Investigating a Family Legend with Ancestor Timelines

March 1, 2012 at 2:19 am | Posted in Genealogy Research Strategies | Leave a comment
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Frank Watson & William Allen White

Do you have a family legend that you’ve always wanted to get to the bottom of?  I think that’s one of the best parts of genealogy.  It’s the detective work unpacking fact from fiction among the family stories that we all carry forward.  Was grandpa a bootlegger?  How did that family make their fortune?  Did our family encounter the Indians on the frontier?  Did we cross paths with a famous person?

We all love shaking the family tree to see what falls out.

One tool I’ve found indispensible in researching my ancestors and even shining light on a family legend is timelines.  The reason timelines prove so helpful is that they can clearly outline – and in my ancestor’s case – contrast time and place for two persons, making the conclusion pretty clear.

Let me show you what I mean.

The Legend of William Allen White

One of the many family stories I heard growing up was that my great grandfather, Frank Watson (b. 1864, MA, d. 1954, KS) worked for, or specifically set type for, William Allen White, the famed newspaper publisher and activist.  Wouldn’t that be neat if ggranpa Frank played a role – no matter how small – in the work of this historic American figure?  The story is all the more exciting because my father was a career printer, maybe following in the footsteps of ggrandpa, Frank.

Research Road Traveled

Step 1. Outline the Ancestor’s Life

Long before resolving the William Allen White legend, I dutifully built a fairly detailed timeline of Frank Watson’s personal history which included: 1)  how and when he came to Kansas, 2) where he married, 3) his employment and birth of children in Atchison, Kansas, 4) the migration to Wichita, Kansas, his employment history, and church involvement there, and finally 5) his death in Wichita.  With his personal story in hand, I could turn to investigating the family legend.

Step 2. Make a Plausible Hypothesis

When Frank Watson’s timeline was complete I knew Frank worked at a newspaper in Atchison, so he was in the right professional field for at least some of his life to make the legend plausible.  He lived in Atchison and Wichita, which although they aren’t Emporia, where William Allen White lived and worked, they were close.  And I had a five year gap in Frank’s story, that made a “layover” in Emporia between Atchison and Wichita possible.  So, with a handful of hope, and a few loosely tied together facts, I had a working theory that my ancestor, Frank, could have worked for William Allen White.  The legend could be true.

Step 3. Paint a Timeline of the Historic Figure

At this point, I have a pretty good handle on my ancestor’s life timeline, but only a vague knowledge of where and when William Allen White lived.  So my next step was to create a timeline of Mr. White’s life, which honestly, was pretty easy. A quick visit to Wikipedia, an online general knowledge encyclopedia, gave me the basic dates and facts about William Allen White.  He was born in Emporia, Kansas, briefly lived in ElDorado, Kansas, then returned to Emporia, where he spent the rest of his life.  So his migration map – and opportunity to encounter my ancestor – was pretty limited to Emporia and/or ElDorado.

The Emporia Gazette, according to the Kansas State Historical Society, was published from 1890 to 1900.  Mr. White purchased the Emporia Gazette in 1895 and owned it for the next five years.  (This would prove to be the critical piece of information in solving the legend.) Beyond the information found in Wikipedia, a quick search on Ancestry, brought up many, many US and state census records, passport records and passenger records (Mr. White sure traveled a lot!).  Combined, these records painted a pretty clear picture of a life primarily spent in Emporia, Kansas.

Here are the highlights of Mr. White’s migration map from these records –

  • Date – Location – Source
  • 1870 – ElDorado – US Census
  • 1880 – ElDorado – US Census
  • 1890 – 1899 – Emporia – Gazette Owner – Wikipedia
  • 1905 – Emporia – KS Census
  • 1910 – Emporia – US Census
  • 1915 – Emporia – KS Census
  • 1918 – Emporia – Passport Application
  • 1920 – Emporia – US Census
  • 1925 – Emporia – Passenger Log
  • 1930 – Emporia – US Census

Step 4. Contrast the Timelines of the Two Key Players

The last step is simply to put the two timelines together and see what they say.  You can see the spreadsheet I crafted with the relevant slice of time for both men’s stories above.  For Frank Watson to have worked for William Allen White, he would have had to do so at the Emporia Gazette.  Mr. White owned the Gazette from 1890 to 1899.  At which time, Frank Watson was married, living in Atchison, and working at the Atchison Globe.  Unless Frank Watson freelanced, moonlighted, or worked on a special assignment for the Emporia Gazette while at the Atchison Globe, that at this point isn’t evident, it is not probable that he worked for William Allen White.  The two timelines simply don’t agree. If you’re wondering about the gap in the Frank Watson timeline between Atchison and Wichita that was a possible basis for this theory, the gap proved to be long after the time in which Mr. White owned the Gazette. 

In Conclusion –

Although I didn’t prove the family legend to be true, I feel assured, that my deduction was based on real historical facts, some sound analysis, and good old fashioned genealogy sleuthing.  Sure, I’m sorry I don’t have the story to add to my tree, but Frank’s story is good enough as it is.  Each of our stories is good enough.

How about you?

Have you used a timeline?  What have you done to chase down a family legend?  Did you prove it or disprove it?  Let me know your stories.

In the meantime, Happy Researching.

Post Script

I shared this story with the Johnson County (KS) Genealogy Society this week.  After the class, an industrious genealogist looked up William Allen White’s biography.  It seems that in 1886, he had “long and extended conversations” with the Atchison Globe.  Humm….


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