Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Wrong Stuff on the Wright Brothers

April 2015

Research is hard work; copying the work of others is a lazy man’s vice.  In the world of family history, as in many other areas of research, there is a vast gulf between the uncritical copying of undocumented allegations and the critical evaluation of primary sources. 

I recently stumbled across a classic example of the victory of credulity over real research.  While reviewing the family history of Wilbur and Orville Wright I was amused (though not especially surprised) to find multiple undocumented reports of the marriage and descendancy of Orville Wright, including proud claims of living persons to be his direct descendant.  Having already researched the Wrights, with whom I share as common ancestors the 17th century Dutch immigrants Gerrit Wolfertse van Couwenhoven and Aeltje Cornelise Cool, I knew that Orville Wright never married.  Then why do so many family trees posted on report a wife, children, and even several generations of descendants for Orville?  This question can only be answered by careful research. 

Warning: on Ancestry, many family trees cite no primary sources at all; many others list sources, but the sources they cite actually contradict the information they claim to have found in them.  Citing a reference is no substitute for reading, understanding, and using it!  And remember that the family trees on are contributed by any interested party, whether they know the rudiments of research or not, and are neither produced nor vetted by Ancestry.

A good place to start is the 1930 United States Census.  In it we find two people named Orville Wright of about the right age and location.  Orville #1, a single male, was born in Ohio in 1871 and lived in Van Buren, Montgomery County, Ohio.  His father was born in Indiana and his mother in Virginia.  Also in his home were his housekeeper Carrie Grumbach and her husband Charles.  At the same date, Orville #2, who was born in Illinois in 1881, was living in Canton, Fulton County, Illinois.  According to the 1930 Census, his father and mother were both born in Illinois.  He was married, and gives his occupation as “farmer”.  His wife, Hattie, was in the same household. 

Which Orville is the “Wright stuff”?  It should be pretty obvious that the Ohio Orville is the better candidate, but let’s go back a decade to the 1920 U. S. Census and check up on them.  In 1920, we find “Orvill Wright”, born in Ohio in 1871, living in Van Buren, Montgomery County, Ohio, with his sister “Catheryn” and the Grumbachs.  His father’s and mother’s birthplaces agree with the 1930 data.  Once again he is listed as a single male.  He reports his profession as “aeronautical research and engineer”.  In 1920 we find Orville #2 living in Illinois with his wife Hattie, occupied as a farmer. 

Pushing back to the 1910 U. S. Census, we find Orville #1 living in Dayton, Montgomery County, Ohio with his sister Katherine, brother Wilbur, and their father Milton, an 81 year old widower.  Lest there be any doubt, the brothers give their occupation as “inventor, aeroplane”: not a married Illinois farmer. Family trees that conflate the two Orvilles are, sadly, quite common: Orville #1 ends up with Orville #2’s wife.

Now that we have seen that the Illinois Orville Wright is really Wrong, let us look at his family and descendants.  Several family trees on give his wife’s maiden name as Hattie McLoren or Hattie V. (or N.) McLaren; the 1910 U. S. Census says Orville and Hattie married 2 years earlier (1908), when Orville was 27, and other trees say that his wife was Bessie F. Haffner, whom he married at age 59 in 1941.  There is no conflict if Orville #2 remarried after the death of his first wife in 1936.

More interesting are the numerous trees that report that Orville and Hattie had a daughter named Buckingham, born in 1890 to Orville in Montgomery County, Ohio.  Now of course the problem is that Hattie married Orville #2 in Illinois, not Orville #1 in Ohio.  In 1890 Orville #2 was not only unmarried; he was 9 years old.  Other trees allege that Orville #1 had two children with Hattie, Viola Ann (born 1890) and Buckingham (born 1890 or 1894).  But Orville #1 was still single and living at home with his parents in Ohio in 1900.

If you think you are descended from either Buckingham or Viola Ann (born 1890), you need to come to grips with several facts.  First, Hattie reports in the 1910 Census that she had never had a child.  There are no children in their household in any Census.  Second, there are no Census, birth, marriage or death records for the alleged daughters Buckingham and Viola Ann.  What sources are cited in the Ancestry family trees that contain these names?  The only sources are references to other trees.  There are absolutely no primary sources cited because there are none.  There is nothing but unsubstantiated rumor to support the claims that Orville Wright #1 (the aeronaut) was married, that he had children, or that he is anyone’s ancestor.  Some of the enthusiasts have conflated Orville #1 with Orville #2, despite overwhelming evidence that they were different people, apparently in order to prove their descent from a famous man.  But even this ploy fails because neither Orville had descendants.  And, by the way, neither did Wilbur.

The bottom line: do your research in primary sources.  Issues of fact are not to be settled by vote or consensus.  Three and a half centuries ago the Royal Society in London took as its motto the epigram “nullius in verbum”.  That means “take nothing on someone’s word”: check the facts for yourself in primary sources.  Do you believe the Apollo program was a fake?  Do you believe in the “hockey stick” temperature graph?  Cold fusion?  Better check it out…

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