|31 January 2023
The Donkey Tail Method of Doing Genealogy
A genealogy club I was associated with several years ago needed a home for about a thousand volumes of good genealogical material, including many of the standard and often famous genealogical volumes. I volunteered to help. One of my first inquiries was at the county's main library that had an old and pathetic collection of about two hundred volumes — and tons of empty shelf space. At my appointment with the system's director, he looked me squarely in the eye and said, "Academicians do not take genealogy seriously." That was that (although the collection now resides at the California State University at San Francisco). Of course, I'd previously heard others express similar sentiment about genealogy in much the same way. Yet the avocation is followed by physicists, attorneys, doctors, and university professors of various callings. I have to admit, however, that the reputation is not entirely undeserved. A terrifyingly large number of people are doing really bad genealogy. I can pretend it doesn't matter, but since the onset of the internet their version of genealogy have dominated the "air waves." Newcomers are regularly taken in by, and continue to propagate, lineages that had long before been disproved. Even experienced genealogists are sometimes misled.
This concern isn't new. Here's a 1904 quote that sums it up very well, I think. Frankly, I have a tenancy to overuse it. (If it seems familiar, you might have read a previous article I'd written.)
My first encounter with an obviously bad genealogy occurred in the late 1990s. Before that time, I'd been corresponding the old fashioned way with librians, serious-minded researchers, and relatives of some distant cousinship. Yet most of my work was done in archival venues, often in person, often through snail-mail correspondence with public libraries, government entities (state and national archives), and through county historical and genealogical societies. All were a great help during the pre-Ancestry.com days.
But this work has obvious failings. The manuscript was researched and written in the early 1930s during a six month period, as per the author's preface. She, Lura Hamil, died of heart failure before a publisher could be found and it languished on a closet shelf until discovered twenty years later by her cousins. They published it in 1955 and it quickly became the "bible" for Cooleys not associated with Ensign Benjamin Cooley, an early pilgrim to Massachusetts.2 I suspect my grandfather was aware of the Hamil's book, A Story of Pioneering, as I recall him telling me in about 1957 that we were related to Daniel Boone, something I had since long pondered over until finally seeing Hamil's work for myself in 2012. (The Illinois State Library sent the original manuscript to me, all done up in a still-supple leather binder and brass brad fasteners!)3 Hamil had already been suspect in the 1960s when a respected genealogist suggested that a cross and bones be displayed on the book's cover.4 Still, it's contents came to be regarded as indisputable fact — until I caught wind of the problem.
Digitized from the preface of "A Story of Pioneering," 1955
My Y chromosome was first tested in 2006 at FTDNA.com. Scottish and Norse markers were found that are similar to those determined to have belonged to the Scottish chieftain Somerled (died 1164). Historians had long known him to be of Viking ancestry, later confirmed by Y-DNA analysis. After a good deal of consideration, I became convinced that the central theme of Hamil's book, that the family was New York Dutch, was likely incorrect. But I didn't have enough data to confidently make such a statement. So, I reached out to other Cooley families implicated in Hamil. At least six different and entirely unrelated families referenced in the book were found. One was of the early Dutch family of Kool, the others had British origins of various Y-DNA haplogroups.5
I've used familysearch.org for some years and have stumbled onto several such myths among those families that interest me. For example, there is no evidence that Richard Bennett of early Jamestown was descended from the Earl of Tankerville. Some unknown individual back in the deep mists of time decided that his father Robert Bennett, a tanner from Somerset, England, was "Sir Robert Herbert Bennett," the 1st Earl of Tankerville. As is the modern way, the claim is still plastered all over the internet. In fact, the title was bestowed upon another Bennett family a hundred years later.6 A similar example is found with an early 18th century immigrant to the colonies. Robert Elliott was an illiterate Pennsylvania dirt-farmer from Ireland. Folks have proclaimed him to have been the 3rd Laird of Midlem Mill, Scotland. In fact, the real laird is documented as living, raising a family, and dying in Scotland. Nevertheless, workarounds are often employed, such as the declaration that this Robert Elliott was an illegitimate son of the 2nd laird, and that his natural mother took the son and ran off to Ireland. Indeed, the "illegitimate" contrivance is popular among these "family historians." Of course, no proof was ever offered.
Another popular myth is that early 17th-century immigrant David Darnall to Maryland married the daughter of George Calvert, the 1st Lord Baltimore. No matter that no record of a child named Mary has been found. Further, neither is she mentioned in Calvert's will in which he left ?? to each of his daughters. Some explain the latter away by saying she died before the father, forgetting that if that were the case, she could not have married Darnall nor had been the mother of his children. Another correspondent informed me that George must have had a daughter named Mary because he was Catholic. The truth is that Calvert converted to Catholicism after his own children were born, including the fictional Mary. Yet another offered the all too familiar story that dear Georgie-poo, being the affectionate lad he was, had an illegitimate child named Mary in Ireland. Of course, these things happened and, in point of fact, Britain has seen a deluge of recent lawsuits over the ownership of titles and estates because the current occupant was of illegitimate birth, as readily demonstrated through Y-DNA testing. Yet this particular correspondent was unable to offer any kind of evidence, let alone DNA testing. He had nothing.
Here's another. Family lore states that brothers Andrew, Randall, William, and John Hanson arrived in New Sweden (Delaware) from Sweden in 1642. A story dating back to at least the 1870s tells us that their father, Col. John Hanson, an English adventurer who fought to protect King Gustavus Adolphus at the Battle of Lutzen in Germany, was killed along with the King on November 16, 1632. It's further said that Col. John's wife was Margaret Vasa, a daughter of the same King, and that their children grew up under the protection of Margaret's half-sister, Queen Christina who, in fact, was just a child when she inherited the throne. Never mind that the King's daughter, Margaret, died at five and that a requested search to the Swedish National Archives found no Col. John Hanson present at Lutzen. Further research by the Swedish Colonial Society has proved that the brothers were not four but two, Anders and Matt Hansson. Both men had been critical of New Sweden's governor, Johan Printz. Matt soon disappeared from the record and is presumed by historians to have been killed by a group of Susquehannock warriors who'd been sent in pursuit while he tried to escape from the colony. Anders survived and managed to reach nearby Maryland where he is recorded as Andrew. But here's the kicker. A correspondent "explained" that the King had another daughter named Margaret — illegitimate, of course. No citation was provided, primary or secondary. Still, he contended that this fictional Margaret married a man who has yet to been shown to have ever existed. These are the fairy tales that serious genealogists must contend with. Nonetheless, the Swedish Colonial Society has straightened it out.7
Here's the problem as I see it: A vanity issue is at stake for some engaged in genealogy. Whereas westerners typically don't practice ceremonial ancestor-worship, many of us are interested in our heritage nonetheless. As a nation of citizens whose ancestors arrived from virtually every part of the world, we often feel unconnected to our roots. (Never mind that many of us have lineages that can be traced back to the earliest colonists, indigenous peoples, and ever African slaves.) Like others, I grew up with stories about our forebears, just one item that influenced my early interest in history, and later in genealogy in order to sort out some of the tall tales. The study of genealogy is great for those who take it seriously, those who have learned a bit about the historical and genealogical methods, and who understand the difference between evidence and baseless rumination. Unfortunately, a very sizeable segment of the population want not much more than the emotional satisfaction of connection, especially if their ancestor is deemed to have been heroic. (There was nothing heroic about my French immigrant great-grandfather, but I accept the fact of him nonetheless.) For them, citations and critical thinking are not part of the picture — as long as it feels good.
These folks often engage in what I call the Donkey Tail Method of doing genealogy, a process not much different than playing the children's game of pin the tail on the donkey, the donkey here being the Old World. This appears to be especially true among those untrained family researchers who reach a brick wall with their colonial ancestors. But the reality of it is that it's notoriously difficult to find the origins our Pilgrims and Adventurers. Of these immigrants, a minority and perhaps only a few hundred, can be traced to their hometown, as is the case with Richard Bennett, mentioned at top. Richard's uncle, Edward Bennett, was a wealthy merchant. He owned a small fleet of ships and founded a plantation just outside of Jamestown in 1623. Bennett's Plantation, as it was called, was first managed by Edward's brother who died within a year of the settlement's establishment, and then by another brother who succumbed to the same fate not much later. Finally, in 1628, Edward himself stepped ashore with his young nephew, Richard Bennett, in tow. Edward trained him for a year before returning to London where he raised a family. The difference between Richard and other immigrants is that he left the following attestment to his birth.
Recorded at the Public Record Office, High Court of the Admiralty (HCA), in the case of Ewers against Watts, on 12 February 1657, Bennett testified, I, Richard Bennett, an inhabitant of Virginia but at present living in London, born at Wilscombe [Wiveliscombe] in the county of Somerset, aged 49 years or thereabouts...8
Documentary evidence that states a birth date and/or place is rare in colonial America. But Richard Bennett wasn't just any old Joe. Although he was a son of a tanner (likely a successful one), Richard found himself among the elite of Virginia Colony. Thanks to his uncle's influence and the estates he later inherited from him — as well as the lands he subsequently gained on his own — he rose to such prominence that the colonial burgesses of Virginia elected him as the first parliamentarian (as opposed to royal) governor of Virginia, a post he had left prior to making the above statement.
The Bennett case was settled long ago, but what are researchers to do regarding the vast minions of ancestors who left no such record? Frankly, it's often made up. For all practical purposes, the eyes are covered and, being spun around, a finger is placed on a map. In their eyes, a Eureka moment. Thereby, my coining of the tongue-in-cheek phrase, the Donkey Tail Method.
There is a vast number of British records online but, mind you, not everything. Much has been lost; for example, the German bombings during the Second World War. And, certainly, no one can suggest that the whole of Britain's vast archival material has been digitized and uploaded. The true and correct record for any given ancestor may simply not exist. It might not have even been recorded in the first place. We all need to be cognizant of that fact. Yet considering all that has been uploaded to the internet, good luck finding a perfect and unquestionable match. Hundreds, even thousands of births can be found for any given British name among the archives for the period. But folks pick and choose a location and family of their liking and assign that person to their dirt-farming Joe Blow. The result is then literally copied thousands of times over through a process not much different than the party game of telephone. In time, even that which is originally described as speculation becomes considered as fact. Researchers must then to go back to the 1930s or earlier to unravel the mess, as I did with Hamil's manuscript.
I know. This may sound cynical, but 45 years of research has convinced me that it's decidedly true. Quite simply, no genealogy can be trusted without full citation. And, I'm afraid, the citations themselves need to be looked up for validation. For example, it's been noted over and over again that a John Utie was baptized in London on June 28, 1619. It sounds reasonable, but I have a digitized copy of the original. It merely says "John bpd [baptized] son of John and Ann." Okay. Utie? Smith? Smothers? It seems it didn't matter to the researcher.
At least two other records regarding this family were equally misinterpreted so as to give the junior John Utie's mother an aristocratic birth. The approach used for these records is so similar that I'm certain it was an intentional contrivance by a single person.
Do you still have some doubt that people do this? Well, I found a handwritten transcription of a published newspaper obituary for one of the Bogus Dutch Cooleys. The transcriber (whose name is known to me) had intentionally altered "of English descent" to "of Dutch descent" in accordance to the "Hamil" method of genealogical analysis.
Where and when does it stop? Unfortunately, it doesn't. But we can be proactive, mostly in the form of educating those who stumble, even if not intentionally. (They're often victims of the Donkey Tail and cut 'n' paste methods of research.) This is something I'm engaged in nearly every day. To help combat the problem I, write and publish short, reasonably well-supported essays about ancestors in question and provide the links to those who steadfastly stick to the myths and falsehoods. An example is A Case Study in Ancestor Abuse: Mary Ann Utie Bennett, already discussed above. I've watched as the Dutch Cooley nonsense dissipates (if still residing on Ancestry.com) and the Elliott, Hanson, Bennett, and Darnall problems slowly settle a bit as a consequence of these efforts.
Yes, the paper trail is difficult to achieve at times, and myths are sometimes nearly impossible to sort out. However, we now have a wonderful tool, Y chromosomal testing. It might very well be the best available resource for surname studies. Testing a male's Y chromosome is powerfully useful for breaking myths (if you can find the right testers!). But busting myths isn't its only utility. It can be highly constructive and can lead a researcher on a marvelous adventure. Indeed, making new connections that were previously not known is the second power the Y holds. (Note, however, that it's a slow moving train.)
Here's an example. For decades, probably for more than a century, the ancestry of John Wood, who died in Ohio before 1830, was completely unknown. But Y-DNA testing has linked him to Edward Wood (1598-1642) whose family arrived in Massachusetts at an early date. ?? Thanks to the Y, we now know from which Wood family he descended and might be within a single test for confirming (or not) the identity of his father. In the same way, William Akins, who also died as a young man before 1830 and whose origins were unknown, now has a lineage that has been traced to his grandfather's birth in Ireland in about 1700. All four testers are of Y-DNA haplogroup R-FT75620, which connects to a large, extended family. This process is called triangulation — the DNA points toward to the in-common ancestor, in this case William Eaken, much like two telescopes point toward a star to obtain its distance.9
Of course, a bad genealogist is not nearly as harmful to society as a bad surgeon or caregiver. There will never be wholesale federal and state licensing of practicing genealogists. Still, genealogy has its place, and those interested in pursuing it have a right to their correct heritage rather than to be barraged by really, really awful and ill-considered work. Mrs. Hamil's book disrupted Cooley genealogy for more than seventy years. No serious practice can stand that sort of derailment. It's time to challenge those who would spoil the quest for the rest of us. And we have the perfect tool with which to set the record straight. Each man's Y chromosome, stored in every cell of his body, is a permanent archive of his paternal ancestry extending back tens of thousands of years and beyond. I contend that the sequencing of the Y chromosome is the key to every genealogists' success.
1. Henry Newbolt, ed. "On the Line." The Monthly Review 14, January-March 1904, 24. I first used the quote in a 2015 presentation, "The Honest Genealogist," for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Humboldt State University. And I believe I first quoted it in the article, Why Every Genealogist Must Understand the Y Chromosome.
2. Lura Coolley Hamil, A Story of Pioneering, (Illinois: Illinois Printing Company, 1955), https://archive.org/details/storyofpioneerin00hami/page/n5/mode/2up. A descendant of the same Benjamin Cooley organized the Cooley Family Association of America in 1936.
3. Hamil's original manuscript can be found online at http://ancestraldata.com/ahnentafel/256/Hamil_Manuscript.html. Hamil went so far as to cite non-existent passages from previously published books. A New Jersey will she referenced was found by the county clerk's office as non-existent. My full analysis is found at http://ancestraldata.com/staging/hamil.pdf.
4. Letter from Elizabeth Cooley to Dennis Young concerning Hamil's book, http://ancestraldata.com/ahnentafel/256/articles/1977letterCFAA.html
5. Michael Cooley, "The Cult of the Bogus Dutch Cooleys," Ancestraldata.com, 20 August 2019, http://bogusgenealogy.com/viewer.pl?2019-08-20-Cooley.html.
6. Michael Cooley, "The Problem with the Wiveliscombe (Somersetshire) Bennetts". Ancestraldata.com, 6 December 2022, http://blog.ancestraldata.com/viewer.pl?2022-12-06-Bennett.html.
7. A post at the Facebook page for the Swedish Colonial Society summarizes the problem, although Anders isn't the subject. "New Sweden History: The Mattsson and Dalbo Families," The Swedish Colonial Society, 17 Aug 2017, https://www.facebook.com/SwedishColonialSociety/posts/new-sweden-history-the-mattsson-and-dalbo-familieswhen-the-charitas-left-stockho/1628397350564648/ ¶ Elisabeth Thorsell, "Was the First President of the United States a Swede?", Swedish American Genealogist, Vol. 21 (2001), No. 2, 89, https://digitalcommons.augustana.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2247&context=swensonsag.
8. John Bennett Boddie, Seventeenth Century Isle of Wight County Virginia, vol 1 (Chicago: Chicago Law Printing Company, 1938), 52. Although a great deal has been learned since Boddie, this work possibly remains the best overview for the Virginia Colony Bennetts.
9. "Wood DNA Group 44," Ancestraldata.com, http://dna.ancestraldata.com/groups/Thomas.Wood/.