Whistle in the wind

Pennell manuscript boxes at the Maine Historical Society library.

Much to my chagrin, google Thomas Pennell + Pennellville and this excerpt of a Wikipedia article still comes up: “Pennellville was settled by Thomas Pennell II (1720–1770), who arrived in 1760 at the age of 40. His father, Thomas (1689–1723), had emigrated from Jersey (in the Channel Islands) around 1708. He originally settled in Gloucester, Massachusetts. He married Sarah Durrell, and sired two sons and two daughters.”

After discovering Thomas Pennell and Rachel Riggs as great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents more than twenty years ago, my doubts about Thomas’s parentage, widely reported in print, only continued to grow. Thomas Pennell married Rachel Riggs after 14 June 1735, when their intentions were recorded in Falmouth, Maine. If Thomas were the same person born in Gloucester in 1720, he would have been a fifteen-year-old bridegroom – while not impossible, highly unlikely. How could I validate my skepticism?

If Thomas were the same person born in Gloucester in 1720, he would have been a fifteen-year-old bridegroom – while not impossible, highly unlikely.

Ferreting through four folio boxes of Pennell manuscripts and correspondence at the Maine Historical Library resulted in the discovery of an overlooked piece of evidence: a letter written in French on 4 June 1743  from Thomas Pinel to his uncle Philippe Pinel of the Isle of Jersey inquiring about an inheritance. Thomas Pennell, the real son of Thomas and Sarah (Durrell) Pennell, had recently married Hannah Brooks in Biddeford, Maine.[1] Here was the knockout blow that unequivocally proved Thomas, husband of Rachel Riggs, was not the teenager from Gloucester. I collected a variety of other facts that traced the evolution of ancestral errors in this family. In August 2014, The Maine Genealogist published my article, “A Tale of Tangled Pennell Lines: From the Isle of Jersey, to Gloucester, Massachusetts, and Maine.”[2]

Excerpt of Thomas Pinel letter published in The Maine Genealogist:

Translation: I want you to know how obliged I am to you and to be in friendship. Your affectionate nephew until death. Thomas Pinel.

On the Editor’s Page of The Maine Genealogist, Joseph C. Anderson II alluded to readers bringing out erasers to reclassify their Pennell ancestry. And so, I concluded this article had cut through layers of confused pedigrees. Now, Thomas and Rachel’s descendants could start with a clean slate and focus on discovering Thomas’s true parentage, which one day may verify a link to the Channel Islands but not by way of Gloucester. It has not worked out that way. Few erasers have been used.

As the saying “a whistle in the wind” connotes, one article has not dislodged the well-worn story of the Pennellville Pennells’ roots in Gloucester. I have tried three times to correct the above Wikipedia article. Each time, it has been taken down after only a few hours because my authorship falls into the category of self-promotion! Among my 2020 resolutions, learn how to edit a Wikipedia entry. But there is a mammoth task I cannot accomplish on my own: at last count, Ancestry.com has 888 public trees, most of which have Thomas Pennell of Gloucester as the teenage husband of Rachel Riggs. Such is the power of copy and paste! I begin this year clanging like a fire bell in the night: Be wary – the sheer volume of posted trees does not make them correct.


[1] “Vital Records of Saco and Biddeford, Me.,” The New England Historical and Genealogical Register  71 [1917]: 216.

[2] The Maine Genealogist 36 [2014]: 99–122.

About Michael Dwyer

Michael F. Dwyer first joined NEHGS on a student membership. A Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists, he is a contributing editor of The Maine Genealogist and The American Genealogist. His articles have been published in the Register, American Ancestors, and Rhode Island Roots, among others. The Vermont Department of Education's 2004 Teacher of the Year, Michael retired in June 2018 after 35 years of teaching subjects he loves—English and history.

39 thoughts on “Whistle in the wind

  1. “Be wary – the sheer volume of posted trees does not make them correct.” Amen to that! And good luck in your efforts. If you discover how to cut through a heavy veil of misinformation — and keep it cut — please do share the secret.

    1. Yes, I do agree that ThruLines is very helpful when used as a starting point. I have made some good discoveries as a result.

  2. Hello Michael,
    Thanks for putting the spotlight on the one of the most common fallacies- popular opinion: if ‘everyone’ believes it to be true, it must be true. And its partner in crime, if it is in print it must be fact. Sad when written rumor mills create mythical realities.

    Dan H

    1. You’re welcome, Dan. The farther one gets from a solid source the less reliable information becomes.

  3. Ancestry trees, unfortunately, are frequently cut and paste. This article re-emphasizes the need to conduct one ‘s own research. All too often requests to owners of Ancestry trees for their source is met with the answer of another Ancestry Tree

    1. To be fair, I have been able to access some wonderful family pictures that I never would have found unless someone posted them in their trees.

      1. Unfortunately, one must be careful where pictures are concerned as well. Several of the photos provided to me that were ostensibly members of my family could not have been (I knew the individuals or their children and have verified photos of them).

        I have found several photos in online trees that represented more than one person: in one case, the same photo was used for father and son- provided by two different lines of descent. In another line, there are three photos, clearly three different women, given as one of my 3rd great-grandmothers. One was easy to eliminate because of hair and clothing style, but neither of the other two can be definitively identified as a member of my family. What’s frustrating is to be sent a photo that has been copied multiple times, with original identification written on it, but the photo itself so degraded it could be anyone.

        I have gotten to the point that unless the contributor can provide some evidence of the provenance of the photo, I do not use it, though I do file it away with notes– just in case.

  4. I feel your pain!
    I am descended from one of two John Dodges who were first cousins (named for their grandfather; one was “Lieutenant” and the other “Captain”), both of whom lived in the Beverly/Wenham area, and both of whom married women named Sarah. They are constantly confused because they were also of a similar age. I finally gave up trying to correct everyone who had mixed them up and just try to ignore all the bad data that keeps getting perpetuated online in trees and even on Find a Grave. Sometimes it’s just a futile effort because people take the quick way of filling in their tree and don’t scrutinize the “facts” that they’re using.

    1. Thank you! I feel better having had the opportunity to sound off. If you have not done so already, this may be your opportunity to write your own documented article on the confused John Dodges.

  5. You can trust a family tree found online only as far as you can kick a tree! Can you find another Wikipedia editor to do the editing for you?

  6. Ignore Wikipedia and all public trees on Ancestry and Wikitree. Most of the ”research” of these trees or articles consists of slavishly copying others undocumented “research” (mostly fanciful thinking) or slavishly copying from old books of forebears without verification. Persisting in correcting this bad research will result in a massive headache and a very flat forehead.

    1. On the other hand, I have chosen to make some of my own original research available on public trees as a way of preserving this information for future generations.

      1. I find that Wikipedia and Ancestry are good places to begin researching. If regarded with appropriate skepticism, they can be very helpful.

      2. I have public trees on Ancestry.com. I add detailed sources in the description fields below each fact. Hopefully sharing good research will help everyone. Unfortunately, the free sites, like Wikitree, are very bad, even though they state you need to add a source, most people don’t bother, or they just note is was from an old book or some family story. Worse is that others change anything you add. A really bad thing!

  7. When I started in genealogy 25 years ago, I fell into the cut and paste trap. I am still trying to extirpate all those errors from my tree, even though my last cut and paste was more than 20 years ago.

    Is Rachel (Riggs) Pennell the daughter of John and Ruth (Wheeler) Riggs, born 30 Aug 1704? If so, she is my 1st cousin 9x removed (I descend from her aunt Mary Riggs)

  8. I just abandoned an ancestry tree foraging expidition for this very reason. My tree is One. The other 19 trees are different from mine but all have the same information. Their source? Ancestry trees.

    1. I remain hopeful that over time, with guidance, that family genealogists will be more circumspect about copying.

  9. Great point about the way people copy from the other family trees without checking out their records… but sad to admit it…I was one of those folks when I was first learning how to do the research.
    I’ve tried to remove any questionable ancestors, and I try to caution people to do their own research and really LOOK at the records.
    I have this same problem with my William M. Wyrick… first found in McMinn co. TN in the 1844 marriage with Nancy Renfroe in 1844. They are found in the census in McMinn co. He died in McMinn co in December of 1859…and she and her mother died in McMinn co in 1863.
    However, I have found multiple trees where people are putting William Sherman Wyrick as THIS Wm. M. Wyrick… even though they had found the death record for their W. S. Wyrick in Rhea co. TN in 1873… and that Wm Wyrick was always found in a different county.
    I’m pretty sure that they are related, as both were blacksmiths and the brother of Nancy Renfro married one of the Wm. S. Wyrick’s daughters!
    DNA shows a DIRECTION for research…NOT the be all answer. Any time I look at someone’s tree, the FIRST thing I look for are records… the SECOND thing I do is to LOOK at those records to see if they all match up with the right person, location and family members. I look at death records and land records and wills.
    It doesn’t seem to matter if I put question marks on names…people will still copy… so I have to make a private tree until I can find the evidence that proves the link.
    Thank you for articles like this that show that the researchers need to think about the history and circumstances where the family they are researching is living in…and if something doesn’t seem to make sense… you’d better keep looking.
    Happy 2020 to all!

    1. Good luck in persisting. Keep collecting verifiable information until you have assembled all the pieces.

  10. I feel your pains in these matters. I took a Wiki Scholars class earlier this year, and even though I did a huge amount of work to earn a “good article” star, it didn’t keep a massively overbearing editor from subverting the process. I wish I could help you with your edits – I assume you added appropriate citations for the changes you made. I think the more citations, the less likely you’ll be reversed. Be aware, though, that Wikipedia frowns on primary sources and “original research”. In other words, find a published author who agrees with you.

    1. Thank you for this perspective. Oh, my, as a historian and editor, I find it dismaying that Wikipedia frowns on primary sources and original research. The next step for me will be to seek out a validating colleague.

  11. I find that some people just add names to a public tree to collect names, i.e., they want a big number. I once found my own father, not too long deceased, in a tree of a person of whom I had no knowledge. I wrote to her because important things, like the name of MY mother, being stated to be his second wife, who was still living, & other errors were stated as facts. I was appalled when she told me she just copied “stuff I find on the internet so I can have as many names in my tree as possible.” I didn’t even waste my time trying to find if perhaps WAY back somewhere we were related, I didn’t really want to know if anyone in my line was that stupid. We have to be sooo careful! Thanks for the very interesting and enlightening example Michael!

    1. You’re welcome. Many of us can find specific examples like yours. In several instances, after sharing ancestral photos with cousins, I discovered pictures re-posted among various trees with incorrect information. When I gently nudged that person to make the correction, pointing out the pictures originated with me, I was rudely dismissed.

  12. I’ve also been trying to substantiate some Maine ancestors I found in an Ancestry.com tree, and it is tough! I keep getting directed to online records for family members in Essex County, Massachusetts…all with the same names as the folks I’m looking for, of course! I know that Maine was part of Massachusetts during the time I’m working in, but I think the northerly parts must not have been as good at keeping records as the parts that are in the contemporary state of Massachusetts. At least I can take some consolation in knowing that they’re all descendants of the Rev. John Wise of Roxbury and Ipswich…so I know which trunk the branches all grow from, even if it’s hard to document how I get back to him.

    1. One of the best sources I’ve used for documenting connections between Essex County, Massachusetts, and various towns in Maine is through deeds, examining every deed, grantor and grantee, in both locations. I also made an incorrect assumption that once a family moved to the wilds of Maine, they did not return to Massachusetts. In fact, some families were much more fluid than I thought.

  13. While I agree with all this and generally “ignore” anything sourced from Ancestry trees, SOMETIMES there are clues that can be helpful.

    1. It always comes as a nice surprise when someone out there may have a piece of family history or an artifact that we did not know about.

  14. While I have no connection to your subject, I find it heartening that your postings – not just this one – generate a great deal of interest, judging from the many comments. Your sleuthing and methodology are relevant examples to all of us in genealogy.

  15. You could put your article on internet archive. I wish google returned results from there but it doesn’t. Maybe people doing intense research might look there. I’ve put all of my family stories there. If one person finds it, I’ve helped my family.

  16. I’ve been trying for 30 years to get Sir Thomas Kinne removed as the ancestor of my William Keeney. Even though the British records have no record of a Baronet or any other such of that name and the man apparently didn’t exist, he does live on on the internet! Thanks for letting me know that I’m not alone in my struggles!

  17. I have a similar situation with my family tree. It’s satisfying when facts are verified, but getting anyone else to notice and correct their own trees remains a challenge.

  18. Though I suffer your same affliction of misguided informants on Ancestry, I never resort to trees. I did early on, asking several people where their information came from only to be told they copied it from so and so. I looked at over 50 trees all with the same info, but no one that I contacted had a source for the head of the family. I’ve searched the records for over 40 years for him, but no one will/can tell me the source of their findings. Frustrating to say the least.

    On another matter, I have a Thomas Pennell, born 1767 in Falmouth, son of Clement Pennell & Ruth Riggs. Does this tie in with your family? I have not looked further, as my Thomas Pennell is the husband of a 3rd cousin 5x removed, (Eunice Knight) and it was stretching it a bit to go that far back. I generally stop at first cousins & their children, unless they intermarry further down the line. Then I like to show their connection to older generations.

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