Thornton 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 describe one of the several types of projects I can do for you. My 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 story. And in the Mom’s Boxes series, I share more of hers.

And here’s how it all began…..

My dad grew up knowing little about his family history except that they were reportedly 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 research discovery was that the Thorntons were Quaker pioneers! Everywhere they went — NC > OH > IN > IA > CA — history books can be found describing, if not the Thorntons and their allied families by name, 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 who had much in common with his ancestors and didn’t know it. How do things like this happen? How does history get lost?

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 lifetime, in his branch of the family, Quakerism was apparently never mentioned again.

Looking for clues

I might have remained ignorant – partly because 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 would have known her namesake grandmother, Charity Wright Cook (who died the next year), and would have been quite aware that she was a well-known traveling Quaker minister despite having 11 children! (Algie I. Newlin wrote a book about her, called Charity Cook, a Liberated Woman.) But I wonder if Charity and Nathan knew that their Quaker grandfathers had fought (despite the Quaker pacifist tradition) on opposite sides of the Revolutionary War? 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?

Check out Thornton Family Resemblances Revisited for photos of Calvin, Nathan, and their descendants.

I like to use this meme to illustrate the fact that Ancestry adjusts percentages and categories as they add more participants to their database and develop more tools for presenting DNA info in meaningful ways.

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 Clay, Harris, Wilkins, Byrd, Pearson, Taylor, and Henderson families, but to no avail. Then we had his DNA tested. Turns out he’s 28% Irish/Scottish, a fact which he now likes to celebrate on St. Patrick’s Day. Funny, though, the only ancestor I have identified to date as having been 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 yet, but that only means there are more Irish ancestors for me to discover! And Scottish, too, apparently.

So the Thorntons are 95% British Isles (if you lump Ireland/Scotland and England/Wales & Northwestern Europe t0gether), and 5% Scandinavian. But where they actually lived, and which ports they sailed from, to reach America, I have yet to learn. Sometimes, 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. As were almost all of my other branches as well. Who knew?

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 who never lived in PA, 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 (a.k.a. James 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. I have more to learn about that, too.

Organizing for my legacy

Isn’t it odd that the unproven Scotch-Irish family legend persists, whereas the now thoroughly-documented Quaker connection (pieced together from Quaker records) 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 (What’s a photo without the story?) where possible.

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

Please leave a comment below!

Copyright 2016 – 2019 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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