My historical novels Rebel Puritan and The Reputed Wife, Herodias (Long) Hicks Gardner Porter, colonial New England, travels, and whatever else seizes my fancy...

Monday, October 7, 2013

Genealogy à la Carte

Three years ago I created a Facebook page for Herodias Long of 17th century Rhode Island, the real-life protagonist in my Scandalous Life series. That page, along with my Rebel Puritan website and blog, serve to disseminate and solicit information about Herodias and her husbands, John Hicks, George Gardner/Gardiner, and John Porter.

Since I published Rebel Puritan in 2011, I’ve had many a pleasant exchange with other Herodias descendants and friends. I use information gathered in 35 years of research to answer questions about Herodias and her family, and some genealogists and descendants have new data for me. Some of them have also triggered lively debate.

John Hicks and Harwood Long
I swapped emails with a noted genealogist bent on convincing me to stop using the name Herodias for my ancestor, in favor of Harwood. He reasons that because the woman was named ‘Harwood’ on her marriage license allegation, that is what we should all call her. He wants me to print inserts for unsold books correcting my protagonist’s name, and to send an apology to my buyers.

Herodias used a shortened version of that unsavory name from the Bible, so she is seen in Rhode Island records as Horod or Horred, and even Harwood. Her descendants supplied ‘Herodias’ to 19th century genealogists as their notorious great-grandmother’s proper name. Perhaps I’m propagating a fictitious name, but I believe that there is greater harm done by discarding a name which is indeed fact.

A couple of weeks ago a man posted on my Herodias Long Facebook page, asking why I 'claim' to be descended from Herodias. After all, I admit that I am descended from her son Benoni Gardner. He reasoned that Benoni means ‘son of my sorrow or pain’ and adds, “It's a name given after the mother or father dies. It's a well known fact that … George Gardiner's [first] wife died at sea, and their child was named Benoni because of the loss.”

NEHGS logo
I supplied him with a link to an article printed by no less than the New England Historical and Genealogical Society ("O My Son Benoni"). It states that boys were also named Benoni when they seemed likely to die, they were conceived out of wedlock, or were named for relatives.

My 7th great-grandfather Benoni was indeed conceived to Herodias and George Gardner in a very troubled time. Herodias had recently been abandoned by her first husband, John Hicks. John also took their children, and she did not learn where they were for several months. It seems that she turned to George for comfort, and gained a son in the bargain.

My Facebook correspondent was not impressed by my reasoning, and replied, “Believe what you want about your heritage, and I will believe the records I have.” He had plenty to say about the fictional content of Rebel Puritan and The Reputed Wife, but I’ll save that for another post.

“I will believe the records I have.” This man bases his belief on the notion that 'Benoni' was  reserved for sons of dying mothers – even though there are other reasons that boys are named Benoni – and cites a “massive online group” who share his belief.

People have compiled their genealogies since before the Bible was written. Ever since, they have squeezed, stretched, and abridged these lineages to make them fit the facts – or their desires. Methuselah lived 969 years, or so it is said, and his descendants are said to be equally long-lived in an effort to fit a theological time frame.

Researchers occasionally massage their genealogies to dodge scandalous ancestors. My favorite controversial lineage is, of course, George Gardner and his first wife. Herodias Long, with her three husbands (but only one official marriage) scandalized 19th century genealogists, and Asa Bird Gardiner was apparently one of them.

Asa Bird Gardiner
Asa was a New York City lawyer awarded with the Medal of Honor during the Civil War, but had that medal revoked by Congress. He was tried (and acquitted) for corruption, and removed from the office of New York County District Attorney by Teddy Roosevelt after declaring, “Reform be damned!” while refusing to prosecute corrupt Tammany Hall officials.

Does that make Asa Bird Gardiner a bad genealogist? Perhaps not. However, he claimed to have found a passenger list of the Fellowship, a craft sailing out of Bristol, England in 1637. George Gardiner, a first wife, and three sons, including Benoni, were on that list. Asa claimed that the first wife, Sarah (Slaughter) Gardiner and the two eldest boys, Edward and Robert, died at sea. George Gardiner was left to raise the surviving son, Benoni with his new wife, Herodias (Long) Hicks.

There is indeed a marriage record for George Gardiner and Sarah Slaughter at St. James Clerkenwell, London. However, there are no baptismal records for Edward, Robert, or Benoni. Furthermore, George Gardiner of St. James Clerkenwell apparently remained in England, where several of his children were baptized between 1635 and 1657. And no genealogist has been able to relocate the Fellowship’s passenger list.

Asa was not the only Gardner/Gardiner genealogist to seize on a 1599 baptism of George, born to Michael Gardiner of Greenford Magna, Middlesex County, England. Surely this must be ‘our’ George, just as the one who married Sarah Slaughter must be our man. Even better, there's an ancestral line from Michael Gardiner back to Charlemagne!

However, that published and popular line has several problems, including a woman betrothed before her great-grandmother was born. It was ably debunked by G. Andrews Moriarty. George Gardner of Rhode Island cannot be connected to any person or place in England, but that doesn’t stop genealogists from doing it anyway.

All genealogies are open to doubt, especially in the absence of thorough vital record (as is the case in Rhode Island). Even DNA studies aren’t always helpful. I hate to say it, but online genealogy has made the problem worse. It has become an à la carte pastime, where one can pick and choose whom he or she wants as an ancestor as easily as choosing dinner at a Chinese restaurant.

LDS Ancestral File for Benoni Gardner
For example, the LDS Ancestral File has nearly 400 lineages for Benoni Gardner, and a researcher can pick Herodias Long or Sarah Slaughter as his mother, or no known mother at all. He is born in 1637 or 1644, or any year between. Benoni is known to have married a woman named Mary, but someone compiling a genealogy from Mormon records has a choice of Sherman, Dyer, Eldred, Gardiner, or no surname for Benoni’s wife.

What drives a person’s choice of an ancestor? Controversy and scandal can be avoided or embraced. If you are descended from Benoni Gardner, you can choose the colorful Herodias Long for your many-greats grandmother, or Sarah Slaughter, who died tragically at sea. You can accept a spurious Gardiner ‘royal line’ if you wish. Even Herodias is believed by a few to be a sister of Mary Dyer, who they say is descended from the Stuart kings of Scotland and England. Très romantic, but untrue.

Gen. Joseph Warren slain at Bunker Hill
My grandmother told my mother that we are descended from General Joseph Warren, a Bunker Hill patriot. Upon examination of vital and probate records, we learned that my family actually comes down from a Revolutionary War private. Benjamin Warren was a minor actor at the Battle of Saratoga, but we were glad to trace him back to Richard Warren of the Mayflower.

That’s what all genealogists need to do. Probe ALL records for inconsistencies before you accept them, especially those online. Be skeptical of a lineage which offers an ancestor from a town which didn’t exist when he was born, or a wife born 1,000 miles away from where her husband lived. Research and verify. It's better to not fill in a name on the chart, or to accept a common foot soldier instead of a Revolutionary War general than to advance fiction.

The article referenced, "O My Son Benoni" is posted on the American Ancestors website. You may need to be a member to read it:

G. Andrews Moriarty's debunking of the Gardiner 'royal lineage' is posted on my Rebel Puritan website. Scroll to the bottom of the page for the article.




  1. LOVE IT, Jo Ann. Great article, especially the bits about verification of your data. Several times in my research, I've come across legends, outright fabrications, typos, and serious mathematical mistakes in internet genealogy pages. One had a woman giving birth to her grandfather, 50 years into the future. Woo-hoo! Where's that Delorean car when you need it?

    In my Mary Dyer research, I've found some major doozies, of course: the Seymour-royal Stuart ancestry fallacy, names and birth order of Mary's children (including the daughter born to her husband two years after Mary died...oops), and attributing actions, thoughts, and words to her that patently did NOT come from her.

    All it takes is a timeline of events and a healthy logic to see that those things cannot be so--and They. Must. Not. Be. Propagated!!!

    Because as time goes by, there are new research and discoveries. Artifacts, books, journals, and legal records get scanned and are now available as primary resources for those seeking truth. But the legends have been around for more than 150 years, and were born out of what someone *wished* it to be. You can't reason with an unreasonable person. You can't make a convert to your religion/politics/scientific data if they can't be open to the possibility that thinking might change and records might be updated. One of the biblical Gospels says to shake the dust off your shoes and move on.

  2. Unfortunately, the old, error-filled accounts will float around the Internet forever. The LDS refuse to remove bad lineages from their records. Genealogists cite "Ripley's Believe it or Not" among their sources (no kidding!).

    I made it clear in my author's notes for Rebel Puritan and The Reputed Wife's which events are fiction and which are fact. Nevertheless, I still worry that Herodias' fictional parents will be stuck into someone's lineage.

    Research. Verify. And read the Author's Notes!

  3. Can't even BEGIN to express how much I love this, Jo Ann!

  4. Thanks so much, Peni! I've been wanting to say some of this for a while.


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