Getting to the Source of a Family Record

I’ve mentioned this record before. It’s the family record my great-grandmother Anna created and distributed in 1979 that identified the children, siblings, parents, and grandparents of her and her recently deceased husband. Being twelve years old and having never wondered about any of these people, I was thrilled to suddenly consider them. Being twelve years old, I also lost interest and moved past the whole situation with head-spinning speed.

In retrospect, of course, I’m deeply disappointed I wasn’t older or perhaps had the precocious wherewithal to follow up with my great-grandmother. Did the record preserve everything she knew about her and her husband’s families? Or did it just summarize her knowledge? Did she record this data from memory? Or were there older family records she used as her sources?

I had plenty of time to ask about these things too. She lived until 1990, a year after I graduated from college and moved to New York. Alas, my real interest in genealogy was still fifteen years away from emerging. When it did, not only had my great-grandmother died, but her daughters (my grandmother and great-aunt) had slipped deeply into dementia. Following up on the family record would once have been an easy exercise; now it would be a real challenge.

The first thing to do, if you haven’t already, is to sit down and really assess the record. I wrote my assessment in my source citation so that I and any reader would be aware of both the strengths and the limitations of the source and the reliability of the resultant data:

Anna Catherine (Yoachum) Gregory, “Gregory family tree,” 1979. The manuscript consists of three sheets of paper glued together to form a single 11” x 17” sheet. Anna hand-wrote several copies of this family tree and mailed them to many, if not all, of her grandchildren. Minor variations are found between these copies (e.g. John Gregory’s birth year is given as 1798 in all known copies except one, which gives 1788). Some of the hand-written copies were photocopied and further distributed. The hand-written copy now in my possession was originally sent to my mother, Geneva Jean (Moon) (Gillis) (Goodwin) Russell. The source(s) is (are) unknown, but most data has been corroborated with other sources with minor differences.

That’s a fair first assessment, but could I further assess the record in a way that might help me find its source?

Click on the image below, and take a look at the record. What do you think?

The first thing that seems reasonably clear is that the record uses more than one source. In the center column toward the bottom, for example, is this entry for Anna’s paternal grandparents:

Grandpa                                            died
Harvy Yoachum No birth date Mar. 1917
Irene Wilks no record except ¼ Indian

And this entry for her husband’s maternal grandparents, further above in the same column:

Harmon Roberts. No record of birth, told
it was Oct. 14—1814—Records were lost
during Civil War, family moved from
Va to Iowa, later moved to Mo. where
he homesteaded land in Berry [sic; Barry] County Mo.
near Cassville Mo. No record of Grandmother

In marked contrast, the first column of Anna’s in-laws (Gregorys dating from 1798) have precise dates for every birth, death, and marriage listed:

John Gregory was born Sept. 10-1798 = Died Jan. 29-1842
Nancy Gregory born Feb. 17-1802 = Died April 2nd 1887
she married John Gregory Sept. 18-1818

Based on these and similar observations, I hypothesized that the Yoachum and Roberts data likely came from an aging memory, while the Gregory and Hall data likely came from family Bibles. I didn’t know this for sure; I just formed a hypothesis to test.

I started with the theoretical Gregory Bible. If my great-grandmother used it as a source for her 1979 manuscript, was it in her possession or someone else’s? If it was in her possession, how did she come to possess it? How old was that Bible? Was it contemporary to the events? Or was it at least notably closer to the events than 1979? If it existed, could its complete provenance be determined? Civil War Pension applications proved to be the key to answering these questions.

On 9 June 1913, Thomas R. Gregory (Anna’s father-in-law) signed an affidavit relative to his pension claim. In that affidavit, Thomas proffered evidence of his birth date:

[H]e has in his Possession an old Family Bible. That was Published by John Edwin Potter of Philadelphia Pa, 1864 as appears on Title Page, and that among other Entries is the Following, “Thomas R Gregory was Born March 3d 1839”. That said Bible Was given to him by a Sister who was older than him. & is a Copy or She Said it was of Their Family Record. She is dead. She was 17 years older than affiant. he further States that this is all the Record he has. That he is the Only Survivor of his Family.[1]

I know, I know. How lucky am I? I now know that there was a Bible and that it was in Anna’s father-in-law’s hands in 1913. He was then the last survivor of his family (among his parents and siblings), so the Bible was not passed to one of them. He died just four years later in 1917.

What happened to the Bible then? We can determine this from another document submitted as part of Thomas’s pension application, an application for reimbursement submitted by his son William to cover expenses related to his father’s last illness and funeral:

25. State the names of the persons by whom the pensioner was nursed during the last sickness. Myself & wife did all the nursing
26. Where did the pensioner live during last sickness? he lived with me
27. Where did the pensioner die? at my house
28. When did the pensioner die? March 4 1917[2]

It’s reasonable to assume that the Bible Thomas referenced in 1913 was left in the hands of William and Anna at his death in 1917. After William’s death in 1978, Anna almost certainly used it as a source for the Gregory data in her hand-written family record of 1979. She then died in 1990.

So where is the Bible now? I asked my mother, aunt, uncles, and a few distant cousins to no avail. None of them had ever seen such a Bible. Did it survive my great-grandmother’s death in 1990? Perhaps not.

I next considered who my great-grandmother may have passed it on to. Tradition suggests that women are often the caretakers of family Bibles and generally pass it on to the eldest surviving daughter. In this case, that would be my grandmother, who died in 2008. I pressed my aunt and uncle again. No luck. No such Bible was found among my grandmother’s papers after her death.

Then recently my uncle was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He called me and asked me to come down to Virginia to help go through family papers, including my grandmother’s papers, and determine what should be saved and what should be thrown away. We spent long days and nights over a long weekend to go through it all. And very late one night, I was going through the umpteenth box when I saw them.

They certainly looked like pages from a family Bible, but they had been torn out. The data on the pages matched the data my great-grandmother recorded in 1979, but how would I ever know what Bible they were torn from? I wouldn’t have, except that whoever tore the pages from the Bible also tore out the title page and kept it with the others. The publisher? John Edwin Potter of Philadelphia. The publication date? 1864.

These were pages from the Bible that Thomas R. Gregory had inherited before 1913 from his sister, who was seventeen years older. The description of his sister fits Susannah (Gregory) Wood, with whom their mother Nancy lived until her death in 1887 and beside whom Nancy is buried. Yes, several of the dates in the record precede the Bible’s publication date of 1864. The earliest information in these Bible pages was likely copied from another, older Bible. Importantly, however, it was copied while Nancy was still alive, a fact that lends credence to the underlying data.

In the end, this exercise proved to be incredibly helpful. Not only did I get to a more reliable source for some data, I was then gifted with additional information I hadn’t had before and have not been able to find otherwise: the names, birth dates, and death dates of several great-aunts and uncles who died young in the early 19th century.

So if you haven’t already, take a second look at your family records. A little scrutiny and hypothesizing could lead to a long-awaited breakthrough.


[1]Thomas R. Gregory (Pvt., Co. B, 84th Reg. Ind. Inf., Civil War), General Affidavit (form 3-014), 9 June 1913, pension application no. 358,766, certificate no. 243,997, Case Files of Approved Pension Applications . . . , 1861–1934; Civil War and Later Pension Files; Department of Veteran Affairs, Record Group 15, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

[2]William Gregory, Application for Reimbursement (form 3-044), 21 April 1917, pertaining to Thomas R. Gregory (Pvt., Co. B, 84th Reg. Ind. Inf., Civil War), pension application no. 358,766, certificate no. 243,997, Case Files of Approved Pension Applications . . . , 1861–1934; Civil War and Later Pension Files; Department of Veteran Affairs, Record Group 15, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

  1. April 1, 2019 3:07 pm
  2. April 3, 2019 2:23 pm

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