Family History Writers Challenge Howland Surnames

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.


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?