Friday, July 17, 2009

Creating Harmony

The town of Harmony is located in Chautauqua County in the southwestern corner of New York state (see red dot on the map at left). It is a tranquil rural community of about 2,000 people with a growing reputation for producing some of the finest maple syrup in the country. The earliest settlers began arriving in 1809, and the town was incorporated in 1816, at which time it was on the western frontier of the newly created United States of America.

I first learned of the town during a Google search for information on my 4x-great-grandfather, Timothy Jenner, son of Revolutionary War veteran, Stephen Jenner. By this time in our research, my daughter and I had decided that she would join the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) when she turned 18 and I would join the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR) now. By doing so, all my daughter would have to prove for her DAR application is her descendency from me, so by gathering all the documentation for my SAR application now, we would be killing two birds with one stone. As a result, the Jenner portion of our genealogical quest had shifted from merely knowing who our ancestors were to proving who they were -- a significantly more difficult task. We were looking for original documents, like birth certificates, marriage licenses, death certificates, or official town records that listed the parents of each of our Jenner ancestors. It only took a couple of days to learn that such records are sparse prior to 1900 and all but non-existent prior to 1850.

By this time, we had backtracked from my grandmother, Vivian Grace Jenner (born 1887 in Pleasonton, KS), to her father, Almond Lewis Jenner (born 1863 in Anderson, IN), to his father, Moses German Jenner (born 1833, location unknown). We had copies of their birth certificates or US Census records establishing their relationships, but we had not yet located any record acceptable to the SAR or DAR of the relationship of Moses G. Jenner to his father, Moses Johnson Jenner, or of Moses J. Jenner to his father, Timothy Jenner. So these were the focus of our research. And it was during this period of our research that we learned the history of American civil record-keeping.

Prior to the Revolutionary War, there was no federal or state government; only colonies and townships. Colonies were continually changing in size, name, and character during the period of colonial expansion from 1620 to 1750. For example, New Haven Colony in Connecticut started several "plantations" at nearby West Haven, East Haven, Guilford, etc. Initially, these plantations were subordinate to, and subject to the charters of, their sponsoring colonies. But, if they were successful and grew, they eventually separated into distinct colonies and were granted their own charters. With colonies being in flux, townships were the most stable level of governance, so the majority of civil record-keeping was handled by town clerks or, more often, by church clerks.

Churches were the center of social, civil, and economic life in the colonies. Most of the town charters that I have read include provisions that membership -- and regular attendance -- in the local church was mandatory for property ownership and citizenship in the town. This only makes sense. Colonial towns were often first settled by fewer than 50 people. Each new town was a dangerous excursion into the wilderness and its inhabitants were utterly dependent upon one another for their survival. It was absolutely essential that the settlers of each town be completely of like mind and harmonious in their relationships or the town would fail and its residents would die. All residents being members of the same church, sharing the same fundamental beliefs and values, was the best way of ensuring the harmony necessary for survival in a harsh and unforgiving environment. So, in addition to being houses of worship and centers of social life in the colonies, the churches also served as the centers of local government prior to the Revolutionary War -- and it was the job of the church clerks to record the births, marriages, deaths, and even deeds and other financial transactions of the towns.

Following the American Revolution and the establishment of state and federal governments, responsibility for civil record-keeping began to shift to agencies and offices of the government. Starting around 1790, when the first federal census was taken, church clerks turned their records over to town or county clerks, who became responsible for their maintenance thereafter. Until around 1850 the process was fairly haphazard, with no consistent methodology for maintaining and indexing previous information and no uniform method of recording new data. Some town clerks were much better than others at cataloging the information that was turned over to them, so many local records are woefully incomplete until late in the 19th century. Such was the case, it appears, with the birth records for Moses Johnson Jenner and Moses German Jenner.

Then, "once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, while I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly ..." from my tapping a Google search returned a hit on the History of Chautauqua County, New York, From Its First Settlement to the Present Time With Numerous Biographical and Family Sketches, by Andrew W. Young (1875). It was another Google Book, like the History of Ancient Woodbury, and it contained several paragraphs about Timothy Jenner and Moses Johnson Jenner!

Timothy Jenner and his wife, Ruth Hurlbut (Jenner), together with their son, Moses Johnson Jenner, were among the earliest settlers in Harmony, NY. They arrived in 1815, the year before the town was formally chartered, along with Samuel, Zaccheus, and Nathaniel Hurlbut. The Jenners and Hurlbuts had all come from Pittsford, Vermont (see black dot on the map at the top of this page). They bought lots in 1816 and 1817 and built homes on the south side of the town, not far from the settlement of Blockville. In 1817 Timothy, Ruth, and Moses were among the dozen founders of the Panama Baptist Church. Both Timothy and Moses went on to serve as the clerk of the church, keeping records of the births, marriages, and deaths of its members and the minutes of its earliest meetings. The Jenners and Hurlbuts were prominent throughout the early history of Harmony township, nearby Busti and Blockville, and other parts of Chautauqua County. Descendents of the original Jenner and Hurlbut families are still living in the area, and Michaela and I had the pleasure of meeting some of them when we visited the town (the subject of a future blog entry) in October 2008.

We are still searching for records to confirm that Moses German Jenner is the son of Moses Johnson Jenner. It appears that Moses J. left Chautauqua County in the mid-1820s, probably shortly after his first marriage (4 August 1825). He is not listed there on the 1830 US Census. In 1826, his parents were expelled from Panama Baptist Church for supporting women's suffrage. Perhaps Moses left in protest, so that his children's births were recorded in another township, if they were officially recorded at all. The earliest document we've found listing Moses G. Jenner is the 1860 US Census (his first as an adult) which places him in Indiana, but shows his birthplace as New York. There is some evidence that Moses Johnson Jenner was living with or near his daughter, Diantha, in Indiana at the time of his death in 1852. We know we are close to a breakthrough on our two Moses's. The records we are slowly collecting are being to "harmonize" with each other to form an increasingly clear and complete picture of the lives of these two generation of Jenner ancestors.

And my daughter and I have found that, as we discover more about the lives of our ancestors and begin to understand the sacrifices they made and the risks they took to create a new nation and lay the groundwork for freedom and prosperity for their descendents, the closer we grown in harmony with each other.

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