Wednesday, March 10, 2021

The Disputable Discourse


Imagine, if you will for a moment, the hapless novice family historian. She starts out with good intentions to fill in the blanks on her pre-printed pedigree chart. For entries on father and mother, there is no hesitation, for she, as keeper of the family records, likely already has access to such information. Each step of the way, as she pushed toward details on her grandparents, is likely as simple a task to complete.

At some point, the paper trail becomes disrupted, and no matter what manner of contortions our hapless avocational genealogist twists herself into, she cannot conjure up the requisite proof of an ancestor's existence.

For most of us—those searching the garden variety Smiths and Joneses and others insignificant to world history—the trail ends at that point. But imagine, instead, that the researcher discovers her ancestor somehow, magically, became the central point in a dispute about origins and names and dates—and assertions of parentage with no basis whatsoever for support.

That is the dilemma wherein I've now found myself.

Let's take a look at what can be said for assertions about the parents of my third great-grandmother, Delaney Townsend Charles. Remember, all I know is that she was married in Madison County, Florida, in 1841, and that she, along with her husband and three children, appeared in the 1850 census for that same county, with the note stating her birthplace was in South Carolina.

Remember, too, that in addition to Delaney Townsend, Madison County was home to several other Townsend households, most of which originated in South Carolina, as well.

Since we observed, yesterday, that one of those Madison County Townsend men claimed to have been born in Marlboro County, South Carolina, let's see what we can find from some history reports of an earlier era. In 1879, John Alexander William Thomas published his tome entitled A History of Marlboro County: With Traditions and Sketches of Numerous Families

Fortunately, we are in luck, for one of those "numerous families" included in the volume was the Townsend family. From the narrative beginning at the bottom of page forty three, we learn that the Townsend family had been "prominent" in Marlboro County "for many years" and that they "may also be placed among the original settlers of this portion of the country."

According to the Thomas manuscript, the first Townsend to arrive in Marlboro County was named Light Townsend, "so far as our information goes."

That last phrase may be key to our discussion, both today and tomorrow, so keep that doubtful phrase in mind while we explore the rest of the article. The text continues to mention that this Light "is put down as an active soldier of the Revolution."

Interesting. Let's see what we can find by cross checking that assertion. Jumping to the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, there was indeed a record for a patriot named Light Townsend, but if you take a look, the entry in their database bleeds red ink. "Problems have been discovered with at least one previously verified paper—see ancestor's full record," the record shrieks. Perhaps the Thomas publication chose such judicious wording for a reason.

This may have been a case of two men with the same, admittedly unusual, name—which, as we'll see tomorrow, became a portion of a proof argument by a much later researcher. At the same time, the Thomas book was not immune from committing the same mistake again, regarding this Townsend family. Following the text onto the next page, one finds one's head swimming with references to several Townsends by the name of John; the generations begin to meld.

Somewhere in the mix, there was a John Townsend in Marlboro County, the very reason we first visited this possible trail back through Delaney's Townsend generations. Remember, more researchers than I can count have cut and pasted the assertion that Delaney's parents were John and Kiziah (or Keziah) Townsend—without documentation. Interestingly enough, that John also merited an entry in the D.A.R. Patriot file. And that, too, sported some red ornamentation.

While that John Townsend was asserted to be a resident of Marlboro County, curiously, another Townsend researcher included a footnote to her tree, quoting an entry from the multi-volume Pioneers of Wiregrass Georgia. The quote regarding John Townsend began with the explanation,

While never a resident of Wiregrass Georgia, John Townsend of Marlborough district, S.C., lived a few years in Georgia and had four son who were early settlers of Lowndes County [Georgia].

The biographical entry continued to recount the details we've been able to glean from John Townsend's own headstone (though not without disagreement): that he was born in South Carolina in 1760, married "Keziah Hays" and "died there...1858" (if, indeed, this regards the same individual, his headstone reports 1843).

It's a good thing the Ancestry subscriber quoting the Wiregrass entry provided volume number (seven) as well as page number (422-423) for the John Townsend entry. Despite continuing the quote to begin a listing of their "fourteen" children, the entry is cut short after child number seven, Florrie, born in 1804. If our Delaney was indeed included in that list, we would have had a long way to go to reach her year of birth in about 1816.

That, of course, would have been provided the Wiregrass manuscript was more accurate than the Thomas History of Marlboro County. In either case—more accurate or not—the entries contained therein were derived from reports of individuals who may or may not have had firsthand knowledge of the family. Worse, they may have come from the nameless "friends of friends" resource which, all too often, fails to report the situation accurately, despite making a warm and fuzzy story for people who like to bask in the reflected glory of family mythology.

Ouch. Was that my outside voice speaking?

While I have not yet been able to produce any documents connecting Delaney to this or any other Townsends in South Carolina, I found it interesting that at least one other researcher did mount a determined rebuttal to some portions of what might indeed have been family mythology, which fortunately is accessible through FamilySearch. We'll take a look at that side of the Townsend discourse tomorrow.  


  1. I'm behind in my blog reading, and I'm reading yours from the bottom up, so maybe you've found an answer by now. Let me comment about the DAR record. A "red line" doesn't necessarily mean that there is a problem with the patriot; it could be that the problem is with a descendant in a later generation. For example, a child is listed with the wrong parents, there was more than one wife bringing into question whether the child was from the 1st or 2nd wife, a child was born 2 years after the father died - things like that. Early applications to DAR did not require the level of supporting documentation that we require today, and new information available today often undoes the old. So don't be put off by the red line.

    1. Wendy, thanks for stopping by and posting that information. I knew you'd know! And it is helpful to have it posted here, in case someone else comes along and needs to know.

      Those publicly accessible DAR files are so helpful, but it certainly helps to know such details about the records, as well.


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