Weak links in the family tree: The problem of Betty Crowley

OK, here’s another post in which I’m indulging private obsessions, what with this being a slow news week. Most of you will likely be uninterested, but I’m hoping Lynn Teague or someone else — preferably someone as besotted by genealogy as I currently am — will have useful advice, or at least be able to commiserate.

In recent months, I’ve made some pretty exciting (to me) breakthroughs in researching the family tree, some of which I’ve mentioned here. Most branches on the tree peter out when you get back to the Old Country, if you can get even that far. For instance, I can get back to the last Warthen — or as it was spelled then, Wathen — to live and die in England. He was Sir Charles Wathen, my 9th-great grandfather, who died in Bristol in about 1658.

There the line ends, which is anomalous. Most of my family tree, like everyone’s, is pretty common. But if I can get back to a Sir So-and-So or a Lady Whatever, I usually start a streak that can in some cases go back at least a few centuries. Which is fun. As I race through the centuries on one of those, I feel a rush that I suppose gamblers feel on a lucky streak in Vegas.

By the way, I don’t see having lords and ladies in my background as any reason to put on airs (although pictures of their castles on Wikipedia might make me slightly wistful). Pretty much anyone of European extraction will get there if they have the diligence and luck to go back far enough. For instance, I was excited when I first traced a line back to Charlemagne (38th-great grandfather, calculated one way). Then I read that, if you’re European, you’re definitely descended from Charlemagne, and through multiple lines:

If you’re vaguely of European extraction, you are also the fruits of Charlemagne’s prodigious loins. A fecund ruler, he sired at least 18 children by motley wives and concubines, including Charles the Younger, Pippin the Hunchback, Drogo of Metz, Hruodrud, Ruodhaid, and not forgetting Hugh.

This is merely a numbers game. You have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so on. But this ancestral expansion is not borne back ceaselessly into the past. If it were, your family tree when Charlemagne was Le Grand Fromage would harbour more than a billion ancestors – more people than were alive then. What this means is that pedigrees begin to fold in on themselves a few generations back, and become less arboreal, and more web-like. In 2013, geneticists Peter Ralph and Graham Coop showed that all Europeans are descended from exactly the same people. Basically, everyone alive in the ninth century who left descendants is the ancestor of every living European today, including Charlemagne, Drogo, Pippin and Hugh. Quel dommage….

So I decided that if all Europeans are descended from Charlemagne (and from pretty much everyone else alive at the time), the point of the genealogy game was to figure out how. And I did, so I win. My next great accomplishment was to discover double, triple, and more grandparents. You see, if you get back that far, you are descended from some people several ways, because if you keep exponentially increasing ancestors — 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1,024, and so on — after a few centuries you have more ancestors than there were people on the planet. So your branches start intertwining, collapsing onto one another; the same people keep popping up.

I was excited when I found my first double ancestor. Now, it’s routine. I think I’m now descended from Charlemagne about eight ways — just as you probably are.

So I know I’m not special, but I get a kick out of making the connections. The thing is… if you’re a commoner like me, you have to get back to the people who were prominent enough in history to have their own Wikipedia pages. And that almost always entails getting through some people who did not leave such definite tracks in history. That means there is almost always at least one weak link you can never be sure of.

An example: A couple of weeks back, I got on yet another exciting streak. I made a couple of breakthroughs on the Benton line. My great-great grandfather, Nathan Benton Warthen, got his middle name from his mother’s family. Once I’d gotten the Bentons back to the first generation in this country, I made a leap that got me to such fun discoveries as:

  • De Clare coat of arms

    De Clare coat of arms

    Richard “Strongbow” de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, (1130–1176). I wrote something about this 24th-great grandfather last week. He was the first of the Normans who would conquer Ireland, which means he caused a lot of trouble that has reached to our own generation. He did so with the help of one of the Irish kings, Diarmait of Leinster — known by the dubious sobriquet “Diarmait of the Foreigners” for his ignoble role in helping start the English domination of his country — whose daughter he married, making Diarmait my ancestor as well. My wife is descended from the Irish chieftains Strongbow defeated to take Waterford, so this caused some awkwardness at my house.

  • FitzWarin coat of arms

    FitzWarin coat of arms

    Sir Fulk FitzWarin III, Marcher Lord of Whittington and Alveston — This 24th great-grandfather rebelled against King John and was forced to become an outlaw. Who does that sound like? Yep, his story seems to be one of the possible sources of the Robin Hood legend — or at least, a parallel story. Interestingly, he and John had grown up together, after Fulk was sent to King Henry II’s court as a boy. But they fell out over a childhood game of chess and never reconciled, indicating that one of them was probably a very sore loser. At least, that’s the account in the “romance” written after his death, called Fouke le Fitz Waryn.

  • Sir John Oldcastle

    Sir John Oldcastle

    Sir John Oldcastle, MP, Baron Cobham — This one’s not a direct ancestor — his sister Alice was my 18-great grandmother — but he was a fun discovery anyway. Apparently, Uncle John was originally the inspiration for Falstaff in Shakespeare’s plays. In fact, there is evidence that he was even called by his true name in early versions of the plays, but Shakespeare had to change the name because Oldcastle had prominent descendants who had pull at the Elizabethan court, while John Fastolf did not. He’s actually a more serious character than the sometimes buffoonish Falstaff — he was a prominent practitioner of Lollardy, a pre-Reformation dissenting religious movement. Eventually he was burned for heresy and insurrection — which made him a hero in Protestant Elizabeth’s reign.

Fun stuff, huh? And it was particularly exciting because all my previous forays into the Middle Ages had been through my great-great grandmother Jane Hearst Chiles Bradley, a very well connected lady. All of my paths to Charlemagne — as well as to interesting contemporaries such as my 5th cousin once removed Patty Hearst — start with her. This was a whole other branch, virgin territory, and that made it special. New vistas opened before me.

But… these enchanting Medieval romances are built upon a rickety foundation. I refer to the problem of Betty Crowley.

According to my researches of various online databases, I am about as certain as one can be about such things that one Joseph Benton (1684-1752), was my 6th-great grandfather. I only have one source for this, WikiTree, but the particulars add up logically. WikiTree tells me that his parents were John Benton and Betty Crowley.

Betty is the ancestress who gets me to all of the aforementioned romantic figures of the 1200s. Once I get to her father, Sir Ambrose Crowley III — an ironmonger who appears to have played a significant role in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution — it’s pretty smooth sailing back to the Middle Ages, with multiple sources for each generation, and lots of specifics.

For instance, I can read about Sir Ambrose himself here and here and here and here and here. So he is the kind of ancestor I love to find, because it means I’ve hit another hot streak.

But here’s the problem, or one of the problems: Only one of those five sources — again, WikiTree — acknowledges that he had a daughter named Betty. Geni.com lists a daughter named Elizabeth, so one naturally thinks, “There she is!” But this Elizabeth married John, 11th Baron St. John of Bletso, and I see no indication that she ever left England.

Worse, WikiTree shows Ambrose and wife Mary Owen as having both a daughter named Elizabeth, and our Betty. Which seems highly unlikely. I doubt these folks were illiterate, and I just can’t see them not knowing that “Betty” was a diminutive for “Elizabeth,” or deliberately giving two daughters — both of whom grew to adulthood — the same name. Maddening.

My third and final source of worry: WikiTree shows both Betty and her husband John Benton dying in Reno County, Kansas, in 1718. This is the kind of error that just makes me want to bang my head against a wall. I don’t see how anyone could have in seriousness entered such a bogus “fact” without realizing it had to be wrong. This is almost a century before the Louisiana Purchase. There were to my knowledge basically no white people in Kansas in 1718, much less a married couple from New England. Francisco Vázquez de Coronado had passed through in 1541, but he hadn’t stuck around.

So, Betty Crowley presents a problem. But there’s always a problem like Betty, when you try to go back so far.

On the one hand, what does it matter? Whether I’m actually related to all of these people way back when or not, I’m having fun, and I’m learning so much more about history from studying the contexts in which they lived. And besides, even if I had in hand birth and death and marriage and baptism certificates on every one of them, there’s always the chance that one or another was a bastard and it was hushed up. People were not necessarily paragons of virtue in the past (Sir Thomas More may have been writing of my 19th great-aunt Lady Eleanor Talbot Butler, who apparently had an irregular connection with King Edward the IV after the death of her husband, when he referred to “the holiest harlot in the realm,” because she was always in church when she wasn’t in bed with the king. Or if he wasn’t referring to her, it may have been to my cousin Elizabeth Woodville, whose second husband was that same King Edward IV. It’s good to be the king…)

Still, I hate loose ends, and it would be cool to tidy them up. So if anyone has any hints on how to solve the problem of Betty, I’d love to hear them…

19 thoughts on “Weak links in the family tree: The problem of Betty Crowley

  1. Michael Corleone

    “Still, I hate loose ends, and it would be cool to tidy them up. So if anyone has any hints on how to solve the problem of Betty, I’d love to hear them…”

    So you’re saying you need to settle all the family business?

    Reply
    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Last night, I watched the first episode of “Medici: Masters of Florence” (which was OK), and the Medici sons are trying to figure out who whacked their old man (played by a Hollywood legend), and they’re naming all these prominent families that run Florence, and they’re starting to zero in on Albizzi…

      And I wanted to yell, “No! It was Barzini all along! Albizzi was a pimp!”

      Reply
  2. Tom Stickler

    A family reunion has been held on Thanksgiving Day in Ohio since at least the 1940s. I started a family tree in the early 1960s and have updated it since.

    These forebears were mainly farmers in west-central Ohio, and most were members of the Church of the Brethren. It was not unusual for siblings of one family to marry siblings of a neighboring family, resulting in that tree looking more web-like. Even so, cousin marriages were rare.

    Until his death a couple of years ago, another reunion attendee was a “cousin” five different ways.

    My “gap” is establishing the family of Ethelred Delk, who emigrated to Ohio from North Carolina about 1812, knocked up a 14-year old and started the whole mess.

    Reply
    1. Lynn Teague

      I trust you’ve looked at the Delk yDNA study at family tree DNA. A friend has been working on his Delk family for many years and the yDNA has been extremely useful.

      Reply
      1. Tom Stickler

        A cousin of my mother had a yDNA-67 test that clearly linked him to Roger Delk who came to Jamestown in 1622. Still can’t nail down the connection to Ethelred’s father.

        Reply
    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      Tom, I’m seeing a lot of stuff out there on Ethelred. Several sources lack his ancestors, but I see WikiTree has something on his parents and grandparents.

      Is your problem finding people before him, or connecting him to yourself?

      In any case, I’m envious of the cool name, Ethelred. Normally you have to get back to Alfred the Great to find names like that… :)

      Reply
  3. Brad Warthen Post author

    Found another double-ancestor over the weekend. This one was particularly fun, because it took me back to the first line I ever tracked into the Middle Ages.

    Several months ago, I had my first big breakthrough into the past with the Chiles family — starting, as mentioned above, with my great-great grandmother Jane Hearst Chiles Bradley. This was fun because as it got into the Middle Ages, I saw that line put on Norman airs. Going backward, I saw “Chiles” become “Childe,” then “le Childe,” then “le Infans,” shortly after the Norman conquest. Whether they were Normans or just Saxons selling out I don’t know, because the streak ended with someone born in 1130.

    I had even MORE fun when I went back and started tracing the trees of these Chiles men’s wives. That’s when I got to such cousins as Anne Boleyn — my first big historical celebrity (her great grandfather was my 16th-great grandfather) — then through a separate branch Henry VIII, and, of course, Charlemagne.

    Anyway, that all started with my Dad’s mother’s father’s mother.

    Over the weekend, I was working on a whole other branch — my father’s father’s mother’s family — and started to get excited when I found an 8th-great grandmother named Ann Childe (1651-1700). So I kept going backward, until it changed to… le Childe! And in the right part of England!

    So it was that I eventually found that both my paternal grandmother and grandfather were directly descended from John le Childe, born in 1234 — one from his son Henry, and the other from Henry’s brother John.

    Very cool. I mean, if you’re a total genealogy nerd like what I’ve become…

    Reply
  4. Lynn Teague

    Multiple lines of descent from the same individuals are not rare in South Carolina. My personal best is four different lines of descent from the Cauthen family of Lancaster County. However, I know of at least one South Carolina individual who appears to be descended from the same early Orangeburg couple in nine different ways. I am personally descended from that couple a mere three times, much less embarrassing. I love the comment that a friend in Camden relayed from her great aunt. She questioned why one young man in the family had married as he had, since there were so many nice girls in the family that he could’ve married.

    Reply
    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Speaking of Camden relations…

      I finally found a connection over the weekend that I had suspected, but couldn’t figure out, for years.

      I had long known that I had a 4th-great grandmother named Barbara Chesnut, who came to South Carolina from Ireland in the 18th century. So I had naturally wondered about a connection to the famous Civil War diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut.

      I made attempts to establish such a connection years ago, but got nowhere. But in recent months my understanding of how to search various sources has grown, and over the weekend… ta-DA!

      Turns out Mary Boykin Chesnut’s husband was my 3rd cousin four times removed…

      Reply
      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        … which means — I’m finally starting to figure out the “removed” thing — that my great-great grandfather Thomas Henry Moffatt was Sen. James Chesnut Jr.’s (Mary Boykin’s husband’s) third cousin. And since my great-great grandfather is four generations back, I’m four times removed.

        I think…

        Reply
    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      To Lynn’s comment about marrying within the family…

      Benjamin Leonard Warthen and Mary Ann Benton were my great-great-great grandparents.

      Mary Ann’s sister, Sarah Benton, married Leonard’s brother William.

      Which is cool. Sometimes in small communities a pair of sisters will marry a pair of brothers.

      But it turns out that Leonard and William were not the Benton sisters’ only husbands. Each of them was married one other time. Both were also married to men named “Clagett,” who were also apparently brothers. (I say “apparently” because I can’t find confirmation of their relationship. But while one spelled the surname with one G and the other with two, they both had the same middle name: “Magruder.”)

      The Benton girls apparently did not move in a large social universe…

      Reply
      1. Lynn Teague

        Many didn’t live in a large social circle in those days. Ten miles was a significant distance for courting. In the area that I’m most familiar with, southeastern Orangeburg County, we have about three centuries of the same families living around one another. Relationships are extremely complex. George tells me that I don’t have a family tree, I have a kudzu patch.

        Reply
      2. Norm Ivey

        My great-grandfather and his two brothers married three sisters, which produced a number of cousins in the next generation who often had the same names because they were named for the same ancestors.

        Reply
        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          OK, I think I can top you…

          On my father’s mother’s branch, I’m descended from both the Pressly and Hearst families. I recently discovered some startling things:

          Three Pressly brothers — the Rev. John Taylor Pressly, Dr. George William Pressly and Dr. Samuel Patterson Pressly — married three Hearst sisters: Elizabeth, Jane and Isabella.

          But that’s not the good part. The good part is that the three Hearst sisters were the FIRST COUSINS of the three Pressly brothers.

          John Pressly and Isabella Fleming were grandparents to all six of them. Either that, or I’ve gotten ahold of some seriously bad information — six times.

          John Pressly and Isabella Fleming were also my 5th-great grandparents. But let me hasten to add that I’m descended from the one Hearst sister who did NOT marry a Pressly cousin, Mary. She married Thomas White Chiles.

          Note the titles before these brothers’ names — the Rev., Dr., Dr. These were educated people, and as Associate Reformed Presbyterians (at least, that’s what the Rev. John was), pretty much into traditional morality…

          Reply
  5. Brad Warthen Post author

    Back to the Betty Crowley problem…

    Uncertainty like that is frustrating, but what’s really frustrating is when you’re completely stuck on your tree, and far more recently than Betty…

    I mentioned above how I just traced the ancestry of my great-grandmother, Rebecca Jane Rabbitt Warthen, all the way back to where it joined up with a line from another part of the tree, back in the 1200s.

    Well, that’s through her father’s family. Her mother was Elizabeth Ann Baker, who was born on 28 Jul 1826 in Montgomery County, MD, and who died on 16 Jan 1914. I know all that about her, and even have a photograph of her — but I can’t find a hint of who her parents were, or anything before them.

    Which is MADDENING. Maybe she was adopted or something; I don’t know. But it’s frustrating when someone who lived that recently can’t be tracked.

    I suppose if I ever get back up to Montgomery County (where my Dad’s from) I can go dig through some musty files. Until then, I’m not sure what to do.

    One thing I have found in hunting for her info is that others have sought the same — and failed…

    Reply
  6. Gary Worthen

    Brad,
    Not sure if we are from the same line but I traced my history on the Warthen side back to Sir Charles Wathen also.
    It looks like the spelling changed for me with Joseph Warthen born in 1746.
    My last name changed again starting with Brigham Heber Worthen born in 1845.
    Like I said not sure if this could be another connection but I found it interesting.
    I like your article.
    Gary Worthen

    Reply
    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Good to hear from you, cuz.

      I have a Joseph Warthen on the tree, but he wasn’t born until 1809.

      Do you know how your Joseph is descended from Sir Charles? That might help me figure out how we’re connected…

      Reply
  7. Brad Warthen Post author

    Another problem with ol’ Betty, which I just noticed over the weekend.

    If the birthdates I have for them are right, she was only 4 years old when her son, my 6th great-grandfather Joseph Benton, was born.

    Yeah, I have her birthdate as ABOUT 1680, but I can’t push it much earlier because her mother was born in 1665.

    So maybe the date for Joseph is wrong. That would work, because his son Joseph was born in 1725. And the elder Joseph’s wife, Anne, was born in 1704.

    Sure, he COULD be 20 years older than his wife, but he could also be closer to her age — which would fix THIS Betty problem, at least…

    Reply

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