Monday, November 24, 2014

Minor Historical Puzzles Are Why I Do This.

In the last few weeks I have been working on a history of the Baird's Mill Branch. Baird's Mill was a small community 9 miles south of Lebanon, Tennessee. Today it is even smaller. But from 1881 to about 1888, it was the center of Mormon activity in Wilson County. I have researched the history of a few LDS communities in Tennessee, and one way to coalesce the facts together is to produce a timeline of baptisms. While in the process of creating this timeline, I ran into a historical puzzle.

If I go strictly by the records, the first baptism at Baird's Mill, that I've found, was on June 6th, 1880; William Riley Barrett. I know better than to disagree with the records unless I have proof they are wrong. But in 1880 there does not appear to have been any missionaries in Wilson County. Elders Lorenzo Hunsaker was supposedly working alone in Lewis and Hickman counties at the time. From May 19th to Jun 17th Hyrum Belnap & George H Carver were in Lexington, Tennessee baptizing 17 of the followers of Robert Edge. On May 6th John R Murdock left Salt Lake for Tennessee. Somewhere, unrecorded by history, he met up with Franklin Spencer, who had left Lewis county for Bedford county on May 12th. The two of them returned together to Lewis County on Jun 17th. Reports indicate they proselytized in Bedford & Coffee counties, but do not indicate that they crossed over the 35 miles of Rutherford county that separated them from Wilson County. The two claimed only 6 baptisms in Coffee County. The Barrett family lore claims not one of the five missionaries in Tennessee at the time, but that they were converted by B H Roberts. But Roberts was not in Tennessee in June 1880. He would not arrive for another 7 months.

So here was the puzzle. how could he have been baptized if there were no missionaries in the area to baptize him? The answer was, of course, that one of my data elements was wrong. But which one? There are three reasonable possibilities.

1. The recorded date is incorrect: Sadly this is more often the case than I would like to believe. A surprising number of baptismal dates in the Church records do not agree with the dates I see on primary sources. (And there is no good way for me to suggest a correction to ordinance dates. But, I digress.) I don't like to jump to this conclusion unless I have a primary document indicating that the record is wrong.
2. The missionary record is wrong, or more likely, incomplete. The only remedy for this is more digging. This means carefully reading more missionary journals, letters, newspaper reports, and mission records. The clues are in there, but they aren't going to volunteer themselves.
3. My assumptions are wrong. With historical records there are holes and you have to make some assumptions. But the key is to know what they are so they can be rethought easily. In this case I assumed the baptism took place near his home in Wilson county. He could have been working somewhere else, where he met the missionaries and was baptized. It would not be the first time.

Clues can be anywhere. For example, when James Barrett (William's son) took his family to Utah, he and his wife stopped in Midway, Utah where they were the guests of John R Murdock, a former missionary to Tennessee. Their first child was born there, and James worked for Murdock to earn money before he continued on to Salt Lake. James was able to save enough money to bring his younger brother to Utah and the two later brought the rest of the family. Midway is not on the way to anywhere, so it is unlikely James' stay there was by chance. Murdock appears to be a friend of the family.

There were limited ways the family could have met Murdock.  He was in Tennessee from May 1880 to May 1881. There are no indications that he went to Wilson County during most of his mission, though there are several holes in the record of his service. One hole is right at the beginning, which matches William's June 1st, 1880 baptism date. He could have been passing through Wilson county on his way to meet Franklin Spencer, which might explain why no one else in the family except William was baptized in June 1880. While there might have been other times when the family could have met Murdock, this one makes the most sense.

The only other member of the family to get baptized during Murdock's tenure in Tennessee was William's wife: Charlotte Varshti (Herron) Barrett on May 1st, 1881. However, Murdock was in Hickman county on that day and was on his way home immediately afterwards. If the Barrett family were friends with John Murdock to the extent that he would open his home to them in Utah, then it makes sense that he was the one who introduced them to the gospel. And associating that with William's baptism also makes sense. But there were other undocumented periods of Murdock's service.

As for the family lore attributing their conversion to B H Roberts? Well, that led to another clue. Roberts did indeed proselyte in Wilson County. He formed a branch there in 1881 and probably got to know the families of all the members very well. In a nod that perhaps the date was recorded wrong (and solving this whole problem), Roberts wrote in his own journal that he baptized five people on September 4th, 1881, including "Wm Barrett" but with nothing to clarify which William Barrett this was, Yes, in a county full of Barretts, there is more than one William. Although Roberts' journal is far from an official record, it was recorded at the time, making it a primary source.

So now I have more paths to follow. I may eventually decide that I've got enough to make a reasonable guess about the truth, but for now I'm mostly enjoying the process.


gscoulson said...

Great explanation of the process of thought one has to go through to put all the pieces of our historical puzzles together. This is useful to me as I research my own family history. Thanks for sharing!

BruceAllen said...

Thanks. I'm glad it could be of help.