My interest in genealogy started in 1985 when I was a student at Northeast Mississippi Junior College in Booneville. One of my professors – Ann Cross, I believe – gave her English composition students a choice of topics for a major class project. One of the choices was to create a “family tree” and to prepare a speech about it for the class. The investigative nature of that option appealed to me more than any of the other possibilities so I soon began a process of interviewing my living grandparents – Katherine Stephens Richey, Mort Gardner and Delia Mae Rutherford Gardner – along with great uncles and aunts and other relatives who possessed Bibles, and photographs, and documents that might reveal a few generations of ancestors.
A characteristic of mine that is sometimes a blessing and sometimes a curse is that I generally over-do anything I get involved in. My family tree project was no exception. As I began to uncover previously unknown names of great, great grand-parents, it occurred to me that I really did not know why I was here – in Baldwyn, in Mississippi, in the United States even. So I decided to search out not only my Richey ancestors – which would have easily satisfied the assignment – but ALL my ancestors, in every direction, every branch, as far back as I could go.
I worked for several weeks. Beyond the interviews with my own family, I pored over compiled genealogies published by others. I found The History of Prentiss County – a brand new publication at the time – at the George E. Allen Library in Booneville. This book connected names of my earliest ancestors, hastily scribbled down in conversations with relatives, to hundreds of fully researched Prentiss County family trees. I expanded the scope of my work from great grandparents to 7th and 8th great grandparents in multiple branches almost immediately.
As the time for my class presentation approached, I sketched out all I had gathered on a poster board, making a little drawing of a tree along the family branch lines with colored markers. I was ready to talk about my most interesting ancestors – about James Richey, who came to America from Ireland in 1849 and had a shoe shop in Baldwyn by 1870; about Jahu Stephens, who at 10 years old hid in his family’s corn crib as Yankee soldiers poked all around him with a pitchfork; and about Alice Rogers Gardner, who had her appendix taken out by R. B. Caldwell when she was 97 and lived ten more years. On my chart, I had many other names of direct ancestors about whom I knew very little – Alexander Spain, Jasper Rutherford, Charles Wesley Williams, Emily Beall, Sterling Gardner, Jane Blackwood, and on and on. Obviously, I would not mention those forefathers in my presentation, but they were there and just as much a part of my genetic make-up as James Richey was. I would return to these other ancestors in the future, I told myself, to see what I could uncover.
The day eventually arrived for my presentation, but a funny thing happened. They never got around to me. At the end of class, Ms. Cross re-scheduled my speech for our next session, and I left feeling a little disappointed. As fate would have it, that same day, as I crossed Highway 45 and headed to Keenum Stadium for football practice, I noticed something – apparently for the first time – something that would radically change my still forthcoming presentation. Certainly, I had found family trees and history to be quite interesting already, but the level of my interest increased exponentially when I considered a historic marker planted on the side of the road there by the college, a marker that had been in plain sight the entire time I was in school at Northeast. For some reason, I finally read it.
“Booneville – Site bought by B. B. Boone, C. W. Williams and W. P. Curlee from Chickasaw Le-Ho-Yea. Named for pioneer R. H. Boone, a descendent of Daniel Boone. Chartered 1873 and made co. seat of newly formed Prentiss County.”
I saw “C. W. Williams,” and something clicked. I remembered a name from my poster board – Charles Wesley Williams. When practice was over, I hustled to the library and thumbed again through The History of Prentiss County. I learned, and soon verified beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Charles Wesley Williams, my 4th great grandfather, was “C. W. Williams,” and I learned that C.W. was married to Polly Boone, a daughter of Reuben Holman Boone. It seems I was DIRECTLY descended from the founders of Booneville.
While that fact was interesting enough, surely it goes without saying that the MOST interesting fact was another line from the marker. I’ll say it anyway – “a descendent of Daniel Boone.” Kentucky frontiersman “Daniel Boone.” TV show “Daniel Boone.” Coonskin cap, rawhide shoe, Fess Parker “Daniel Boone.” Now THAT is what I was looking for!
But sometimes historic signs don’t always speak absolute truth. As it turned out, R.H. Boone was NOT a descendent of Daniel Boone, at least not a direct one. Reuben Boone’s grandfather John WAS a 1st cousin of the famous woodsman and actually lived with Daniel and his parents after his mother died at a young age. So Daniel Boone is sort of a great uncle or cousin of mine. Ancestry.com – which was not around in 1985 – says that Daniel Boone is my 1st cousin 9 times removed. I’ll take it.
My presentation changed before the next class session. My theme became the coincidental reading of the historic marker after my originally scheduled speech was fortuitously bumped, and the subsequent connecting of the marker’s information with names on my poster board, all the way through to the final revelation that I claimed Daniel Boone as a relative. It was great day in the genealogical history of Clark Richey, and a much better speech was the result.
I still keep the cracked poster board of my hand-drawn tree above my desk on Main Street, within easy arm’s reach. Sometimes I roll it out and look at it, even though all the old information is better displayed by the elaborate computer programs I now use. But to truly know who you are, you need to know where you came from.