You might notice that weekends are normally when I publish my 52 ancestor stories – and this isn’t exactly a normal 52 Ancestors story – but it pertains. Trust me for a minute.
Halt the Presses
This is what happens when you THINK you have correct information for your ancestor – or any topic really – and for some reason, you discover that you don’t.
Generally, the reasons fall into three categories:
- New information not previous available
- Misinterpreted information, sometimes based on incomplete information
- Incorrect information from “elders”
The reason the 52 Ancestors story I had planned for today isn’t publishing is a result of items 1 and 2. Fortunately for genealogists today, records previously buried in dusty cellars and church books in tiny villages are now being imaged and indexed along with other information relevant to rebuilding our ancestor’s lives.
While it’s irritating to have written an entire article and THEN discover something new – it’s actually a VERY POSITIVE outcome, because the new information was a wonderful development as the result of their spouses’ article published last week.
So while I need to rewrite this week’s and the original article, I will write with gratitude!
The third situation, incorrect information from elders, is a bit more awkward – and yes, I’ve been tripped up with that one too.
Who Are The Elders Anyway?
In most every culture, the elders are those who have lived long enough to amass wisdom – or they are more focused on a particular subject. In traditional societies, these might be healers, shamans or hunters.
Today, the genealogical elders might be individuals focused on genealogy, genetic genealogy specialists, or the people in our own family who are literally, older, who know more about our family because they knew their grandparents who passed away long before we were born.
Additionally, because we all begin as novices, book authors and people who already have trees online are perceived as “elders” in this sense, because they have more experience than the novice. This extends to other people on social media, whether they have any expertise at all. It’s impossible for the novice to tell.
Uncle George – The Good Elder
Let me give you an example.
My father died when I was a child and his family lived in another state 500 miles distant. I didn’t know any of his side of the family until as a young adult, I decided I wanted to find out if there were any living family members. I literally called the telephone “operator” and told her to connect me to any Estes in Tazewell, Tennessee. I remember her asking, “But which one, there are several?” I was excited!
The operator selected an Estes at random and a couple phone calls later, I was talking to Uncle George who everyone assured me knew all about the genealogy of the Estes family. Indeed, he was the family elder I needed to connect with. He told me he had known my grandfather, Will Estes. He refrained from telling me the juicy details. At that time, I didn’t even know there were juicy details about my grandfather. I would learn about those later from one of the crazy aunts.
A few months later, I went to visit Uncle George, who was not my uncle at all, but my first cousin once removed. The term “Uncle” in that part of the country is a term of endearment showing respect and kinship with someone.
Uncle George was kind enough to share his recollections with me, along with photos, dates and burial locations. He was the collector of such things, the family archivist. It’s somehow ironic that Uncle George had no biological offspring, although he was very fond of his second wife’s children.
At this point in my life, I wasn’t a genealogist, or at least I didn’t realize I was. It’s a sneaky addiction you know! A slippery slope and once you’re there, it’s too late to do anything about it. If you are reading this article, you very clearly know whereof I speak😊
When I met Uncle George and his brother, Uncle Buster, both of whom I adored, Uncle George was in his 70s and we were separated by almost half a century.
That means that he was in every sense my elder and looked uncannily like my father – so much so that when he opened the door the day I met him for the first time – I stood on the step literally dumbstruck, seeing the ghost of my two decades deceased father.
We sat on the couch during my visit, side by side as he pulled one note and photo after another out of “the box” and shared them with me, recounting the story of each one. I was transported back in time.
He told me that he was quite young, but that he remembered standing at the graveside of his grandfather, my great-grandfather, Lazarus Estes when he was buried in 1918. He asked, “Do you want me to take you there?” Now remember, I wasn’t a genealogist yet – but I truly believe it’s right about here in the story that I was infected with this lifelong affliction.
I excitedly said yes, and off we went – to view a grave WITH NO HEADSTONE.
How many of your ancestors’ graves are unmarked? What would it be worth to you to go with someone who had stood at that grave when they were buried and knew exactly where it was located?
This is what I’m referring to as leapfrogging. That happens when you find someone old enough that they have personal knowledge of incidents and people at least two and sometime three generations before your own available family memories.
In my case, I had no memories available to harvest, except for the Crazy Aunts who we’ll mention in a minute, because my father had died. Finding Uncle George who had carefully taken notes was a godsend.
His personal knowledge was remarkable. Of course, I wish desperately now I had asked more questions – so many more questions.
Uncle George is who told me about the cabin that burned, and with it, my father’s brother. He planted the willow tree on the spot where that cabin once stood. And where I later stood too, grieving a half century later for my grandparents and that poor child.
Uncle George knew both Lazarus Estes and Elizabeth Vannoy Estes, my great-grandparents. Granted, they were old when he was young, but he could take me to where their cabin stood, show me where they dipped their water with a gourd from the stream and tell me about what his father told him as well.
Uncle George’s father, Charlie Tomas (yes, it’s really spelled that way) knew his parents of course, but he also knew his grandparents, in particular, his grandmother Ruthy Dodson Estes who died in 1903 when Charlie would have been 18. It’s because Charlie shared this knowledge with Uncle George that we knew that she suffered terribly from rheumatoid arthritis and had to be carried from her cabin to Lazarus’ when she could no longer care for herself. It’s through Charlie that we knew where Ruthy’s unmarked grave was located as well.
Ruthy’s husband, John Y. Estes didn’t die until 1895, but he left Tennessee for Texas before Charlie was born, so Charlie would never have known him.
This leapfrogging begins to break down here, but we’ve connected in some tangible way with George acquiring either first or second hand knowledge of people born in 1820.
Furthermore, Uncle George knew that his great-great-grandmother’s name was Nancy Ann Moore. He was accurate. How do I know? Because I found their marriage license in Halifax County Virginia from 1811 some years later. Because Uncle George knew her name, I knew I had the right John Estes in Halifax County and that allowed me to search further and connect back in time to earlier generations – breaking through the brick wall of how my Estes line connected to the descendants of Abraham Estes.
Uncle George’s recorded notes leapfrogged back in time from the 1980s to 1811, an amazing 170 years!
What didn’t Uncle George know?
He didn’t know where the family came from in Virginia, but he unknowingly held the piece of information that allowed me to make that discovery.
He didn’t know where John R. Estes who had died in 1887 was buried, although he presumed it was in the family cemetery. At least Uncle George TOLD me he was presuming.
This is the important distinction.
I didn’t know enough about genealogy at that point to understand what to ask. He knew enough to tell me and thankfully, I heard him.
When interviewing elders, it’s important to discern what they know and how, as opposed to what they are inferring based on other knowledge, and it’s critical to record what they say verbatim. By that time, I had finished college, so note-taking was second nature – thankfully. I find my notes from those conversations that include items I’d forgotten, and I know at the time I thought I’d never forget – but I did.
As I read back over my notes from my visits with Uncle George, I discovered that I had forgotten things that seemed unimportant at the time, but were valuable puzzle pieces later when I had a clue.
To the best of my knowledge, Uncle George never provided me with a piece of inaccurate information. In some cases, he didn’t know all of the details, which I later discovered, but they never disproved what he had told me.
But then, there were the Crazy Aunts.
The Crazy Aunts
The crazy Aunts were elders too when I met them, about the same time. They were my father’s sisters.
Uncle George didn’t forewarn me that the aunts were crazy. He didn’t tell me that they um, created or embellished stories with added drama, at will, it seems.
Now, I do have to admit, some of their stories did turn out to be true, and ALL OF THEM were quite interesting. Sometimes far more interesting than the truth.
That’s a lot of very specific information.
And guess what?
None of it was true.
I’ve tracked down every bit and disproven that entire statement, piece by piece, including genetically through Y DNA and mitochondrial haplogroups and ethnicity tests of descendants. Elizabeth Vannoy was not half Cherokee. Her family wasn’t even living in the right location, to begin with, and the evidence continues from there.
This isn’t the only instance of receiving incorrect information from the aunts.
However, Aunt Margaret did indeed provide me with family photos, none of which I had or would have had without her generosity.
This begs the question of whether Aunt Margaret was conveying something she was told or whether she was playing fast and free with the truth, or maybe conveying the story as she wanted it to be.
I don’t have the answer to that.
What I do know is that I believed it for a very long time. I know that my father believed it too.
Verifying Elder’s Stories
Stories conveyed by the elders are absolutely invaluable. However, we have to evaluate every piece of that information individually, divorcing ourselves from the emotions we hold for tellers.
Yes, we know that you love grandpa and you can’t conceive of grandpa every lying to you – but maybe grandpa didn’t tell a Pinocchio. Maybe he told the truth as he believed it. Maybe he only modified the facts a tidbit to protect someone – perhaps you.
For example, when I was young, there was a sign in front of our house that said “colored people not allowed.” Colored meant me…because my father’s family was “dark” and my father firmly believed that he was indeed Indian, attending to Powwows held in secret at that time because they were illegal.
Was he partly Indian? Yes, I do believe so, based on a variety of evidence.
Was his grandmother half Indian through her mother who was 100% Cherokee? No, unquestionably not, including mitochondrial DNA evidence that shows her haplogroup as J1c2c! That European mitochondrial haplogroup alone proved unquestionably that her matrilineal line is not Native. Her father’s haplogroup I is also European.
Perhaps that tidbit conveyed by the crazy aunts substituted Native for African. Perhaps their parents or grandparents, in the early 1900s were trying to explain why they were so dark and trying to protect their family from rampant “zero tolerance” discrimination.
We will never know today. What I do know, and can prove is that the information provided by the aunts was inaccurate. I cannot speak to the intention.
Talk, Record, Share, Correct
This brings me back to my commentary about my 52 Ancestors stories. I need to correct two stories already in print and delay one that was scheduled to be published today – because I need to correct information based on newly discovered facts.
However, those facts would never have come my direction had I NOT published what I had, with sources and references.
I’ve heard a number of people say that they don’t share trees or stories because they aren’t “finished” or they are afraid of perpetuating bad information. I share that concern, but imagine if Uncle George hadn’t shared what he knew with me.
That information would be gone today, forever irretrievable.
Here’s my advice.
- Do your best.
- Verify as much as possible.
- Share your sources and your research path.
- Document what you can and state clearly what you do not know, items that need followup or areas where you are suspicious, and why
- Negative evidence is still evidence. For example, “I checked and John Doe is not in the marriage/death/court/deed/will/probate records in XYZ County between 1850 and 1900.” That provides invaluable information, even though you didn’t find any documents. It’s not at all the same as not having checked.
- Correct the stories or narrative as soon as you discover either an error or something new.
We believe our elders because when we find them, they are more knowledgeable than we are. They have the benefit of time and sometimes location and there is no reason for us to NOT believe them. After all, they are the ones we are turning to.
Like everyone, elders, no matter how much we love and respect them, are human, and they convey what they were told. We can’t go back in time and evaluate why their elders thought or said what they did. We don’t know if someone assumed that an individual was buried someplace or knew it by standing at their graveside. And we don’t know if they got information from the equivalent of Uncle George or a Crazy Aunt.
We also don’t know what was omitted, or why.
For a long time, I believed that John Y. Estes must surely be buried in the Estes Cemetery too, between his parents, wife and deceased children. It made perfect sense. That is…until I discovered quite by accident that he left his family in Estes Holler in Claiborne County Tennessee, walked to Texas (twice) not long after his youngest child was born and was in fact buried in the Boren Cemetery the middle of a field in Montague County, Texas in 1895. Imagine my surprise making this discovery, which, by the way, I verified in person, taking the photo of his headstone myself in 2004.
None of the elders told me that really important tidbit. Could be because they didn’t “know,” but somehow I think it might have had more to do with the “d” word. Divorce. Or maybe because he left his family. It could also have something to do with the fact that he fought for the confederacy in the Civil War while most of the neighbors and family fought for the north. Or maybe some combination of the two made him easy to forget.
The other glaring omission is that Joel Vannoy, father of Elizabeth Vannoy, who died in 1895 was institutionalized in an “insane asylum” for “preachin’, swearin’ and threatenin’ to fight.” Lazarus transported him to the asylum in Knoxville, and everyone in “Estes Holler” which connected with “Vannoy Holler” was aware of the situation. It was no secret at the time, as I later discovered. Uncle George’s father, Charlie clearly knew this, and knew Joel as well. I surely wish Uncle George had told me. He was a kind man and didn’t want to speak ill of anyone, alive or dead.
The Crazy Aunts would have told something that juicy in a heartbeat, so I’m going to presume they didn’t know! They weren’t raised in Estes Holler.
The truth is the truth, no matter how flattering or unflattering. Our ancestors are unique individuals, warts and all.