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Research Report: Euline Benbow's Files

David Neal Ewing (+1 505.764.8704, DavidEwing93 at gmail dot com)

Ewing Family J., Vol. 15, No. 2 (May 2009), pp. 1-6.

One passage from Margaret Ewing Fife's book, Ewing in Early America,[1] has been especially puzzling and interesting to me, mainly because I am pretty sure that Robert Ewing, the 'eighth child of the ninth child' near the end of the passage quoted below, is my fourth great-grandfather: The paternal grandfather of my paternal grandmother's maternal grandmother. Dad always said that the fact we had Ewings on both sides of his family explained why we had such pointy heads. Anyhow, here is the passage as it appears in Fife:

Sometime before May 13, 1983 Ono Ruth Klemann[2] of Temple, TX sent me a copy of a letter she had received from Euline Benbow of El Camino Courts, 2102 Highway 21 East, Bryan, TX 77801. All attempts to contact Ms Benbow have failed. Ms. Benbow's note read:

I took this from an old letter I found in a trunk that I was blessed to receive. The letters are all 75 to 100 years old. Really thought you might enjoy this and tie some of it in with yours. If so, let me know.

The following is exactly as Ms. Benbow sent it, the spelling and designations are hers:

An old geneological [sic] record of the Ewing Tribe as it was told verbally by Elizabeth Ewing Jamison, daughter of Samuel and Margaret McMichael Ewing, to one Robert Ewing, July 12, 1820, a year before she died, and written off and sent by him in a letter to Aunt Sallie Jamison, dated August 26, 1827, seven years after he got it from Elizabeth Ewing Jamison.

The record says #John Ewing, Senior, was of Scottish descent and born in North of Ireland about the year 1660. [MEF: 1648] Married, name of first wife unknown, [proves to be Jennet Wilson] about 1685. Fought in the Irish Armies of James II.

Within the walls of Londonderry, Derry, the place of Oaks, 105 day of the year of 1690, his eldest son #Alexander S. Ewing, then a child of 4 years, was starved very nearly to death before the siege was raised, but survived and lived to old age and never married.

[The second through fourth children are then listed.]

John Ewing, Senior, then married his second wife, Janet McElvaney and embarked to America in the year A.D. 1715. John Ewing, Senior had by his second wife the following children: viz

[The fifth through eighth children are then listed, along with some of their offspring. The eighth child is Samuel Ewing, who married Margaret McMichael, and they are the grandparents of 'Aunt Sallie Jamison'.]

#Ninth child - fifth, James Ewing youngest son of John Ewing, Senior, married Sarah Mays and had three children:

First child - William Ewing

Second child - John Ewing

Third child - Jennie Ewing

His first wife dying, he married his second wife, Sarah Edwards by whom he had five children:

Fourth child - James Ewing

Fifth child - Edward Ewing

Sixth child - Mary Ewing

Seventh child - Sallie Ewing

Eighth child - Robert Ewing

#James Ewing was born in America, February 14, 1721, and died in 1801 at the age of 80 years.

John Ewing, Senior, the progenitor of this family, is the man we have referred to as John Ewing of Carnashannagh, and he is the progenitor of the Ewing Surname Y-DNA Project's Group 1a. As near as I can tell, the "letter to Aunt Sallie Jamison" is the only source of the idea that Pocahontas James Ewing (shown as "#ninth child fifth" above) is the son of John Ewing of Carnashannagh, and it is also the only source of the idea that Pocahontas James married a second time, to Sarah Edwards, whose son is my ancestor. I have found Jean McClure's arguments that Pocahontas James could not have married a second time because his first wife survived him persuasive, but as you can imagine, I am interested to know who was the husband of Sarah Edwards, and what his Ewing line may be. I also was perturbed by the statement that John Ewing, Senior, "Fought in the Irish Armies of James II." Our ancestors were Presbyterian and they certainly would have been fighting on the side of William of Orange against James II. Plus, of course, it was forces of James II that were besieging Londonderry and the protestant Williamites that were defending it. I figured that this clear mistake might be an indication that there were other mistakes as well.

Through the years, I have asked other genealogists what they thought about this passage, but I never found (or took) the time to do any serious checking personally until last fall. I was planning a trip to Houston for the Family Tree DNA Conference, and this is not so far from Bryan, so I went to work trying to find Ms. Benbow. Using online white pages, I found a newer address for her that seemed to be a retirement or nursing home and a couple of telephone numbers, but these proved to be dead-ends. Then it occurred to me to check the Social Security Death Index on Ancestry.com, and I was saddened and disappointed to learn that she had died in November 2007. I had been wondering about this for at least four or five years, and I kicked myself for not trying to contact her earlier.

I did not give up, though. I contacted the Brazos County Genealogical Society in Bryan and asked whether they had known her and if perhaps she or her estate had donated her research files to the genealogical society. They did not know her or where her papers might be, but I persisted and asked whether they could put me in touch with a genealogist in the area who might be willing to try to locate any children she might have had, thinking they might know what became of her papers. They gave me the name of Ruth Hary, who spent a couple of hours and found Ms. Benbow's obituary in the local paper, looked in the City Directories, made a couple of phone calls and located one of her sons, Evan Benbow. She asked only that I make a donation to the Brazos Genealogical Society, which I did.

Ms. Hary got permission from Mr. Benbow to give me his contact information, and I EMailed him a few times, but he did not respond. I was a little discouraged, but I was still not ready to give up, so I called him on the telephone. I left messages on his answering machine a couple of times and had about decided he did not want me bothering him when I got a call back. It turns out that he is not much of a computer guy and only rarely looks at the EMail one of his kids or grandkids had set up for him, but he was happy to be as helpful as he could. He did not know about any Ewing connections in his ancestry, but he did know that his grandmother had been a Jamison. He told me that his mom had a huge collection of research materials and old letters. He thought that looking for one letter in this collection would be like looking for a needle in a haystack.

I really wanted to get my hands on that haystack. Mr. Benbow tried to discourage me, and I worried that I was being too pushy, but I finally realized he was not concerned about me bothering him; he just did not want me to waste my time. I looked in Fife and the Ewing Family Genealogy of the descendants of John Ewing of Carnashannagh on the Ewing Family Association web site and sent him probably more information than he wanted to know about his Ewing connection: his fourth great-grandmother was Elizabeth (Ewing) Jamison, who was the fifth child of Samuel Ewing and Margaret McMichael.[3]

To make a perhaps already too long story shorter, I finally was able to persuade Mr. Benbow to allow me to visit and have a look at his Mom's records. And as a great bonus, Larry Bryant, who was also attending the DNA conference as a Ewing Surname Y-DNA Project co-administrator, agreed to go with me. We spent most of the day with Evan and his brother Charles Benbow, at Charles' home near Bryan and got a look at the haystack, or at least at a good part of it. We also drank a couple pots of coffee and ate a half of the pan of coffee cake that Charles' wife graciously fixed for us, and we reluctantly turned down a drink of whiskey (Charles had a good supply of Jameson Irish whiskey, not surprisingly, one of my favorites, though I quit drinking this with coffee cake at breakfast, long since).

As we had been warned, there were too many papers to go through one at a time. Though there was no index or obvious system of organization, I think these papers were better organized than my own, and probably better than those of most of you. There were papers on a number of different family lines. One well-organized box was full of file folders labeled with the names of different individuals with the Love surname (Ms. Benbow's maternal grandmother was a Love), and we did not go through those. Another big box had lots of letters dating back about a hundred years that appeared to be mostly the personal correspondence of Ms. Benbow. We looked at only a sampling of these, and most of them had no obvious genealogical value, though I am sure that a dedicated scholar willing to spend several weeks could construct a telling biography of Ms. Benbow and some of her near relatives and friends from this resource. Another box had some wonderful old photographs, but sadly, as is so often the case with collections of old photographs, there was no way of identifying the individuals pictured in most of them. Another box contained what seemed to be the most valuable original documents of interest to genealogists, including original wills and deeds going clear back before 1800, but most or all of these seemed to involve Jamisons, and we did not spend too much time looking at those.

I guess it is not impossible that Ms. Benbow's Jamison papers could yield some information about remote Ewing lines because these families have been intertwined for generations. For example, as I look at the materials we copied from Ms. Benbow's files now, I see that the Elizabeth Ewing mentioned in the passage from Fife (the daughter of Samuel Ewing and Margaret McMichael) was married to James Jameson (born 1751), and his maternal grandmother was Esther Ewing Cowden (born 1697), the daughter of James Ewing of Inch. This means that Evan, Charles and I are eighth cousins, all descended from James Ewing of Inch, regardless of the rather doubtful connection through John Ewing of Carnashannagh. I did not realize this until after we had left the papers, and now regret not looking more thoroughly at the Jamison deeds and wills, but my sense is that the majority of them were more recent and involved transactions in Texas and Indiana, but not so much in Pennsylvania where the immigrant ancestors initially settled.

But what about the document we went looking for, the original letter from Robert Ewing to Aunt Sallie Jamison? Mrs. Benbow had a couple of thin files labeled 'Ewing.' In one of them was a two-page unattributed typescript that is very nearly identical to the passage from Fife I quoted above and some letters she had received from Ms. Klemann. Indeed, I first thought it might have been copied from Fife, but closer inspection showed several mostly irrelevant typographical differences (for example, a differently placed comma or dash here or there, and the ordinal numbers like fifth and sixth often spelled "fift" and "sixt" in Ms. Benbow's copy). The only substantive difference I could find is that in Ms. Benbow's copy, John Ewing, Senior is said to have "Fought the Armies of James II." Of course, I cannot be sure how that became "Fought in the Armies of James II" in Fife's book, but it looks like someone just made a transcription error. In any case, when we found this typescript, I quickly (and perhaps prematurely) concluded that this was the source of the information that Ms. Benbow sent to Mr. Klemann and Ms. Klemann forwarded on to Margaret Fife. Now, as I re-read the passage quoted above, I see that Ms. Benbow says I took this from an old letter I found in a trunk that I was blessed to receive," suggesting that she had transcribed the letter for Ms. Klemann, and I am kicking myself for not at least looking at the addresses on the envelops in the big box of correspondence to see if one of them was addressed to Sallie Jamison or had a return address showing Robert Ewing. I remember standing before that intimidating box, stirring it with my finger and thinking how long it would take to open each letter, how many I would damage by doing that, and how many fifty year-old Valentine's Day cards I would have to read before I gave up on the idea. I actually could have looked at every single address in a half-hour, but it did not occur to me to do that until just now.

I have told this story in what you may think is unnecessary detail because I think it illustrates a number of pitfalls and opportunities for genealogists. Anyone who takes a serious interest in genealogy ends up spending thousands of hours and thousands of dollars over the course of many years, and sometimes over the course of a lifetime. Though non-genealogists sometimes think we are crazy, we get deeply involved with genealogic puzzles and sometimes downright excited when we are hot on the trail of a new lead. The very nature of ancestry is that as we go back in time, the number of our ancestors increases exponentially, and the connections among them by a multiple of that. It is hard to get organized and near impossible to stay organized, especially when we get excited. We flip through resources in a flurry, jotting down evidence without taking time to document the source. We draw conclusions, whether in a flash of insight or after careful thought, but we neglect to document our thinking. When we write up our results, we rarely give enough detail about how we reached our conclusions to allow future genealogists to check our work. And because we never can be sure that an apparently irrelevant Valentine's Day card will not contain a crucial detail, important documents end up buried in a haystack.

And then we die. Sometimes, we have a close relative who is interested in genealogy and adds our haystack to his or her haystack, and the new double-sized haystack contains two copies of a lot of stuff. More often, no one who is very interested in genealogy is at hand when we die, and our treasured files become a storage or waste-disposal problem for our children. Pictures of folks we knew so well that there was no reason to write a name or date on the back are discarded or become enigmas for future generations of family historians. A record that may have cost us hundreds of hours and hundreds of dollars to locate is destroyed or buried and is lost to future generations forever. I suppose that the main reason we do genealogy is that it holds a fascination for us, and that the excitement of the chase and the satisfaction of making discoveries is enough to justify the time and money we spend, but don't we all also harbor the hope that we will be able to preserve our work and the stories of our ancestors for future generations? When you find careful notes or revealing letter written by a remote ancestor, don't you feel grateful to him or her?

So what did I do right and wrong in this case? One thing I did wrong was to wait too long before trying to find Euline Benbow. Her son told me she was "very sharp" right up until just before she died less than a year before I started looking for her. She knew way more about where stuff was in her files than anyone else could ever know, and she might have been able to lay her hand on the very letter I wanted to see. I will never know. One thing I did right was not to give up easily when I learned that she had died; by persisting, I was able to find her records and her sons and to make some new friends and meet some new cousins. Another thing I did wrong was not to plan my research carefully enough. I knew what I wanted to find: the original of the 1827 letter from Robert Ewing to 'Aunt' Sallie Jamison.[4] But when I confronted the actual records, I was overwhelmed by the volume, and I lost focus as I started looking through them. It is important to keep your mind open enough to recognize the chance discovery of an important document, but I am a little too much like a dog every new scent takes me off on a new trail, and it is all too easy for me to forget what I came for in the first place. I think I have never made a research trip where I collected a bunch of records when I did not realize in retrospect that there had been something else right at my fingertips that I should have checked. Advanced planning and focus would help with this, but perhaps even more helpful would be to allow enough time on your research trip to do at least some preliminary analysis of the data you have collected before you leave. As you study what you have copied, almost always you will think of another piece of information that you could have checked in the same place.

And how about Euline Benbow? She was a dedicated and accomplished genealogist, and I certainly would not presume to say that she did anything wrong. She worked in the pre-computer age and she accomplished a tremendous amount. She collected a surprisingly complete genealogy, including several of her maternal lines back to the immigrant ancestor, and she saved a lot of original source documents. I wish she had written on the back of all her photographs. I wish she had had a system in place to systematically cite references and give their location. I wish she had kept the letters with explicit genealogic information separate from the Valentine's Day cards. I wish she had not died before I got a chance to meet her.

Ms. Benbow's son Evan knew how important her records were to her and he has saved them, but he is more interested in other things, and he will not last forever. I have urged him to donate the records to the local library or to the county genealogical society. And I have resolved to begin using a system to index and store my resource documents. I recently read about one such system that sounded pretty good to me. I will look to it and will perhaps write an article for a future issue of the Journal. If any of you use or know of a good system, we would appreciate if you would write that up for the Journal, too.

 

[1] Fife, Margaret Ewing (ed. James R. McMichael). Ewing in Early America, Family History Publishers, Bountiful, Utah, 84101, Chapter XI, pp 54-55. Available from www.HigginsonBooks.com and online at www.EwingFamilyAssociation.org.

[2] She turns out to be Ono Ruth Ewing Klemann, descended from Edley Ewing (1775-1844), who came from Tennessee to Texas with his family in 1835.

[3] Elizabeth (Ewing) Jamison is individual 33 in the John Ewing of Carnashannagh EGD Genealogy available in the Ewing Family Association's web site (www.EwingFamilyAssociation.org). She is also referred to by 45, her record's ID in the database underlying the genealogy; this ID allows users to distinguish her among the many Elizabeth Ewings in the Name List.

[4] Fife Chapter XI, page 73, says that Robert Ewing (1790-1870) wrote the 1827 letter to his cousin Sallie Jamison. If I have puzzled out the relationships right, she was his second cousin (and Fife says they were double cousins, but I have not taken the time to get clear about that). I am not sure why she is called 'Aunt' in this context.