Saturday, January 18, 2014

Finding the Rest of the Story

It’s a funny thing, trying to initiate a family history search based on interviews with older family members. You may consider history to be a litany of dry facts, but when it comes down to it, everybody has his or her own version of that history.

As I explained a while back, I started my inquiries into my family’s stories at an early age. Because the names were so ear-catching to me as a young child, I pressed, early on, for details on what became of my Davis grand-aunts.

It took a while for me to discern that those history facts came to me, packaged in among the stuff of family prejudices.

My mother’s first, off-hand and nonchalant reply to my incessant inquiries was that, other than Lummie, her aunts had married early—and made poor choices, at that.

I don’t remember the first time I was given the chance to really study the entries in the old Davis family Bible, but I do recall the time I actually took notes of what I read: it was right after graduating college. I still have that page with my frantic handwritten notes—hurrying, just in case someone decided the moment was over and it was time to close the book. (Thankfully, now I also have the original Bible, itself, to confirm what I had once copied.)

One of the points I had noticed, in taking those notes, was that two Davis aunts had been married more than once. Each aunt’s first marriage had not lasted long.

Once again, now that I was older and hopefully my elders would be more forthcoming, I pressed my mother for more information. She maintained that same story: that both Tennessee aunts had just been young and foolish, perhaps in the manner of “backwoods” country people, marrying too early. She also insinuated the notion that, most likely, alcohol was involved, and that the marriages were probably of an abusive nature.

In the case of Chevis Davis, I definitely wanted to know more, but the ability to research the fate of her first marriage was hampered in that—in what I suppose was the fashionable manner of the time—her husband was entered in the family Bible only by his first and middle initials: H. M. Chitwood.

Anyone researching Tennessee roots is likely to confirm to you that there are a lot of Chitwoods out there, just waiting to confuse your research results. Working solely with initials does not help that matter.

By the time of the late 1990s, I was finding my way onto genealogy forums and ListServes, learning about online resources that could help me with my Tennessee research. In those pre-Web 2.0 days of dull, dry text-based online files, it was hard slogging to wade through lines and lines of typewritten names. There were no beautiful graphics on subscription-based sites with handy boxes to fill in and, with a single click, to bring up a wealth of resources. But I learned my way around.

Somewhere in the midst of that search, the proverbial “Some Kind Soul” materialized and helped me hone my search for the H. M. Chitwood I was seeking. Actually, there were several kind souls. Although I saved many of those original emails with the sources, some have undergone understandable changes after all these years. But I will never forget the day I stumbled upon the answer to my question, “What happened to H. M. Chitwood?”

A forum participant gave me a link to access what was—back then—online from, I believe, the Tennessee Archives. It contained a listing, searchable by year and county, by surname of those who had died in that year. Somehow, that linked to a transcription of the death certificate. In some cases, the transcription included more than just the basic names and dates—in rare instances, it included unusual notes included in the death certificate.

That was how I found out what happened to H. M. Chitwood. And the news was so startling, even seeing it listed in courier font typewriter style writing, something visceral leapt out of the sterile screen and grabbed me. I could only imagine the pain of going through such an ordeal—both for husband and for wife.

Another two of those Kind Souls also provided a second resource: a genealogy book with the straightforward title, Unicoi County Tennessee Death Record Abstracts, 1908-1936. Each of these helpful forum members emailed me with the details of that added note of the unusual cause of H. M. Chitwood’s death—and, incidentally, revealed at last what the “H” stood for.

Preparing for this post today, I tried to retrace my steps to that old website link, but I cannot find it anymore. I checked Joe Beine’s site, from where I may have found that original site, but I can’t locate that old record there. I’ve tried Googling it. Perhaps, since it was so outdated in appearance (certainly not in data!), the site has been so revised as to no longer be recognizable.

In its place, I can now find websites with digitized copies of the actual death certificate—that document I would, back then, most likely have had to pay fifteen dollars for, then wait six weeks until my self-addressed, stamped envelope came back to me, hopefully bearing the right person’s certificate.

Now, with a simple click of your mouse, or tap of your finger, you can bring up that gruesome news for yourself: that Harvey M. Chitwood, a railroad employee, was somehow going about his duties when he fell from one car and had his head completely severed from his body, thanks to another passing train.

On September 14, 1914, that sudden event changed everything for newlywed Chevis Davis Chitwood.

Yet, despite the trauma, seven months later, she gave birth to the son who would never be able to see the father he was named after.

While the realization of the cause of the senior H. M. Chitwood’s death was a shock—even after all these years—the lesson that hit home the hardest for me was not empathy for the pain that young family endured nearly one hundred years ago. The lesson I learned was that, sometimes in mining our family resources for details on those relatives who have gone on before, we must take caution to not pick up the prejudices of our elders.

It took me a while to think this one out, but what I realized—and I think this guess is fairly accurate—is that, often, our older family members may be passing down to us the preconceived notions they absorbed from their own elders. Think of it: my mother, who gave me my initial impression of this family, was not even born when this tragedy occurred. How would she have known what happened? Only through her own parents. And—as may have happened in your own family, too—who passes down the stories of family history? Often, it is the mother, telling stories to feed the curiosity of young, inquiring minds. Of course this type of story-telling is going to be sanitized.

In addition, keep in mind some other family dynamics: not all families are in angelic fellowship with each other. In my mother’s case, she was raised by a set of parents who, let’s say, had a rocky relationship at times. If nothing else, her mother was less than approving of some of her in-laws. She may have had an attitude about those in-laws that didn’t turn out well in the translation. If nothing else, we can see that in my mother’s first casual impressions, most likely absorbed from her own disapproving mother, that the man was a ne’er-do-well who abandoned his family.

He left his family, alright—just not in the way anyone one hundred years later would have expected.



  1. I think you are correct, family information has to be taken with a grain of salt...perhaps cross referencing relatives would help. I am certain my brother would answer questions differently than I would. Still the facts are facts..and that must have been a horrible death...but quick:(

    1. In our case, Far Side, this was one of a few examples I discovered through research that showed me how family attitudes can influence perception of family history. I'll talk about another instance when I get to Chevis' other sister's family history.

      Yes, older or younger siblings may have a different perspective from which they see things, but all of us are liable to pick up the viewpoint of closer family members when it comes to interpreting the life circumstances of more distant relatives--especially those of generations which preceded us.

      Still, I must have been fairly naive to have not realized that kind of thing would happen. When I saw it in black and white on paper, it did slap me in the face. It's so easy to assume the assumptions of the preceding generation were pristine fact, when sometimes they weren't.

  2. Sometimes, even the family really doesn't know "what went down". My great-grandfather's railroad death for instance - the story was "handed down" in only the barest of outlines - possibly because it was too painful to speak about - or they didn't want to "jinx" those that "survived"... or perhaps there was something that went "unspeakably wrong" - was he drinking? or did he somehow "goof up"? I've hunted long and hard for the "real story" -- and still have few answers today.

    1. That part about drinking: I've wondered that, myself. It just seems so surreal to think someone could get so easily mowed down at work. In our minds, when we read about tragedies like that, we think of our own modern work places. They are not the same. We have no idea...

      Your many guesses about your great-grandfather's own situation make sense. It could have been any of those possibilities--and then some. Mostly, I think, in the face of tragedy, people don't want to talk about it because they then find themselves reliving a most unpleasant episode from their past. Who wants to do that?!


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