In 1997, I decided to spend the big money and get dial up internet service. I lived in the little town of Cottonwood, ID and this was an expensive monthly purchase for me. At that time, most of my correspondence took place through email messages. One of the first genealogy organizations I became involved in was the Pennington Research Association. I had a name to research and I figured that they were the best place to start.
We had a family tree that had been embroidered and was hanging on the wall in our hallway. I knew that my great grandmother’s grandmother was a Pennington and that her first name was Elizabeth from that family tree. I started out with what I knew and started asking questions. Elizabeth Pennington was born around 1840 in Ashe Co., NC. She married Alexander Monroe Dollar and had at least one son, John Dooley Dollar, my great grandmother’s father. One of the first people that emailed me back from the queries that I had placed was John French. He told me that Elizabeth Pennington was the daughter of Levi Pennington, granddaughter of Levi Pennington and great granddaughter of Micajah Pennington. This was my first “aha” moment in genealogy. I now had a line that stretched back into the 1700’s. I became an enthusiastic researcher in all things “Pennington” and joined the Pennington Research Association based on that one query that had been answered.
John French was the Research Director for the PRA (Pennington Research Association) and was a great researcher. He did something that was quite forward thinking at the time – he took all of those paper notes on families and individuals and put them in a genealogy database. Computers were still pretty new to a lot of people doing genealogy research so this was a pretty meaningful activity. John French took people’s info and entered it into the database and then tried to connect the families and information as best he could. Everything that we take for granted was not easily available through the internet back in 1997 and certainly wasn’t easy to research if it was available. So his data became a great starting point to be able to help any researcher who only had a little information. Very soon after my joining the PRA, I became the Group Leader for Group 7 – the descendants of Micajah Pennington. Not too long after my initial contact, John French passed away. This was a blow to a lot of Pennington researchers because John had pioneered a lot of research and there was a fear that it would be lost. The PRA quickly appointed a new Research Director (Gene Pennington) and the data that John French had put together was saved and accessible by the Research Director.
Fast forward several years – the JFMF or John French Master File, as it was now called, still seemed to be to a lot researchers a depository of all Pennington knowledge. By this point, I had a lot more experience with the JFMF because I had been managing it for a while as the Asst. Research Director for the JFMF. Everyone wanted access to it on their own. It was hard to communicate too many of the members what the JFMF really signified. It was essentially a data file with a lot of theories but not much evidence. It wasn’t necessarily a common practice to put sources down when John French compiled that information and now much of it was suspect because we didn’t know the source. Not only that, further research had shown that some of the conclusions made were inaccurate. What John French had accomplished was wonderful for its time – but the fact of the matter it was too difficult to modify and correct so the PRA decided to leave it as it was…So it became a source of clues rather than a reliable source and it became accessible to all interested PRA members through the www.myfamily.com website.
One only has to look at my line to understand what I mean by the statement that new research had changed some of the conclusions that John French had made. My Elizabeth Pennington was the daughter of Levi Pennington b. 1794 and Elizabeth Henson. However, she was not the granddaughter of Levi Pennington b. 1767. Instead, Levi b. 1794 was the son of Ephraim Pennington. I had never stopped researching my Pennington line and had gathered a lot of interesting materials because I was the Group 7 Leader. One of these items was a letter written by a Daniel Pennington that referenced a brother who lived in Laurel Bloomery, TN and talked about visiting his son’s uncle Levi the next day. That Levi was Elizabeth’s father. You might have noticed that I use dates to differentiate the names. That is because there a multitudes of Levis in Pennington research. It makes it easier to figure out who you are talking about.
So…what is the lesson here? First of all, do your own research. If you are really interested in a family – use other people’s data as clues but confirm it with your own research. Just because you think you know the family well – don’t stop checking research as new data becomes available. That new data can change your conclusions. Correspond with other researchers. Many of them are looking at the same families and they may have stories, pictures, letters, etc. that might enhance the genealogy that you are researching. Add stories to your research about individual people. Some of those stories or small facts enrich your history and may give either you or someone else one of those “aha” moments that really make research fun. Lastly, join a genealogical one name association or genealogy society in an area that you researching. Joining the PRA all those years ago has made me a much better researcher. My research has expanded beyond just the research into the descendants of Micajah Pennington but now includes all Ashe Co., NC Penningtons. These Penningtons ended up in VA, TN, KY, MO and many other states including my home state of Idaho. The PRA has given me contact with other researchers who are exploring the same families but has also given me many close friendships. The internet is a marvelous tool. Primary data is now available online through free and paid for websites. Email correspondence can allow researchers from clear across the country trade information and documents at the click of a mouse. I think of the marvelous work that John French did so many years ago. He had the foresight to record what he knew and has left a marvelous record of clues for future researchers.