It would be nice if what is available in surviving records was intact enough to clearly tell the stories we all seek of our past.  That’s not possible simply because many of the records are gone ..lost or destroyed over time. Seeking to find our way back across the Great Pond, we from the Old North State are tempted to look upstream, gathering the answers to our questions from such books as The Virginia Cavaliers and writings of people like John Boddie.  Genealogical CliffsNotes of sort, such publications provide cheat sheet histories leapfrogging family histories across the eastern tidewaters of Virginia.

Hypothetically, the novice, in one sitting, can sit down in a library, and by studying the works of folks like Boddie, can chase their lineage back to first arrival in historic James Town, …that is the goal, isn’t it? But really and truly, such an approach is 100% absolutely backwards. It’s ALWAYS best to start with the here and now, slowly and methodically working one’s way back through yesteryear.  Move from the known to unknown, not the reverse.

Books such as The Cavaliers are awesome though they will get you in trouble. Quoting such research is like quoting any.  What are the resources and how are the connections made?  How were the connections made especially when they are inferred because of record losses and multiple generational gaps passing through counties with little surviving history.

Bad examples are set in place and later incorporated as gospel by later generations of us weekend historians. It is a tough reality and one that tempts us all.  And yes, we’ve all given in only to worry about whether our own version of events will stand the test of truth. We’ve all made mistakes and of each one, it’s bad when intentions are questioned after our own memory fails. Also, in truth, the study of family history is merely a hobby or interest that can go away as easily as the day you first leaned you were hooked. When you lose interest, the drive to make things right disappears as well. Always work to keep fresh those things you love …history for some of us requires emotional maintenance.

In the game of putting together your family puzzle, realize there are going to be plenty of times when you can fit together multiple pieces and yet not fit them to the rest of the picture you hope to present.  We know the information is important, but how do we show it? When that happens, do not ever force the pieces. That is wrong! If you knowingly force unproven connections, all you are doing is setting the stage for your work to be hijacked through error and misinterpretation. Explain yourself forty ways from heaven so you will not be remembered by your mistakes.  Yes, things may have happened as you believe, though reality is an equal opportunist and always reserves its right for being found. Once in print, errors seldom go away.

Donald Rumsfeld was correct, concerning “knowns,” there are numerous variations on the theme of knowledge. Rather than seeking to build the family tree of all trees, for the family historian, it is nice to do studies as if they were snapshots in time. Take time to learn and appreciate all you can about a certain place, time, and person. Document and source your work and celebrate that one thing. At least for a given time or event, you can proudly declare that you know what happened. History is like a loaf of bread.  We can serve it up whole or sliced.  

From a singular point of interest, move your research backward or forward in times …slowly. And most important, expand your point of interest in hopes of gaining perspective.  If you can’t find what you need on a person, look next at the family, and then next at the neighbors, and then next at time. It’s like casting a net for fish, sometimes you need to cast wider in order to capture the same number of fish. You can’t tell which way to go simply by looking at the water.  Most of the time the fish themselves will tell you where and how big a net you need to present.

And about the process as is related to family history, it is one thing to put yourself in the shoes of an ancestor …it is another to put yourself in the shoes of all your ancestor’s neighbors. Seeing a person through their friends and enemies can be very enlightening. If you cannot find the answer by looking at the individual, open your field of view. The effort adds a level of difficulty though the results are hugely rewarding.

And here I sit writing this gibberish while surely you are wondering why.  Well, things have been quiet with my paternal Thomas family history for quite some time. And with the virus and such, I decided recently to look online to see if I had overlooked anything. As is normal, one thing led to the next and from there another piece of the puzzle fell into place.  Thoughts from new Facebook communities gave me new perspective.  From people I don’t even know, I’ve learned it’s not so much about learning the details you are looking for as is having the electronic ear of those willing to comment on your ideas.

Anyhow, in a matter of a week, I’ve gained enough information to provide my first good snapshot of James Thomas who died ca. 1780 in Bertie County.  The research reinforces what I had believed concerning James’ homeplace and neighbors while totally changing other thoughts.  The effort begins to connect me to generations of Joseph Thomas who I believe are in my family. Yet unanswered is the exact connection between Joseph and James.  Someday I’ll be able to connect this grouping of puzzle pieces to the remainder of the picture. But most of all, in this process, I’ve learned important stuff reminding me of the woes of following the leads of others. That, and seemingly out of nowhere, I am reminded of how it is  possible to change an entire story through the discovery of a single record that was there all along. Like Jack Palance said in the movie City Slickers, it’s just one thing. However, in family history there are many things.

In my next post I plan to introduce James Thomas, not his genealogy, but a simple slice of his history. Sometimes genealogy is not so good when seen in entirety.  Its outer shell is tough, hiding you from the yummy details. When you find that happening, try serving up your family by the slice. Sometimes a little bit of history goes a long way.


  1. Daniel Thomas

    Granddaddy John E Thomas (John Edward) Sr, 1884-1966, was known around Lee County as “HARD WORKING JOHN.” He loved to clear fields, pull up tree stumps and earn the rights to farm a field as was common in share cropping days. He never missed a newscast on the radio next to his rocker while he rested and chewed his tobacco and spit in a tin can. He subscribed to Newsweek and relied on a pot belly stove for heat aided by kerosene lamps if a hurricane came through which Hazel, indeed, did in 1954. He died a Jehovah’s Witness and once assured me that Marilyn Monroe would go straight to Hell. He and his wife , Decie Barber Thomas, were married 60 years. John E never came to her table without first coming his hair according to my grandmother.


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