I learned the hard way: Family trees should be drawn in pencil, not ink

December 4, 2014

 

Like a fly snared in amber and held in view for eons, two or three lines from a yearlong video project I prepared for my family render it almost unwatchable for me. I was quite proud of the work I did to retrace the history of the farm in eastern Kentucky where my mother grew up.

 

And after poring over courthouse documents and what seemed like gigs of online data, I thought I had it nailed.

 

I was particularly happy to include information about two of my great-granduncles — Lee Wilson, who first consolidated the land that would become the family farm, and Bun Wilson, who I believe lived there for a short while. They held in common not only this real estate but sad demises — Lee was struck by a train, and Bun died by his own hand in his son’s home.

 

But in the DVD I gave to aunts, uncles and cousins for Christmas 2012, I flubbed the explanation of both deaths. Badly.

 

I made the video hoping it would inform generations of cousins about a special place many would likely never visit. (The farm was old about two decades ago.) Instead, subsequent family-tree research clearly indicates I sent misinformation hurtling through the ages. 

 

Hulking ego suffers no greater injury than the permanent preservation of the mistakes it wreaks. I lick my wounds and consider two important lessons: Never assert as absolute truth something you do not know first-hand; and if you’re writing family history, keep an eraser handy. 

 

I suppose there’s a third lesson, one I learned long ago as a journalist: Correct your mistakes to the best of your ability. 

 

So for those who have seen the DVD, let me set the record straight. The “official” account of Lee Wilson’s death is much as I told it. He was indeed discovered on a set of railroad tracks in 1936, and his death certificate indicates he died by hemorrhage and shock following “traumatic amputation” of his right leg. Family lore included speculation that Lee Wilson wasn’t killed by a train at all, but that his body had been propped up on the tracks with 2x4s — murdered for some reason not quite clear to descendants of his brother Burl — and long dead by the time the train clipped his leg.

 

My Uncle Kenny told me Lee’s story and said he thought he had been killed near Cincinnati, Ohio. In preparing the DVD, I searched several online sources for death records of Hamilton County and surrounding jurisdictions in Ohio and Kentucky, but I turned up nothing. Too eager to tell the story, I included an account of it in the video, erroneously citing Cincinnati as the place of death. I excused my breezy acceptance my reminding myself how often I am astonished that the stories Uncle Kenny tells are later substantiated by the historic record. But this mistake doesn’t belong to my uncle — he never said he was certain Lee Wilson died in Cincinnati.

 

To the contrary, his uncertainty about that fact should have given me pause. 

 

Unable to find any record in Ohio of Lee’s death, I was excited a few months after completing the DVD when Ancestry.com gave me a the little waggling leaf — the system's way of letting you know you have a possible records match. It showed a dath certificate for Lee Wilson … from Mullins, WVa. I gave the document a look — white male born May 6, 1885, in Kentucky; wife Mary Stidah. (Actually, it's "Stidham," but this was my great-granduncle, all right. An image of the certificate can be viewed at the top of this post.)

 

With the exception of the place of Lee Wilson's death, most of the other information I presented as fact was accurate, or at least not contradicted by the death certificate. That wasn’t the case with the man my grandfather and his children referred to as Uncle Bun.

 

There might be no better illustration than Uncle Bun of how difficult it can be to extract reliable information from the historical record — particularly a century-old record collected in a rural area where many were illiterate. 

 

I knew Bun C. Wilson was not a ghost. I'm told my grandfather often spoke of him. As a child, Kenny sometimes read letters from Bun to his brother Burl, Kenny’s grandfather, who could not read. Census records corroborate much of what I’ve been told about him — wife Bessie Brown Wilson; one child, Homer Lee Wilson; and a birthday in about 1899.

 

But so much about Bun proved difficult to pin down, starting with … well … his start.

 

Bun was (apparently) the youngest of at least four children of Abijiah Wilson and Martha Royse Wilson. Burl, born in 1884, was the oldest child. Lee (1885) was the next oldest, and followed by two daughters, Sara (1892) and Myrtle (about 1892). According to most records I’ve located, Bun was born Oct. 1, 1899.

 

But a 1900 census form for the family invites confusion. It lists as a son a “Millard O. Wilson” born in October 1899 and a daughter, “Vesta Wilson,” born in 1896. My Uncle Kenny had never spoken of these two relatives before and, when I asked about them, indicated they were unfamiliar to him. The census form does not list anyone named Bun (or Bunyan, Bunion, Clifford or Clefford — variations of family names by which Bun might also have been known.)

 

A 1900 census sheet showing the family of Abjijiah and Martha Wilson.

 

Then oddly, in subsequent census forms, Bun appears in the Wilson family, while Millard and Vesta disappear from it.

 

Given the similarities of their birthdays, it is possible Bun and Millard are the same person and that the discrepancy owes to some sort of recording or transcription error on the 1900 census form. Uncle Kenny has also suggested Bun might have been adopted — he had flaming red hair and a light skin, not the dark coiffure and olive complexion of most of the other Wilsons. If that were the case, and if the adoption took place after 1900, that would at least explain why he was not listed with the family on the 1900 census form.

 

But that is speculation.

 

Kenny said he believes Bun lived for a short while at the family farm, about the time Burl purchased the property from his other brother, Lee, in the 1920s. If that’s the case, he likely didn’t live there long, as he doesn’t appear on the 1930 census form for the household. But there are lots of stories about Bun that connect him to the property, including a tale that he shot a man in the living room of the farmhouse and once killed a man related to one of the Wilson’s neighbors. The circumstances are murky, but apparently, Bun never did any time for it if he indeed engaged in some deadly dispute. He did, however, do time in a federal prison for moonshining late in his life, although my attempts to get records that pin down dates have thus far been unsuccessful.

 

I have confirmed with Bun’s grandson that he was incarcerated for a short while for selling moonshine — he seldom ran it himself — however, that confirmation came after I had already made my video. For that, I instead leaned on information gleaned from an online source that appeared at cursory glance to be a match — a man named Clifford Bun Wilson born in Kentucky and married to a woman named Bessie — but ultimately proved otherwise. Thus, I erroneously reported that Bun died h in 1948, 26 years too soon.

 

As I’m coming to find, genealogical research often creates as many questions as it answers, and the quest for definitive proof of anything can be maddening. 

 

I ran across this article at GenealogyBlog.com that lists the frustrations that can arise from census records. Spelling mistakes are common. Often, so are dates of birth, particularly on older forms, because birthdays were not widely celebrated in the United States until about the 1880s. Duplicate families appear on the forms, too —sometimes different census takers visited the same house; sometimes, families moved during the census year and takers visited them at both addresses.

 

I started sketching my family tree about three years ago. In that time, I’ve traced, erased and traced again the Wilson lineage to Richard Henry Lee — “The Immigrant,” who started the prominent Lee line in Virginia. I’ve found two links to this ancestor, so I’m fairly certain there is a relationship. However, one of those lines is tenuous — I’ve been alternately convinced and dissuaded that Theodocia Lee is indeed related to The Immigrant. I'm confident she is my 4G grandmother on my mother’s side, I’ve found materials stating definitively that she is the daughter of Maj. Burwell Lee and thus the 5G granddaughter of Richard Henry Lee. But I’ve also found records suggesting the parentage of “Dosha” Lee is uncertain and that she is not likely related to that line of Lees.

 

As for my wife’s family, my father-in-law’s line includes the surname Boone, and Debi’s paternal grandmother often told her they were related to the great frontiersman Daniel Boone. I’ve found no evidence to support the claim, despite much digging, but it sure would be neat if it were true. That would mean our ancestors crossed paths centuries ago — the Rev. Daniel Williams, my 5G grandfather, migrated into Kentucky; fought alongside Daniel Boone in one of the final battles of the Revolutionary War, the Battle of Blue Licks; and was married to his wife Violet Crouch by Daniel Boone’s brother, Squire Boone.

 

Or at least, I think that’s true.

 

Daniel Williams is supposed to have been the son of Edward Williams and a descendant of Roger Williams of Philadelphia, but the Pennsylvania Historical Society reports Roger Williams left no male descendants, according to an online history I discovered at FamilyTreeMaker.Genealogy.com. So if that detail of Williams’ lineage cannot go unchallenged, how much of the subsequent tale bears closer scrutiny?

 

Applying that scrutiny is part of the fun, I suppose. I enjoy solving puzzles, although Uncle Bun and Uncle Lee have taught me the hard way to record my answers in pencil, not ink.

 

With that in mind, no one should take as final authority anything written here unless girded by the historic records — maybe not even then. And if you believe you've spotted a mistake, call me on it.

 

As much as it stings my ego to have a mistake pointed out, it's far worse to let a mistake go uncorrected.
 

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