said, "Hey dad! I think the Kings might have been Irish." He said, "Oh yah. Didn't I tell you that?" Geez dad! No, you didn't.
The next thing I did was to write for a copy of Othello's will. I didn't really expect to learn anything new from it, but I wanted to have a copy. I'd never written for a will before, so it was good to learn how to do it on one I was pretty sure I could get. The copy came in about six weeks and contained reference to all the heirs I would have expected, not only naming them but also stating their relationship to Othello. I got a bonus, however. The will named Othello's father, who had died almost 45 years previously. Othello made provisions in his will to have his father's body moved from one cemetery to another. Thus, I had my great grandfather, who died more than 20 years before I was born, telling me the name of his father. Nice! I already had his father's name, of course, but it's always nice to have this sort of confirmation.
Next I went to the censuses. I learned from Othello's death certificate that he had been born in New Castle, so I searched there (Lawrence Co.) first, looking at the only film I could get my hands on at the time, which was the film for 1850. At that time, an index wasn't available, so I sat down at a microfilm reader (the old fashioned kind that you had to stick your head into) and read the entire microfilm, writing down all the families I came to that had anyone by the name of King living in them. Among them was the following enumeration:
Shenango Twp., p. 162, household 126, 127
I was fairly sure this was him, but not certain. Shenango Township, I knew from looking at a map that showed townships within counties (not easy to find in those days before the Internet), was just to the southeast of New Castle. John's age was about right, and his birthplace really didn't surprise me, but Elizabeth was not really quite old enough to be his wife, I thought. Maybe her age was recorded incorrectly. (It was, as it turns out.) The occurrence of Susan Piper made me wonder if, perhaps, Elizabeth's surname might have been recorded incorrectly on Othello's death certificate. (It was.) I hypothesized that maybe Susan was a younger unmarried sister of Elizabeth; thus, the correct surname would be Piper. (This turned out to be right.) I have never identified George Convert and family. I have not found him in any subsequent censuses. Was Mary Convert another sister of Elizabeth's? (She wasn't.) Was she some relation of John's? (Don't know.) So looking at the census raised a lot of questions in my mind that now required answers.
The next thing to do, of course, was to go to the 1860 census and see if the family was still living in Lawrence Co. The microfilm wasn't available to me at the time. Today I could rent it directly from the National Archives, but at that time I would have to get it through a local LDS Church from the LDS Library in Salt Lake City. The 1880 census was available in a not-too-distant library, so I searched that instead. I did not find them and so assumed that they had moved to another county by then. I began searching other counties: Venango (where he supposedly died), Crawford, Mercer, Butler, Clarion, Armstrong. Zip! I did find the following in Clarion Co.:
East Parker, Perry Twp., p. 244, household 399, 404
There was very little doubt in my mind that this was John's son. There was his mother Elizabeth, older this time. (This was the correct age.) Her father was born in Ireland, it said, but her mother's birthplace was blank. She was born in PA, just as the 1850 census had said. And there were Leroy's two sons, although one hadn't been named yet. (Hey! Give the kid a name. He's three months old for cryin' out loud!)
In the course of my many hours of looking at census microfilms, I also stumbled across the following family in 1850 Armstrong Co., PA: William Piper, age 25, married to Mathilda, also 25, with a one-year-old son named Othella. How about that? Could William Piper possibly have been Elizabeth's brother? Othella/Othello was certainly not a common name. In fact, it was quite rare. Could the Piper family be it's source?To Be Continued...