I cannot tell a lie. I am related to one of the most famous liars of all time. In the early 1800s, Mason Locke Weems, better known as Parson Weems — my cousin six times removed — wrote fictionalized “biographies” of famous men such as Ben Franklin and George Washington. His books were morality tales aimed toward building character in teenage boys. He was wildly popular. If he were alive today, Weems would no doubt be a political hagiographer promoting his books on cable TV and Twitter. Incredibly, after two centuries, his books are still selling — and online, for a hefty price!
Weems popularized the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. In his book The Life of Washington, he recounts how George, a feisty 6-year-old, hacks away at an English cherry tree with a new hatchet. When confronted with the dying tree, the father of our country fesses up immediately: “I can’t tell a lie, Pa; you know I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.” George’s father, far from beating his son, calls him “dearest boy” and hugs him for telling the truth. It’s a marvelous tale, except it’s all hokum, a contrived bit of storytelling to shape the image of our nation’s forefather.
Why am I telling you this? To be honest, I’ve never been a history buff. But seeing history through the lens of an incorrigible relative is captivating — and getting easier to do. The nation’s archives, from census and pension records to ship passenger lists and school yearbooks, are increasingly online. The genealogical service Ancestry.com boasts that it can search more than 6 billion records. Much of this info can be had for free too. The folks at the Mormon archives in Salt Lake City give away stacks of free CDs to help you download your family history. This year, the Mormons held their first-ever ?RootsTech, a conference solely to help people use technology to investigate their family history. Can’t afford to go? You can also research online at www.familysearch.org
When I read that 2011 is the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, I got curious about my own family. Have you been watching the reality show where celebs dig up their pasts? On Who Do You Think You Are?, Matthew Broderick discovered an ancestor who died fighting for the North with Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. Lionel Richie found a great-grandfather, a slave who became a prominent civic leader after the war. I realized I didn’t need professionals. I had a great resource nearby: my uncle Robert Stokes, who’s been working on a family tree since the 1970s.
My uncle is just back from Salt Lake City with census and city directories that he hopes will show whether we’re related to a Stokes who came over from London in the 1600s as an indentured servant — literally a white slave. “They have got so much stuff in Salt Lake City. It’s almost unbelievable. Now everything’s on computer,” he says, rummaging in his desk and coming up with a 3GB file of what he found there. It turns out most of my male ancestors — the Stokes family, at least — were farmers. “We didn’t really have ‘famous’ people in our family,” Robert says.
One ancestor, David Washington Self, was a captain in the Confederate Army. David showed up a day late for the Battle of Shiloh. Turns out he had been in a Vicksburg, Miss., hospital sick with pneumonia, but he got up from his bed and raced to the front on day two — only to be shot and critically wounded. He was sent home to Louisiana to die. “As the family story goes, my great-great-grandmother took a butcher knife and cut him open,” says my uncle, chuckling as he tells the story. “She said, ‘No husband of mine is gonna die from a damnyankee bullet.’ She found a piece of holster in his side that the field doctors had left. It had festered. She sewed him up.” He not only lived, but he also went back to the battlefront, became a major and later served as a superintendent of schools, a sheriff and a state representative in the late 1800s.
Parson Weems, my uncle tells me, was one of the first American Episcopal priests. Despite being a minister, he was quite the character, known for singing and playing his fiddle in pubs. When he wasn’t writing best-sellers, he would hit the road, peddling books for his publisher. “Once, while he was fording a river, his wagon got stuck and brigands tried to rob him. He started playing a fiddle and telling stories, so they pushed his wagon out and let him go,” my uncle says, laughing. Like our ancestor Parson Weems, we love to tell stories in our family. This one even has a moral: Go interview your family. Find out about your history.