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 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.

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