Surname Saturday: Old Family Histories – Gospel or Clue?

I have sworn to produce more and consume less in 2013; write more, research less;  read more books and fewer status updates.  I have stumbled a bit in the last week, as I prepared for the Family History Writing Challenge.

Determined to set a rich social context for my protaganist, Ira Sayles, I returned to accumulated notes hoping to glean early childhood vignettes.  A self-defeating  act, as it turns out, since I spent an ENTIRE day surfing the ‘net for collaborating evidence of the family register and family trees. By nightfall I felt like a zettabyte of information was smothering my writing spark.  Yes, I found genealogical gems, that appear to be well-documented and thoughtfully written.  And yes, they offer conflicting information.

DID IRA DESCEND FROM ARTHUR, JOHN OR HENRY HOWLAND?

Previous genealogists have gathered quite a bit on this dilemma, as it turns out. I have enough family documentation, indirect and direct primary as well as secondary sources, to rest assured that Ira Sayles was the son of Christopher Sayles and Sarah King Sayles.  Sarah King was the daughter of James King and Merrobe (Rhobe) Howland King.  Rhobe Howland was the daughter of John Howland, Jr. and Lois Eddy Howland.  Now I pause, not quite certain of my sources in tracing lineage back further, not an uncommon dilemma for folks with Revolutionary Era ancestors. I feel fortunate to document this much of the family, for I can say with a fair degree of certainty that the Howlands farmed land that they had purchased in Scituate, Providence County, Rhode Island, where they were free to worship as Quakers.

But there is a tug on my line that threatens to reel me back further, for you see, the Howlands came over on the Pilgrims’ boats.  Intriguing, no?

John Howland was an indentured servant on the Mayflower, and signed the Mayflower Compact.  Henry and Arthur, brothers of John, came over between 1623-1630.  All of the Howland boys were successful farmers and landowners in the early Massachusetts colony, but Henry and Arthur were obstinate troublemakers, from the Pilgrims’ point of view.  Henry and Arthur broke the Sabbath, refused to worship in public, and *gasp* harbored Quaker meetings in their homes.  Finally the two brothers migrated toward Roger William’s colony – Rhode Island. Settling in communities along the southwestern coast of Massachusetts, the Quaker Howland descendants continued to flourish, and in time migrated on into the western and northwestern corner of Rhode Island.

And that is where I find my Ira’s great-grandfolks.  Quaker Rhode Islanders.  That fact serves as a clue pointing to descent from either Arthur or Henry, not John as a 19th century Tioga County, Pennsylvania history purported.  Yesterday’s search uncovered a source, The John Howland Who Married Freelove Wood,  by Frances G. Jenkins, Williamstown, Massachusetts; this well-documented paper gives evidence that John Sr. who married Freelove Wood was a descendant of troublemaker Arthur.

Now I am really intrigued to read the substantial record of Arthur’s life.  BUT I have yet to determine with certainty the John Jr. who married Lois Eddy is the son of John Sr. who married Freelove Wood.

Now what?

I turn to you, fellow Keepers of the Family Lore.

  • How do you use the genealogical work of other descendants?
  • When do you decide that enough is enough, just write about it already?
  • What sources are available from my armchair to confirm parentage for New England ancestors of the mid-1700s?
  • What folks might be able to conduct look ups for sources, and in what archives?

Someday my family history writing will be someone else’s old family history.  I would like them to consider it a reliable story, more gospel than clue.

For me this dilemma is at the core of much family history work.  When do we treat our sources as gospel and preserve the family stories we have uncovered, as is? And when do we treat our sources as clues, to inform the next research question, leaving the story untold, or incomplete?

 

Surname Saturday: Preparing for the Family History Writing Challenge

Your ancestor sits amid the details, seemingly solitary, independent, like a mushroom poking through tangled blades. 

Upon further investigation, you discover others by his side: parents, aunts and uncles, children, cousins, neighbors, bosses, friends, enemies – a figurative forest of ‘srooms.

A forest of 'shrooms

The simple family history narrative that the Family History Writing Challenge beckoned you to write has become a convoluted mess of story lines and mysteries and brick walls.  This predicament is exactly what thwarted my previous attempts to compose the story of Ira Sayles, my paternal great-great-grandfather.  But this year is going to be different.  This year I have committed to writing 500 words a day about this perplexing gentleman.  As Lynn Palermo prompts in her Family History Writing Challenge, these syllables don’t have to be great prose, and the 14,000 words don’t have to produce a finished book.  I just have to remain committed to writing 500 words a day. By the end of February, I will have a start on the reconstruction of Ira Sayles, if nothing else, and I will have a habit of writing, which is infinitely more important than any resolution.

Today’s Surname Saturday prompt from Geneabloggers will be a preparation step for this February project.  Instead of being thwarted by the forest of relations, I WILL be inspired.

AHEM.

Ira Sayles was born to two long-time residents of Glocester, Providence County, Rhode Island in 1817.  In fact, the families of Christopher Sayles and Sarah King had been in the northwestern corner of Glocester – Burrillville – for generations. In 1825, Christopher and Sarah took their young family and went to Tioga County, Pennsylvania.  They left behind Christopher’s dad, Christopher Sayles, who died shortly thereafter; his mom, Martha Brown Sayles had died in 1813.

Tioga County, situated along the north central Pennsylvania-New York border, was a land of fertile soil, hard wood forests and plentiful water.  It was also a land of Sarah King’s family.  Her parents, James IV and Merrobe (Rhobe) Howland King, had emigrated from Rhode Island to the Westfield area in about 1815.  Those two souls had joined Rhobe’s Quaker parents, John and Lois Eddy Howland, who had pioneered the Cowanesque River Valley in 1803-04 with their son, Dr. Eddy Howland and family.

By the time Christopher and Sarah brought young Ira to be a “codenizen with bears, wolves and panthers”¹, there was an extensive network of extended family – like filamentous fungi connecting brilliant ‘srhooms.

Sayles, Kings, Howlands.  As I begin his story, I gaze on all the colorful characters in his life, and happily imagine what remains hidden underneath my genealogical meadow of facts.

Fall color in Amanita muscaria

¹ Sayles, Ira. Letter to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; 1880. Archived in Houghton Library, Harvard University.Copy received 5 April 2010.