Sunday, September 29, 2013

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back, and a Few Steps to the Side

There are so many subtitles that I could give to this post:

  • "Support Your Research"
  • "To Assume is to Make an A$$ out of U and ME"
  • "Don't Believe Your Own Hype" (my favorite)
  • "Trust Your Instincts"
...Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, but the general gist is that it is very easy to make mistakes when we are doing genealogy research. So, despite the fact that I've been researching my family trees for the past 7 years, and feel fairly comfortable with my skills of deduction and reasoning, I am still continually learning and improving my research skills -- one of the biggest lessons that I've learned is to not get set on what I think to be the right answer when I know that I haven't asked all of the right questions, and to not frustrated and give up when I've taken the wrong path.

In 2010, armed with a bunch of information from my most trust-worthy Barnes/Smith family source, my Aunt Mary Alice Barnes Brock, I started digging deeper into my maternal Barnes family research. I had primarily focused on my searching my dad's Ruffin/Pearson side, so after several phone calls picking my Aunt's brain, I loaded my new findings into my tree on When I'd asked her the oldest Barnes ancestor name that she knew, she told me that it was her father's father, Cal Barnes (whom she'd never met). She didn't know much about him, other than her dad referring to his father by the name "Cal" and saying that she remembered a big picture hanging in her dad's house of a very fair-skinned man with green eyes.

I located Cal, his wife Ella and their children fairly easily in the 1910 and 1920 Lawrence County, MS censuses, but not knowing anything more about him, I felt stuck. Since I knew his name was Cal, I assumed that it was a shortened version of "Calvin" and began to search for a "Calvin Barnes" in Lawrence County. I found a man named Calvin Barnes in that area in the 1880 census, living with his parents Archie and Harriet Barnes. I was so excited! Were these my 2x great-grandparents? I searched again, and found them all living together in the 1870, but Calvin's name was listed as Thompson. Thompson??? And, also, I was troubled by the fact that his birth year was quite a bit earlier than that of the Cal Barnes I found in the 1910 and 1920 censuses. Hmmm...

Nonetheless, I got caught up in my own research and blind hope that I had located my great-grandfather and his parents. I gleefully loaded them all into my tree and claimed them as my own, based on nothing but the census records. I was even more excited when I found Archie's parents, Samuel and Dorcas Barnes, living nearby. I began to research them as well, and was ecstatic to randomly Google Dorcas' name and found that she had applied to be recognized in the Five Tribes as a Native American and despite being rejected, I rejoiced in the fact that I was able to get the names of all of her brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, and most importantly, her Indian father and black mother! During all of this research, I had built up quite a community of contacts I had made through of other hopeful Barnes "cousins" searching for family ties. I couldn't completely shake the nagging feeling that the facts of Calvin Barnes' birth year and residence location in the census didn't quite match that of my Cal Barnes, and even tried to be cautious in not telling these other folks that this was definitely my ancestor, but, the excitement of the find, and the fact that there were so many others that were benefiting from the information that I had gathered and shared online drew me into the belief that I had been successful. I believed my own hype to the point of even meeting some "cousins" in person I had connected with online while attending a reunion for my dad's side in Mississippi in 2012.

During that same trip, on the advice of Aunt Mary Alice, I arranged to meet some descendants of my great-uncle Coleman Barnes (my grandfather Lee's brother), who still lived in the area where my grandfather and his siblings grew up. It was a wonderful and enlightening visit, especially so when my new cousin Caroline excitedly told me that her sister Janice had also been researching the family tree for several years and that I should contact her. Although Caroline didn't know as many details as she said her sister did, she did share a tidbit that would change the course of my research on Cal Barnes. She referred to him as "Carrol," a name that I had come across in my search of the 1870 census, but dismissed because I was looking so diligently for "Calvin." One thing that I quickly picked up was in the way that she said the name. Being raised a "Northerner," I had always heard the Southern inflection in the way that my mom and dad said certain words, and speaking to Caroline and her family was no different. When she said our ancestor's name, my ears heard "Cal," but not until she spelled it, did I realize that she was actually saying "Carrol, " which is likely what the censustakers also heard when they wrote the name down in the later census records. I just didn't have my mind open to the fact that the census could have been misleading in this respect.

When I returned from my trip, I promptly called my cousin Janice and we happily spoke for hours about our research and shared family line. She confirmed that, based on trusted family sources, our 3x great-grandfather's name was Carrol  not Calvin, and that his mother's name was Sophronia, not Archie and Harriet as I had previously believed. With this new information, I had to swallow the fact that months of research into Calvin Barnes and his family was now rendered useless to me -- THEY WERE NOT MY FAMILY.

Although this was devastating to accept, it wasn't completely a loss because the effort wasn't wasted. In gathering and sharing the research that I had done on the Samuel and Dorcas Barnes family, I was able to help countless researchers with holes in their trees. I was able to provide documented proof of their ancestors' family names and rare, historical data about the lives of their ancestors during slavery as provided in their own voices in the Dawes interviews. My research also provided them with verification that they did, indeed, have Native American heritage, and they learned their ancestor's English and Choctaw names. I was also able to unify several present-day African-American researchers with their Native American cousins through Ancestry and Facebook. I was also able to share photos of family members with others who had never seen them. So, although it was my loss and their gain in respect to my research, it was my gain in respect to my being able to assist someone else, and that was priceless.

And, it wasn't a complete loss where my research is concerned because I did get to meet a whole family of my true cousins, find a kindred genealogy spirit in my cousin Janice, and learn who my real ancestors were, expanding my family base exponentially. The biggest gain that I have gotten out of all of this is that I was instrumental in assembling the first family reunion unifying the descendants of my grandfather Lee Barnes and 4 of his siblings this past Memorial Day in Yazoo City, MS! It was so incredible to gather all of these cousins who literally lived in the same community for generations, but didn't know one another, and to see the family resemblances and love shared among us was one of the most enjoyable and rewarding experiences I have ever had.

So, sometimes when we make mistakes, we have to not be defeated by them. We need to learn from them in order to not make them again (i.e., verify all information, get as much documented proof as possible, don't make assumptions), but we also need to learn how to turn every opportunity into a positive because the rewards reaped can be greater than you ever imagined!

The t-shirt logo that I designed for our reunion

Me giving a brief presentation on the family history at our reunion

Several Barnes cousins (including myself, 2nd from left)
showing our rewards for planning the reunion

Although some cousins were meeting for the first time,
they all spoke the language of bones...

and bid whist! We know we are cousins
because we are all competitive, but good-naturedly so.

My genealogy twin cousin Janice and me, who met for the first time that weekend.

A small fraction of the Barneses gathered that weekend

A special treat was a surprise first meeting with some of our Cowart cousins
(relatives of my maternal great-grandmother, Ella Mae Cowart Barnes).
I had previously "met" cousin Sharron (in blue shirt) via

After our closing family church service on Sunday, the cousins couldn't resist a rousing game of basketball! Players included male and female, young and old, suited and casual dress, skilled and not-so-skilled, and a few men of the cloth like my cousin, Pastor Eric Barnes (in purple shirt).


  1. I should add that, yes, I did go back and tell those other Barnes researchers that I was NOT part of their line. It was tough, but they were all understanding and kind, and appreciative of what I was able to give them, and still remain part of my research community.

    1. WOW! Renee, I am so glad that the error turned out to be a wonderful experience for you and everyone involved. Excellent post and tips to adhere too!

    2. Thanks so much, Liv! I appreciate the supportive words! :-) I'm certain that I will have subjects for many future posts as I will be sure to make other mistakes! LOL

  2. I really enjoyed your post the first time, and now re-reading it a couple of months later I am reminded again how easy it is to go off pursuing what seems to be a new tree only to find it's a detour, though often, as in your case, even the detours can prove enlightening and help someone else in their research.