Monday, November 19, 2012

From TV to Microsoft: My Mayflower Society Tale

The TV to Family Tree Browsing Discovery

In April 2011 I watched the episode of Who Do You Think You Are? where Ashley Judd learned she was a descendant of Mayflower passenger William Brewster.

I knew I had several Colonial-era families from my genealogy research but highly doubted any of them went quite that far back. Along the way in my research I'd made a habit of noting what looked like very well researched lines from Rootsweb family trees as possible leads connected with my ancestors while knowing they weren't conclusive proof - merely hints at possible paths to research further when I got to that particular branch.

Patiently I searched the index of possible leads against the list of the 52 Pilgrims one at a time. Nope, nope, nope... oh wait, there's a name match on one of the possible lines where my research gap was pretty easy to bridge as being realistic. A ridiculously common-sounding name though. That couldn't possibly be....  

OMG he really was a Pilgrim on the Mayflower.

Not only was Richard More on the Mayflower and also alive in Salem during the witch trials hysteria, he had a mysterious past that wasn't explained until 1955 about why he as a 5 year old and his 3 young siblings (who all died by that first winter) were shipped off to America on a boat as indentured servants to others without their still-living parents. Scandal! Adultery! Bigamy! Excommunication! Royal lineage! Not the things one usually thinks of when hearing about the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving, but my possible 11th great-grandfather sounded like the type of guy I'd love to chat with over an ale at the pub.

Getting Down To Documentation Business

After the initial surprise of that discovery wore off, the first step was to see just how much work I had cut out for me to be able to prove that this potential connection to Richard More was true. I filled out a Preliminary Review form and, sure enough, it was the real deal. The line was already documented down through to Orange Warner, my Mormon pioneer 4th great-grandfather who probably wouldn't have been too thrilled about Richard and I at the pub. My job if I wanted to join the General Society of Mayflower Descendants (GSMD) was to prove all family connections between him on down the line to myself and our son.

There wasn't even a question in my mind that I'd try. My family is so small to begin with (so is Richard's, all of us who are his known descendants are from just one of his granddaughters) that if no one else had made this connection before, the chances of it being made again in the future were even more slim.

Initially I thought things would be very easy to prove with primary sources: Not only did I know that all the generations of my deceased family from the direct line had died in California and their dates of death to obtain death certificates, I only had to provide triads of birth, marriage & death certificates from my grandparents' generation to myself - piece of cake.

Where Documentation Went Wrong and Microsoft Helped

The next step was copying or ordering all the various death, marriage & birth certificates needed. All were quickly gathered with one puzzling exception - a death record number existed for my 3rd great-grandmother Cornelia Elizabeth Warner, but neither the County of San Francisco nor the State of California could actually locate it. I have an official Certificate of No Public Record with the Seal of the State of California embossed upon it dated September 16, 2011 stating this fact.

Ok - on to the secondary sources it was. Unfortunately there is much about Cornelia's life that is a mystery, but I compiled the 1850, 1860, 1870 & 1900 census records for her (she and the family are maddeningly missing from the 1880 census) and her cemetery record, but none of these specifically identified her as Orange Warner's daughter. Searches of country records on multiple microfilms turned up nothing showing this missing critical link and I didn't know what else I could do.

Enter the Internet Archive's copy of Pioneers and prominent men of Utah,  where a cover page notes "Digitized by the Internet Archive in 2007 with funding from Microsoft Corporation." On page 1215 in there was the missing critical link identifying Cornelia as Orange's daughter. It turned out the digitized copy was far more legible than a microfilmed copy to actually read, so printouts from the online copy were included.

The Centennial Celebration Moment

It takes a long time for the official application process to chug through, and initially some things were questioned but ultimately we made it: my application was accepted in early 2012 and I became a member and our son a junior member in March this year during the centennial celebration of the Washington Mayflower Descendants.

Lessons Learned

It's worth it to try. My distant cousins are some of the kindest and most generous people to connect with and I should have done so much earlier in the process. In 2002 one of them received both the State and Country death certificates for Cornelia that went missing by 2011, and sent copies to me in addition to a fabulous genealogy she published about Orange! In the future if anyone from Cornelia's line wants to apply, please contact me and I'd be more than happy to send the copies to you as well to spare you this primary source frustration. I'm tempted to even send copies of the death certificates and the Certificate of No Public Record back to the State with a note saying "No really, these do exist, see?"

It's not a sure thing. You may think you know primary sources exist and you can easily obtain them, but until you have it in hand keep searching for copies of any and everything else you can find about your ancestral line because you never know what you might need from them. 

It's very surreal. Last Thanksgiving we knew but this Thanksgiving I've proven our ancestor was on the Mayflower. What would it have been like to turn 6 years old far from home and your parents, have all your siblings die, then have half the people around you also die? This has been a sobering issue to discuss with our son yet the entire experience of joining has also been both memorable and meaningful to him. He's still a bit young to read the excellent Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick, but we'll be covering American Indian Perspectives on Thanksgiving this week and contrast it with the perspective in Coming to America soon.