Epic FAIL | Confessions of a highly speculative genealogist.

Ouch! That Hurts!

Ouch! That Hurts!

I fell down the rabbit hole. And now I have to climb back out.

Let me explain (I need to explain it to myself) how I got to the edge of this pesky pit, and how I foolishly (naively, if completely optimistically) scurried down and then tumbled head over arse, chasing a (highly suspect, if attractively romantic) idea – only to find that I was chasing a complete fiction.

First I need to tell you what the heck I am talking about:

In researching my Jones family history, I had a number of questions I wanted to answer. Among them;
1] How did a family of barely literate shepherds manage to quickly produce; three generations of religious fanatics and ardent Welsh-nationalists; a famous poet and first novelist in the Welsh-language (William Ellis Jones, aka “Gwilym Cawrdaf”); an infamous radical (Lewis Evan Jones, Sr., of Carnarvon); a reluctant Confederate Rebel-Philosopher-turned-historian who was renowned to have one of the most extensive personal libraries in all of Virginia (William Ellis Jones, II, of Richmond); a gifted (but sadly crippled by drink) poet and playwright (William Ellis Jones, III, of Richmond, grandson of the Rebel-Philosopher); and me and my generation, who so far, I cannot find a succinct label for, as we are so unfocused and lost, and yet certainly “interesting” in our own particular peculiarities.

2] Why did Thomas Norcliffe Jones (the first Welsh ancestor to immigrate to America) chose to come to Richmond, Virginia of all places (as opposed to Utica, NY, or Pennsylvania, where most of the Welsh immigrants to the US congregated)? It seems an unlikely destination for a Middle Class Welshman. The only Welsh in Richmond in the 1830’s (when he arrived) were laborers at the Tregader Iron Works – a people who were not well-regarded by the more gentile, “Old Virginia” residents of that very race and class-conscious city.

In my quest for answers to these questions, I had precious little hard and fast information to go on. One of my primary sources is “The Baby Book”, an unpublished manuscript and collection of documents, created by my grandfather; William Ellis Jones, III, between 1929 and 1936. This document includes lovely prose style biographies of relatives, a few original documents, family trees of Welsh ancestors; most without complete names, dates, or geographical locations. The sources he cites are generally from correspondences with long-dead, distant relatives in Wales. He didn’t save the correspondences themselves; he just notes the name of the individual who supplied the data. There is one source that he did include; a letter from a college professor who supplied the translation of the preface of a Welsh language book about our ancestor, William Ellis Jones (aka “Gwilym Cawrdaf”), the famous Welsh Eisteddfod winning bard. That translation included a very enticing translator’s note, a piece of information that I glommed onto and ran with… down a deep hole.

The thing I glommed onto was this:

“…Richard and Ann Jones, grandfather and grandmother of the subject of this memoir on his father’s side, resided at Tyddyndu, between Dolgelley and Barmouth; the place, as well as Pontddu and Thy’nybuarth, was owned by them. They had two sons, William and Ellis. When they came to the proper age they were sent to the grammar school at Pwllheli. The school at that time had great distinction under the Rev. Mr. Owens. (*Note—That Goronwy Owain was in this school is seen from the Latin ode he wrote there in 1742.) Here they remained for several years…”

Who was this “Goronwy Owain”, and why did he deserve an asterisk in my family history?

The quest began thusly… I went to Wikipedia. Here’s what the wiki entry states about Goronwy Owen:

“Goronwy Owen (1 January 1723 – July 1769) was one of the 18th century’s greatest Welsh poets. He mastered the traditional bardic metres and, although forced by circumstances to be an exile, played an important role in the literary and antiquarian movement in Wales often described as the Welsh Eighteenth Century Renaissance…. A perfectionist who only published reluctantly and whose literary output is consequently relatively small, his work nevertheless had a huge influence on Welsh poetry for several generations and his poetic genius and tragic life gave him a cult status in Welsh literary circles…”

Really? And “exiled”? Where to? Well now. The answer to that question leads into a deep dark hole that I spent nearly a year exploring.

He was exiled to Virginia, not very far at all from Richmond. You can see where I am going with this?

And to make it all the more convenient, my grandfather, in his manuscript, neglected (or more likely, never managed to obtain), any birth dates for the two boys, William and Ellis Jones, who – according to the translator’s note – attended the school associated with Goronwy Owen.

I spent several weeks (months) tracking down the details of Goronwy Owen’s life and career. I managed to pin down a period of three years between 1741 and 1744 when Goronwy Owen was a young teacher at the grammar school at Pwllheli. Once I had these critical dates in hand, I did the thing that no detective or historian should EVER do – I built a plausible history (a story I wanted to be true), by forcing the few facts I had about my own family, to fit in with the well-documented history of Goronwy Owen’s spectacularly tragic life.

In essence, the story I created was this:
– William and Ellis Jones met Goronwy Owen at Pwllheli, and there they (illiterate heathens from the outback of Wild Wales) were introduced (through Goronwy Owen’s  luminous brilliance) to the enlightenment of literature, poetry, art, and intellectual pursuit.

– The relationship they formed with Owen was deep and lifelong. When others abandoned him, they stuck with him. They even maintained communication with him after his exile to Virginia (when, as history records, Goronwy Owen fell silent for several decades, only to be heard from once prior to his death in 1769.) I had absolutely NO facts to back up this theory, just enough thinly circumstantial evidence to make me believe it had to be true.

– Finally, I reasoned that even long after Goronwy Owen’s death in Virginia, that my Welsh relations (who would have been children or grandchildren of the two ‘boys”, William and Ellis Jones), stayed in contact with Goronwy Owen’s descendants in Virginia, and THAT was the reason that my ancestor, Thomas Norcliffe Jones came to Virginia.

In order to make this rather unlikely story seem even remotely possible, I had to do something to the dates that even caused me to furrow my brow. Since I did not know the dates of birth for the boys, William and Ellis, I had to make them fit the 1741-1744 dates of Goronwy Owen’s tenure at the school at Pwllheli. To make that work, the boys would have had to have been born about 1730 (give or take a couple years either way.) Which looks fine on paper. That is…

…until you consider the FACT that I did know the dates of their marriages to their respective wives, the ages of their wives at marriage, the dates of their children’s births, etc. If you examine all of this data, in context with the manufactured birth dates, the result was that both William and brother Ellis first married and began their large families (William had nine children and Ellis had at least five children) when they were in their late sixties!

In order to explain away this inconvenient circumstance, I manufactured yet another completely plausible theory about cultural tradition and an overly long-lived father who controlled the boys’ lives and means of independence, and who prevented them from pursuing their dreams and ambitions. It was a terribly romantic notion. It read well too. But the fact of the matter is that it was just one more fiction that I convinced myself was based in fact – because I wanted it to be so.

And then my bubble got busted. Big time. Ingloriously.

About nine months ago I obtained a document from the Journal of the Merioneth Historical and Records Society; “A Merioneth Family of Printers in Wales and the U.S.A”, Vol XII (iv), 1997, written by the late, esteemed Welsh historian, Dr. Lewis William Lloyd (d. 1997).

When I first got the article I was in the depth of my research into Goronwy Owen’s life. I thumbed through a page or two and planned to return to it as soon as I returned to researching my Jones ancestors. Then I promptly forgot about the document. Until last week. I pulled it off the shelf and started reading. And there was my busted bubble, complete with sourced footnotes:

“…This resourceful and enterprising family (the Richard Jones family of Dolgelly) descended from Richard Jones of Tyddyn Du, Llanaber, gent., who died in April, 1785… His modest freehold estate was located where the settlement of Bontddu took shape in the course of the nineteenth century, some four miles from the port at Barmouth on the Dolgellau road. Richard Jones had two sons, at least, by his wife Ann, namely William Jones (1757-1830), who was baptized on 3 April 1757; and [David] Ellis Jones, who was baptized on 3 April 1758…”

My whole story about Goronwy Owen providing the ignition spark of the family “genius” just blew into a thousand insignificant little pieces. The boys, William and Ellis, were almost thirty years too young to have ever come in contact with Goronwy Owen. In fact, he was already in Virginia by the time they were born.

So much for my grand, romantic, IMAGINATIVE, ideas.

Now I have to go scrub all the stuff I wrote last winter that alludes to our “Owen” connections. And now I have to start over completely; going back to the original two questions (see above), with no plausible answers on the horizon.

Let this be a lesson. Never tell the story before you have the facts to support it. To do so is to create fiction (which has its place, but not here!)

Oh well. What else am I going to do with my time? It sure has been fun being down this rabbit hole. The climb out may lead me somewhere else even more fascinating!

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2 responses to “Epic FAIL | Confessions of a highly speculative genealogist.

  • robertmorrisowen

    All this just goes to show how trustworthy and scrupulous you are.
    It’s intresting you(being American) used the word arse instead of ass

    • Grace

      Wow! THAT WAS Quick! And here I sit thinking that I write purely for my own entertainment!
      I’m not sure how trustworthy and scrupulous I am. Had I been more so, I would not have allowed my romantic notions to get in the way of good fact-finding! Just goes to show you can’t believe ANYTHING you read on the Internet!
      Now… as for “arse” instead of a$$… I think it’s a symptom of a girl who spends a lot of time reading things written by people with accents. 🙂 I can “hear” their accents in my head when I read their prose. It colors my own style to a degree that I am no longer conscious of. (Which is not a bad thing, in my opinion.)
      Thanks for reading me. Very motivating. Look for future redactions in the near term.

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