Family History Lost & Found

My grandpa, dad, and brother

My grandpa, dad, and brother

Have you ever lost part of your family history and found it again? Do you still have unsolved mysteries that intrigue you?

In Puzzling Out Your Family History I talked about the joys and challenges of doing one’s own genealogy research. In The Gift of an Organized Family Tree I described my genealogy introductory package.  My new Family History Research Services web page includes Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ), the first of which is, “What the heck does genealogy have to do with organizing?” In Gifts I Got from Mom, I shared more of my personal story.

And here’s how it all began…..

My dad grew up knowing little about his family history except that they supposedly of Scotch–Irish descent. His father had nine siblings, but the only one my dad really knew was his Uncle Melvin. (Why? Was there a falling out? We may never know.) I never met him, but it was this uncle who prepared a little packet of family history info to share with his family. That’s how I learned the names of four of my sixteen 2nd great grandparents. It sparked an interest in me to find out more.

How does history get lost?

My first independent discovery was that the Thorntons were Quaker pioneers! Everywhere they went — NC, OH, IN, IA, and CA — history books can be found describing, if not the Thorntons and their allied families, then how the Quakers as a group were instrumental in settling that place. But it was news to me. It was news to Dad, too, now a retired Christian minister and VA chaplain. How do things like this happen? How does history get lost?

True, there were two generations separating my dad and his Quaker great-grandfather Calvin Thornton. Most of Calvin’s generation fell away from the church and were disowned for marrying outside their faith and similar infractions. Quaker disowning is not as harsh as Amish shunning, in that one is not ostracized by one’s family. Still, at least in my dad’s experience, in his branch of the family, Quakerism was never mentioned again.

Looking for clues

I might have remained ignorant – because most Quaker birth, death, and marriage records were kept internally, and not at county courthouses — had a Polk County Iowa history book, in a biography of Calvin Thornton, not included this throwaway line: “He was reared as a Quaker.” One thing led to another (each step of the journey a story in itself) and I discovered Calvin’s parents, Nathan Thornton and Charity Cook, who married in 1821 Indiana. Charity Cook Thornton knew her namesake grandmother, Charity Wright Cook, and would have been aware that she, among several other relatives, was a well-known traveling Quaker minister. (Algie I. Newlin wrote a book about her — Charity Cook, a Liberated Woman.) But I wonder if Charity and Nathan knew that their Quaker ancestors had fought on opposite sides of the Revolutionary War? (Or not fought, in the case of Nathan’s Loyalist grandfather Thomas Thornton.) Did they know and not care? Was it still talked about, or was it water under the bridge? Had that episode of their family history already been lost?

It’s in our blood

Dad has always been far more interested in the Thornton branch of the family than in any of the others. I tried to explain to him why we should be equally as interested in the allied Clay, Harris, Wilkins, Byrd, Pearson, Taylor, and Henderson families, but to no avail. Then we had his DNA tested. Turns out he’s 37% Irish, a fact which he now likes to celebrate on St. Patrick’s Day. Funny, though, the only ancestor I have identified to date, who was born in Ireland, is Eliza Holmes (1795-1855). She married a Wilkins and had a son who married a Henderson, who had a daughter who married a Thornton. I know nothing else about her. That means there’s a whole Irish branch yet for me to discover!

So the Thorntons are Irish, Scandinavian, and Western European, with some Iberian Peninsula and other trace ethnicities thrown in. But where they sailed from, to reach America, I have yet to learn. It seems I will never identify the immigrant Thornton who first came to America. As far back as the mid-1600s all of my Thornton ancestors were born in America.

And what does Scotch-Irish mean, exactly? It’s a North American term for the Ulster Scots, an ethnic group in the Ulster region of Ireland, who trace their roots to settlers from Scotland. Their descendants migrated to America in large numbers in the 18th and 19th centuries. They are largely Presbyterians. (Doesn’t quite fit my 1600’s Quakers, does it?) The Scots migrated to Ireland in large numbers both as a result of the government-sanctioned Plantation of Ulster, a planned process of colonization which took place under James VI of Scotland and I of England, on land confiscated from members of the Gaelic nobility of Ireland who fled Ulster, and as part of a larger, unplanned, migration.

Organizing for my legacy

It’s odd that the unproven Scotch-Irish story persists, whereas the thoroughly-documented Quaker connection was almost lost. It is part of organizing for my legacy that the Thornton history will not be lost. The trick is to preserve it and share it with my family in a way that they, too, will enjoy it. That means turning names and dates into stories, adding context from world and local history, and including photos where possible.

Who is the historian in your family? What mysteries would you like to solve?

Please leave a comment below!

Copyright 2016 by Hazel Thornton, Organized For Life.
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  1. Hazel, that is so interesting! Thank you for sharing your family history….it reminds me of a novel – a family fall out, a disowning, family members on opposite sides of a war! Maybe you should write a novel, or a series of them! I would definitely read it 🙂

  2. There’s someone on my mother’s side who put together a booklet about the family history and a paternal aunt of mine seems to be the designated historian on my father’s side. I haven’t had much interest in researching on my own, but as my son gets older, I imagine he’ll ask questions and that might push me into it! And then I might be calling for your services. 😉

    • I think a lot of people are in that position….someone else has already done it, so why bother? But is their research accurate? How far back does it go? Is it shared in an accessible, interesting way? Definitely call me if you become more interested!

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