Trust But Verify: The Story of Dr. Benjamin Church’s Family

Family historians utilize a large number of sources for our research. This includes compilations as well as original records. We must read all of these carefully and critically in order to reach properly supported conclusions. This includes published information on major historical figures as well as average everyday people, and works by well-known individuals as well as those who are little-known. Anyone can make mistakes, or miss key pieces of information.

I have an article in the latest issue of The New England Historical and Genealogical Register that is a great illustration of this point. When one thinks of traitors of the Revolutionary War, most Americans will quickly turn to Benedict Arnold. While he is today one of the best-known traitors, there was an earlier one who was infamous in his time: Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr. Originally a member of the Sons of Liberty in Boston, he served as George Washington’s surgeon general at the start of the war in 1775. That summer his treachery was discovered and he was quickly jailed.

That he had a wife and children was a well-known fact. But generations of historians and genealogists have misinterpreted documents and published materials over and over. Sometimes conflicting information was morphed away by combing the conflicting bits into a single strand of information with no source or evidence provided.

Even the best of researchers and authors can make mistakes. And sometimes the problem is not a mistake, but an evaluation and conclusion based on insufficient evidence. It is not unusual for new evidence to come to light after one has already published one’s conclusions.

All of this is to say that even work complete with source citations and written by the best of researchers must be reviewed. In the case of this article, examining original records instead of using long-published extracts provided critical evidence; evidence that while extremely significant was omitted from the abstracts. A letter from the papers of Robert Treat Paine was well known, but was misinterpreted by researchers, and the error propagated by later researchers and authors. As recently as 2014, a book on Dr. Church that continued the misinformation was published by a well-known and excellent historian.

It was only by going back to original sources and reexamining other sources based on new information that the truth began to emerge. All of these records have been freely available to researchers for centuries, but nobody ever took the time to examine everything in the context of the whole. And this case well illustrates the importance of going back to original documents to verify information in abstracts.

NEHGS members can read “The Wife and Descendants of Revolutionary War Traitor Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr., of Boston” on AmericanAncestors.org. Non-members may be able to read the article in the current issue of the Register at their local library or genealogical society,  or by obtaining a copy from their local library through interlibrary loan.

African Captors and White Captives: Flipping the Story on Slavery

When Americans discuss slavery, we usually think of the white people who enslaved Africans and African-Americans. The more knowledgeable include Native Americans and other people of color who were also enslaved by whites. But slavery also worked in other directions. For example, whites who were captured and enslaved by Africans.

Those travelling on ships near and around Africa often fell victim to pirates, or even to natural causes crippling their ships and leaving them at the mercy of African captors. They were often enslaved by their captors, or sold into slavery with others. Conditions were usually at least as harsh as those that enslaved people in America suffered at the hands of whites.

Among the most notorious of locations was Tripoli, held by the Turks and the Ottoman Empire. They kept slaves under the most dreadful of conditions. Tensions between the U.S. and Tripoli escal
ated during the early nineteenth century when the Barbary Wars erupted with the Americans fighting the forces from Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. In fact, the part of the first line in the Marine fight song that says “to the shores of Tripoli” refers to the Battle of Derne in 1805, the first time that the American flag was raised in the old world.

Many were taken captive and held in slavery for months or years before being repatriated. Many never made it home. Some who did wrote narratives of their experiences as captives, which were published for the public to read.

Paul Baepler published a good collection of these stories in his 1999 work White Slaves, African Masters (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999). He provides a good introductory discussion of Barbary captives, then selects nine authors from Cotton Mather to ordinary individuals, discussing various experiences as captives. He finishes with a bibliography of mostly eighteenth- and nineteenth-century publications of captives’ stories. An excerpt from Dr. Jonathan Cowdery’s account of his captivity with the crew of the U.S. Frigate Philadelphia in 1803:

 

 

Nov. 24. — The Bashaw refused to furnish necessary clothing for the sick, or any thing for them to eat, but sour filthy bread. — Captain Bainbridge contracted with the Danish consult o supply the sick with beef and vegetables for soup every day.

Nov. 27. — Our men complained of their hard usage, in being compelled to lie on the cold damp ground, to eat bad bread, to work hard, and to be bastinadoed [caned] by their drivers.

Nov. 30. — One of our men in a fit of despair attempted to kill himself; but was prevented by the Turks, when in the act of cutting his throat. The wound did not prove mortal.

If your ancestors lived on the coast and were seafaring people, some of them may have been white slaves. Start looking for them. More importantly, start thinking about how you would feel if your ancestors were suddenly on the other side of slavery. Do you take a more conciliatory tone towards your own ancestors who owned slaves? Do you explain it away as being part of the time and culture, but reverse the discussion when the situation is reversed and the slavers become masters and the masters become slaves? Why is that? It certainly makes for an interesting discussion, both internal and with other family members, and will make an interesting addition to your family history.

Five Books for Your Reference Shelf

Despite the easy availability of information, good genealogists know that sometimes old school books are still the best way to learn and get information. Here are five books that deserve a prominent place on every genealogist’s reference bookshelf.

Elements of Genealogical AnalysisElements of Genealogical Analysis: How to Maximize Your Research Using the Great Migration Study Project Method
Robert Charles Anderson, FASG
(Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2014)

Thirty years in the making, this book is an inside look into the strict research methodology used by those involved in the Great Migration Study Project, the scholarly project to document the origins of this group of seventeenth-century immigrants to New England. The first section is devoted to analytical tools for sources, records, and linkages. The second section discusses the problem-solving sequence from problem selection to problem resolution.

 

Going to the SourcesGoing to the Sources: A Guide to Historical Research and Writing, Fifth Edition
Anthony Brundage
(Malden, Mass.: John Wiley & Sons, 2013)

First published in 1989, this work is a great introduction to the process of historical research. While it focuses on the study of history, the skills are also applicable to genealogy. And good genealogists know that history is a major component of our research. It is brief, only 7 chapters and 5 appendixes in 176 pages.

 

 

Money and ExchangeMoney & Exchange in Europe & America, 1600–1775: A Handbook
John J. McCusker
(Williamsburg, Va.: Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1978)

In modern America, our currency is guaranteed by the federal government. This has not always been the case, however, especially in the colonial era. Terms like bills of credit; pounds, shillings, and pence; sterling; old tenor; current tenor; Proclamation Money; Lawful Money and more are often found in the documents we use in genealogy. But do you really understand what each of these terms mean? And how money in the colonies was linked to money in countries around the world? McCusker does an excellent job of explaining money and the way it was used in simple terms that can provide a greater understanding of your ancestors’ lives.

Locating Your Roots: Discover Your Ancestors Using Land Records
Patricia Law Hatcher, FASG, FGSP
(Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2016)

This work is an excellent resource for understanding the records left behind by your ancestors concerning their real estate. Whether the ancestors lived in state-land states or public-land states, this book will help you find the records and show you how to interpret them to get the most information from them. Originally published in 2003 by Betterway Books and long out of print, it has been reissued by the Genealogical Publishing Company. Although not a complete revision, it has been reviewed for obsolete references and information which has been either updated or deleted.

 

Women and the Law of PropertyWomen and the Law of Property in Early America
Marylynn Salmon
(Chapel Hill, N.Carol.: University of North Carolina, 1986)

Researching women can be one of the most challenging aspects of research for American genealogists. Could women own property? Could they sign contracts? What happened to their property when they were widowed? What about unmarried women? Salmon cuts through the misinformation and explains what the real implications were based on the law, and how that can impact your ancestral research.