Doing genealogical research on family members must gives a bit of an idea as to the struggles historians encounter while they are trying to put together a more-or-less accurate picture of a person’s life. For some time I’ve been working on getting together information on many family members as a part of the family tree. In most cases this is just to gather a more complete picture. But in some cases there are more direct relatives for whom I’d like to be able to include profiles here as permanent portions of this page. Chief among these is John Foulk, my great-great-great grandfather. This takes a priority for me because he is the builder of our Homestead.
The frustration comes from the variations in sources of information. Now, as one moves back to the mid-1800’s and before, those sources become few and far between. But even with that said, it’s surprising the contradictions one can encounter. I have, thus far, encountered the following references for John Foulk:
- Past and Present of LaSalle County (PPLC), 1906, Pages 937-938 (or 1025-1026 of the google books edition).
- Two obituaries - one of which baldly plagiarizes PPLC, and the other which seems somewhat more independent.
- Transactions of the Illinois State Agricultural Society, with Reports from County and District Agricultural Societies, Volume V, 1861-64 (one brief mention)
- American Clydesdale Stud Book, Volume V, 1890, which lists John Foulk as a member and has minutes of a meeting he may have attended, but a scan of it suggests he did not speak if he was there.
- Martha Morrow and John Foulk’s family Bible, which my uncle has; and
- My Uncle
To his credit, my Uncle does not seem to provide contradictions, and one can more or less assume that the few family entries in the Bible are probably accurate. The other sources, however vary considerably in value and agreement. For example:
- PPLC indicates that he purchased property in Illinois in 1850, but his more independent obituary says that he didn’t move to the state until 1856. His son Frank was born in Ohio in 1856, which lends credence to his obituary over PPLC.
- The contradiction above has knock-on effects: We know that he first built a small house on the property to live in while the Homestead was constructed. Given that the house was built in 1861, if PPLC is correct they would have lived in their little pioneer home for the better part of a decade before the Homestead was complete. The time is about half that otherwise.
- Sources list between 3 and 5 children.
- PPLC artfully suggests that John Foulk remarried after Martha passed away. However, one of the obituaries indicates that he moved into "town" (Mendota) in 1880, and that he remarried after his first wife died in November of 1885. Martha Morrow, his first wife, never moved into town, and she died in 1903 (as indicated on her gravestone). Family lore reflects that he took up with another woman and moved out. The rest of this is perhaps purposeful obfuscation to preserve his legacy?
- The more independent of the biographies indicates that he and his second wife had two children that did not survive to adulthood. Those additional children do not appear at all in PPLC...
And so on. I’m quite certain others doing this type of work have uncovered similar inconsistencies and contradictions - that my experience is neither unusual or special. But it does bring into question how information was gathered for these sources, and what decisions were made when compiling them. PPLC is a compendium of short biographies for all sorts of early settlers in the area. It was published in 1906, the year before John Foulk’s death. Who was their source for the information they provide (perhaps John Foulk himself, or one of his surviving children)? Did they do any fact checking or otherwise verify what they were publishing?
A Mr. U.J. Hoffman, County Superintendent of Schools from 1894-1906, is listed as the author, but his work is indicated as being "Together With Biographical Sketches of Many of Its Prominent and Leading Citizens and Illustrious Dead".
This would suggest that he’s the author of the first portion of the book, which relates information about LaSalle County back to its earliest days, but that he’s not the scribe for the “Biographical Sketches", which frankly comprise most of the book. And his preface (or "Prefatory") indicates his purpose to the book is in "awakening a patriotic appreciation of our country and people near home", and with respect to the early pioneers "to awaken in the reader an appreciation of their heroism and worth".
All of which suggests that he’s not going to write or print about anything that might suggest a less than favorable light his subjects.
This would explain quite a bit about this source, but also bring its veracity sharply into question.
So the work goes on, and these details and contradictions make it clear that, regardless of effort and intention, the picture presented will ultimately, always, be an imperfect one.