Sunday, March 22, 2015

Stuffy Old Genealogy Tomes Tell All

What do you do when it’s 1855 and you have no tell-all tabloids to keep you informed when standing in line at the dry goods store?

Apparently, you read genealogy books.

One of my resources, in following my Taliaferro and related lines, is a book that was first published in 1855. Written by former governor of Georgia, George R. Gilmer, it was known by one of those traditionally-elongated titles of the era: Sketches of Some of the First Settlers of Upper Georgia, of the Cherokees, and the Author. Let’s just call the book Sketches for convenience.

The Gilmer book was re-printed, in a “corrected” form, in 1926 and then again—this time, with an added index for ease in researching—by the Genealogical Publishing Company in 1965.

“That most charming book,” as the foreword to the corrected edition of Sketches noted, had a mixed reception,
…because of the chatty style, unpleasant gossip, minutiae of descriptions, and the too candid truths therein about so many prominent people. The author’s unvarnished story and lack of extenuation made his book distasteful to many who were aggrieved thereby.

The foreword did go on to admit,
This history, however, written as it is in this most unusual style will always remain as an oasis in the moral desert of truculent and time serving literature.

So, what did the tell-alls of mid nineteenth century America say?

Remember the woman I mentioned yesterday—the one I suspect might be in my direct matrilineal line? Here’s what Governor Gilmer had to say about her on page 15 of the most current edition of his book:
Mary Meriwether, the oldest daughter [of Thomas Meriwether Gilmer and Elizabeth Lewis] is a woman of good understanding. She married successively two very indolent, inefficient men, whom by her industry she saved from poverty. The first was Warren Taliaferro, brother of Col. Benjamin Taliaferro; the second, Nicholas Powers, a handsome Irishman.

Should you think this was just a slip of the pen in a late-night writing session, here’s an additional passage from Sketches, this time focusing on the Taliaferro side of the genealogy:
Warren Taliaferro was tall, muscular, good-tempered, very indolent and inefficient. He constantly reminded those who listened to his conversation of his Italian descent. He married Mary M. Gilmer, daughter of Thomas M. Gilmer. He was a fond husband and father.

Sure, the author blended the good with the bad in his version of the family memoir. But when it came to the bad, George Gilmer seemed to hold no inhibitions about expressing his opinion. Take this entry about Warren Taliaferro’s older brother:
Richard Taliaferro was deformed—his legs and thighs being only a span or two long, whilst his body was of ordinary length and size, and his head unusually large. His mind was of good capacity, but his deformity so soured his temper, and mortified his pride, as to drive him from society. He never married, became very penurious, and died without ever having enjoyed the love or commiseration of any but his nearest kin.

How’s that for a eulogy?

Though a passage like this might permit you a glimpse into just what it was that had some of the good governor’s readers outraged at his opinions, apparently the plainspokenness of this former generation carried the day. Gilmer’s genealogy went on to be cited and his stories paraphrased in other genealogies, as well.

An 1892 publication, The Meriwethers and Their Connections, followed suit in divulging one of those personal stories, the subject of which undoubtedly would die a thousand deaths if she had known what had been said about her. Just imagine this scenario:
David Meriwether, the third son of Thomas and Elizabeth Thornton Meriwether, was a quiet, upright man… He married Mary Harvie, a very sensible, good woman, and one of the best of wives. She was so fat when old, that she seldom left the house. Her husband was usually found by her side. She weighed between three and four hundred, and was tall in proportion. He was low in stature, and weighed about a hundred and twenty. Her seat was a broad split-bottom chair, and when she rose up, she put each hand upon a round of the chair, and ascended so gradually, and for so long a time, that she looked as if she would never stop.

David and Mary Harvie Meriwether, incidentally, were the parents of the charming young lady, Martha, who became the focus of the struggle between brothers Benjamin and Zachariah Taliaferro for her hand in marriage. My fourth great grandfather lost.

Not to be out-done in this genealogical tell-all, Colonel James Edmonds Saunders—aided and abetted, no less, by his granddaughter, Elizabeth Saunders Blair Stubbs—added to the Mary Harvie story in their own version in 1899:
She was one of a family of nine brothers and sisters, whose aggregate weight exceeded 2700 pounds. When Mrs. Meriweather [sic] became old, she weighed between 300 and 400 pounds. The four daughters in this family were all well favored…

The Saunders narrative, Early Settlers of Alabama, continued with the next generation of this Taliaferro family,
Major Benjamin Taliaferro [son of Martha Meriwether, whose mother was Mary Harvie] married Martha Watkins, in Georgia; moved to Alabama and lived in Marengo county. He was low in stature, but very squarely built, and in old age weighed largely over 300 pounds. He inherited the fattening tendency from his grandmother.

Still, there were some kind words to add to the picture.
Major Benjamin T. was of sprightly mind, and sharp wit; and he had a fund of the best Georgia anecdotes, which made him the life of every company he entered. His rippling, guttural laugh much resembled that of the renowned English actor Hackett, when he personated Falstaff.

Good, bad or indifferent, these authors’ observations about the foibles of our ancestors at least give us an idea of what these people of past generations were like. Perhaps the kindness was—at least, I hope this was so—that the subjects of the sketches in these genealogical narratives were, by then, long gone.

Yet, we have to remember that the candid nature of such writings does not guarantee their accuracy. The transparency of the authors lends somewhat of a charm to what would otherwise be the dull droning of begats—but that doesn’t mean we are safe to allow ourselves to be beguiled by what made it into print, well over one hundred years ago.

A warning from the author of Sketches, himself, reminds us to take the information we glean from such manuscripts with caution. In the 1926 edition of his work, Governor Gilmer wrote, regarding himself,
Old age and long continued ill-health have made the author’s hand tremulous and his sight dim, so that he writes badly and cannot readily perceive mistakes. He employed copyists to transcribe his manuscript. They made many mistakes. The author could not supervise the printing. The printer added to the mistakes of the author and copyists.

And you think these time-honored genealogies are reliable resources?  


  1. One would think a political animal like an ex-Governor would be more circumspect by long habit!

    1. I guess politics today isn't quite the same as it was back in the Governor's day...

  2. Poor Mary passing on her fatness to a grandchild:(

    1. It definitely made me wonder if there were any medical explanation for her condition. Sounds like something that was passed down through the generations.

  3. Some days it's just good not to be a Meriwether or Taliaferro.

  4. Jacqi,
    Why are you showing up on Rivers DNA listing for Chesterfield County, SC? Write me at CPurvis1 at my gmail account.

    1. Charlie, that is absolutely a surprise to me. Looking forward to looking this one over with you.

  5. While I would love to stumble on such a source for my own ancestors, I can't help but keep my fingers crossed that no one is recording my odd habits and idiosyncrasies to share with future posterity. He did have a way with words though didn't he?

    1. Well, watch what you write in your own diary, then!

      On the other hand, I really appreciated being able to look through my mother's journal after she died, and only wish I had more from my ancestors from generations far back. We don't really get to know what they were like as a person--unless we are fortunate enough for someone else to have mentioned it. would be nice if the observer were a bit more forgiving in the details he preserved for all to see.


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