Monday, April 21, 2014

Methodology Monday with William Gray and an earthquake (NGSQ)

What's worse than a burned county? Would you believe an earthquake county? In the September 2013 National Genealogical Society Quarterly, Melinda Daffin Henningfield expertly traces a common-name ancestor, William Gray, who was briefly a judge in New Madrid County, Missouri Territory, just after the gigantic earthquakes of 1811-1812, during which the Mississippi River briefly ran backwards.

Those who have common-name brick walls, missing records, and tantalizing potential records scattered across several states can pick up ideas from Henningfield's account, even if their problem family has another name. They will also appreciate the variety of records she brings to the table.

Readers of Thomas W. Jones's Mastering Genealogical Proof will find here an example of one of the less common ways to structure a proof argument: the "building blocks" approach (p. 89). The author moves from one cluster of evidence to the next, but the clusters are organized more by relevance to the case than by chronology or other logic. Gray was in middle age at New Madrid; gradually his later Kentucky and earlier Virginia residences come to light, as do the family Bible. Census evidence, church records, handwriting samples, and onomastics (naming patterns) come late in the story. No piece of evidence names William's father, but the combined weight of the evidence from seven counties and four states is as hard to resist as -- an earthquake.

Melinda Daffin Henningfield, "A Family for William Gray of New Madrid County, Territory of Missouri," National Genealogical Society Quarterly 101 (September 2013): 207-28.

Photo credit: Richard Miller Devens, Our First Century (Springfield MA: C. A. Nichols, 1881), 220; digital image, Google Books ( : viewed 21 April 2014). Also,

Harold Henderson, "Methodology Monday with William Gray and an earthquake (NGSQ)," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 21 April 2014 ( : viewed [date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]


Colleen G. Brown Pasquale said...

Wow. What a great piece of history; earthquakes that caused the Mississippi to flow the wrong way! Wouldn't you love to read a diary where someone wrote about it first hand?

Michelle Goodrum said...

Always look forward to your Methodology Monday posts. Thanks for doing them.

Unknown said...

Colleen --- There is a small excerpt of a first-account in the article on page 207--08. The whole first-hand account can be found at Lorenzo Dow, History of Cosmopolite; or the Four Volumes of Lorenzo’s Journal, Concentrated in One: Containing His Experience and Travels, From Childhood, to near His Fortieth Year; Also, His Polemical Writings (Philadelphia, Pa.: Joseph Rakestraw, 1816), 340–42; digital image, Google Books ( : accessed 23 February 2013).

Geolover said...

Among the Monongalia County, West Virginia County Court files now held at the West Virginia University library in Morgantown, are some personal papers of the person then County Court Clerk. They include some correspondence from a son who was in MO during the New Madrid Earthquakes and his accounts are interesting.

Ya never know where stuff will turn up.