Tuesday, March 19, 2024

What's in a Story?


As I work my way back through the generations on my by-now colonial Virginia Lewis family, I encounter few verifying documents but, out of the blue, stumble upon a remarkable story. When family stories come to us from the early 1700s—or even earlier than that—how do we go about verifying the tale? More to the point, what, exactly, goes into the making of a family story? How does one's history turn into family legend?

I'm not sure I'll ever find the answer to such a question, but I have found one such story. Before we dive into the story, though, I need to set the stage with some genealogical orientation.

Right now, I'm edging my way backwards in time from the generation of my fifth great-grandmother, Elizabeth Lewis, wife of Thomas Meriwether Gilmer, to her parents. Fortunately, one of Elizabeth's sons wrote a book in 1855 sharing stories he recalled from his family's ancestry. It was there in George Gilmer's  Sketches of Some of the First Settlers of Upper Georgia that we learned the names of Elizabeth's parents: Thomas Lewis and Jane Strother.

It wasn't long until I found another book specifically on the Lewis family and zeroed in on Elizabeth's father Thomas Lewis. There in John Meriwether McAllister's 1906 book, Genealogies of the Lewis and Kindred Families, the author identifies Thomas Lewis as the second son of John Lewis and Margaret Lynn.

The book goes on to list each of Thomas' thirteen children, including the names of their spouses. However, not long after that discovery, I learned that the author had gotten one of those spouses' names wrong—at least, according to the files of the Daughters of the American Revolution. For the record, D.A.R. had flagged the entry for Patriot Thomas Lewis, noting that "problems have been discovered with at least one previously verified paper." Checking the notes on their website, it appears that the problem involves that very spouse—Thomas McClanahan—who had apparently married a different Margaret than the same-named sister of our Thomas Lewis

Taking that discovery as a token of the fallibility of genealogy books, no matter how well-intentioned the author, you can be sure I now proceed with due caution. Still, my curiosity was captured by the mention in more than one place about the circumstances behind the arrival in America of Thomas and his immigrant parents. In almost understated tones, the Lewis book explained that "after the departure of John Lewis from Ireland, on account of having slain his Irish landlord," he arrived in the colony of Virginia in 1732.

Say what?! Now, that's got to be a story. A family story, undoubtedly, but did it really happen? If so, how am I to document an event like that? And if it didn't really happen, how do I go about deciphering the truth of the matter to get the slightest inkling of what might really have happened?

Whether I can find the answer to any of those questions, at least I have two written versions of the event, albeit contained in those unsourced hundred year old genealogy books. For the sake of the story itself—whether it turns out to be true or not—tomorrow, let's take a look at what the Lewis family said had happened to bring them to America.

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