09 April 2017

Correcting the Tree!

The fascinating blog of the NEHGS, vita-brevis.org
Vita Brevis (the blog of the New England Historic and Genealogical Society, located at vita-brevis.org) has recently posted a number of fascinating articles about the correction of family trees – information that’s been accepted as correct, sometimes for many generations, that proves to be incorrect under further scrutiny.  I don’t know how common this is, but I expect it’s pretty prevalent.  In my own case, the act of putting my genealogy under the microscope resulted in multiple changes to the accepted “common wisdom”.  There were various reasons for these changes – willful misdirection, confusing records and accepted published histories that are changed due to scholarly review are all causes of changes to my own published genealogy.  I’ll start with the  most compelling of these circumstances: willful misdirection!

False histories

As I mentioned in my March 26, 2017 entry, “How I Make Use of Internet Information”, some people who draw up their family histories “pad” their trees with historical figures. 

It’s not a new phenomenon.  In the early 20th century, there was a wave of publishing of family histories, many of which were well researched and documented.  Unfortunately, some authors were less attentive to detail and more speculative and produced less reliable histories.  Additionally, there was a cottage industry that provided family historians with false connections to nobility or other historical figures.  People who appeared credible would offer their information for a fee and the information would then become incorporated into the published histories.

These histories, a century later, are transcribed into online family trees with the incorrect information intact.  Others then link to those trees or take the information to include in their own online trees.  This is a way in which fiction becomes accepted as fact.

Woolley Hall, ancestral family home
of the Woodruff family of Poole, England
but not my ancestral home!
I encountered exactly this situation in researching my own family history.  When I went online to do an early search for Woodruff family information, I found several websites hosted by Woodruff heirs with detailed trees.  A few ended with our immigrant ancestor, Matthew Woodruff from Farmington, Connecticut.  Others connected him directly to nobility as the son of Sir David Woodroffe of Poyle, Wooley [sic], England.  The Woodroffes of Wooley have a long and fascinating noble history, back to Magna Carta barons and royalty.  I was excited to see this work all laid out and done for me already – I just had to transfer it to my chart!  Case closed!

Some time later I was able to locate a copy of a Woodruff family history published by my own ancestor in 1925.  Frederick Orr Woodruff, my great-great-grandfather, worked with George N. MacKenzie on the Woodruff history at the same time that MacKenzie was also working on volume III of his Colonial Families of the United States of America.  Frederick paid a man who claimed to be an English cousin for information making the connection mentioned above, referred him to MacKenzie and prepared to include it in his own family history.  After MacKenzie’s volume III was published (with this noble connection included), Frederick determined, through extensive and expensive correspondence with English genealogists, that the information was false.  He wrote about it in the forward to his family history and it was not included in the publication.

MacKenzie’s book, however, had far more reach and can be found more easily, even today.  So the false connection is published and accessible in a credible genealogical history from almost 100 years ago and is, therefore, accepted by many today as fact.  It is included, in good faith, in online trees and the false connection is shared further. 

The lesson I took away from this was the basic lesson I learned long ago in college about any type of academic research: when you find a data point that you plan to use in order to draw a broader conclusion, you must verify that data point.  This lesson applies here as: when you find something in print or online that furthers your family history, particularly with connection to some important person, you should perform some basic, often common sense, validation of the data or even the source.  See my previous blog entry for more detail on this topic of validation.

Mixed records

Besides the acceptable / trusted sources I have mentioned in my prior post, another valid source of information is contemporaneous recollections of individuals. This example shows how such a recollection was a key factor in my decision to dig deeper into a confusing series of records.

In keeping with my own advice, I decided to take Frederick Orr Woodruff’s family history and validate the information, as he did not provide much in the way of supporting citations.  In doing so, I uncovered another Woodruff mystery.  One of my ancestors was named Noah Woodruff, from Southington, CT, a town near Farmington, CT, which was the origination point for the family.  Noah had a number of children, although the specific son, David Woodruff, from whom we descend was not found in the records.  I then consulted a more comprehensive Woodruff history, published by Susan Woodruff Abbott in 1963.  She indicated that this individual was an amalgamation of two Noah Woodruffs, born about the same time, one in Farmington and one in Southington, nearby towns.  Both the histories showed our line through the Southington Noah, but there was no proof, and, in fact, some evidence that Noah of Southington didn’t pass the Woodruff name on.  (Timlow’s Ecclesiastical History of Southington specifically states that Noah Woodruff’s male line ended at his death.) So now what?

My great-great grandfather,
Frederick Orr Woodruff
Frederick’s family history had a note from the author addressing the lack of a birth record for Noah’s son, David Woodruff.  He stated (and I have since confirmed) that the church records for the date of his birth are missing.  However, he provides a contemporaneous recollection of David and his father Noah, which validates the connection:

“I know from my grandfather, Hiram Woodruff, son of David, that Hiram’s grandfather was Noah Woodruff and that Noah had a son named Roswell, who was my grandfather’s uncle and with whom he was on intimate terms.  There is no denying the facts of this record of Noah Woodruff, as it is Family History.” (Emphasis his)

Because Frederick’s grandfather had spoken about his own grandfather named Noah, there’s a compelling argument that Noah really was in the line, despite published statements that Noah’s line ended.  This caused me to scrutinize the other Noah from Farmington and attempt to sort the two of them out.

I had quite a time distinguishing between the two Noahs (this will be the topic of another blog post).  I was able to ascertain that my line, in fact, descends from the Farmington Noah whose history is not included in Frederick’s history and is not connected to our line in Susan Abbott’s history, both of which have published the incorrect descent from the Southington Noah.  Like the Southington Noah, the Farmington Noah was a descendant of the immigrant ancestor, Matthew Woodruff, but through a different son.  This meant wiping out the original connection, which has been accepted for more than 100 years.  It also meant removing all the fascinating lineage from their wives.  I have since inserted the new line, adding a generation in the process, and have begun the research into the new spousal lines.  This is still a work in process.
Accepted history that’s later revised

My great-great grandmother,
Elizabeth McLellan Gould (Rowland)
Hester Rowland
Harrington (Stow),
named after an
ancestor I removed
from the tree.
Finally, one more instance of bad information finding its way into the record can be demonstrated by a family history written by my great-great-grandmother, Elizabeth McLellan Gould, wife of Lyman Sibley Rowland.  She laid out, in this history, her Mayflower roots through several lines.  One line, through Isaac Allerton, proved to be correct when I traced the records back and obtained the proofs I needed.  The other line, however, through Francis Cooke proved to be incorrect.  She indicated that her ancestor, Jacob Mitchell, was the son of Experience Mitchell and Jane Cooke.  Jane Cooke was the daughter of the Mayflower Francis Cooke and Hester Mayhew.  (My grandmother’s sister Hester was named for this connection.)

It turns out that Jacob Mitchell, our ancestor, was not the son of Jane Cooke with the Mayflower connection.  My g-g-grandmother didn’t make it up, though – in 1915, when she wrote her history, it was accepted that Jane Cooke was the mother of all of Experience Mitchell’s children.   It was only later in the 20th century that Experience’s marriage and children were examined in more detail and it was determined that he was actually married two (or possibly three) times.  Only his first two or three children were from his marriage with Jane Cooke.  The rest, of whom my ancestor was one, were from his second marriage to Mary, whose surname is not known (or even the possible third marriage).  This left me with a brick wall on her side and it wiped out the long-held family belief that we had a Mayflower connection through Francis Cooke.

Chart I created to show the remaining, proven, Mayflower connection.
This page shows the first three generations.


Not to put too fine a point on it, but it is imperative that you look at every source, even those from your own family (particularly those!) as critically as possible and prove the data yourself.  Pay particular attention to connections you find with important personages and noble lines.  Finally, please, for the sake of future generations of genealogists in your family, keep track of the documentation!  Scan it, take a screen shot or a photo with your phone and SAVE IT!  I’ll address my methods for saving records and how to organize them in a future post.


The New England Historical and Genealogical Register. Boston, MA: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1847-. (Online database: AmericanAncestors.org, New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2001-2013.) v. 127 (1973), pp. 94-95; https://www.americanancestors.org/DB202/i/11718/94/23501729

The Great Migration Begins: Immigrants to New England 1620-1633, Volumes I-III. (Online database: AmericanAncestors.org, New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2010), (Originally Published as: New England Historic Genealogical Society. Robert Charles Anderson, The Great Migration Begins: Immigrants to New England 1620-1633, Volumes I-III, 3 vols., 1995). pp. 1270-1273; https://www.americanancestors.org/DB393/i/12107/1273/23895632

George N. Mackenzie, George S. Stewart, and Frederick O. Woodruff, Matthew Woodruff of Farmington, Conn. 1640-1 and Ten Generations of His Descendants, together with Genealogies of Families connected through Marriage, 1925.

Elizabeth McLellan Gould Rowland, The Gould-Chase Book, Material for Family History Gathered During Thirty Years, 1915, three copies made.


From my personal collection and:

Vita Brevis, the blog of the New England Historic and Genealogical Society: vita-brevis.org

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