Collaboration is the Key

Networks of collaboration


Lately, I’ve been reviewing some earlier research I had done on one of my maternal family lines. While doing so, I was reminded of the importance of collaboration. I realized that almost everything I know and understand about the lives of all my ancestors is unquestionably the result of information shared among an extensive network of my known and unknown “relatives.” Without them, our “collective” family history mysteries would remain unsolved, and our ancestors’ stories would be forgotten.

William Harrell shared his story

While revisiting the bits and pieces of things I had collected, I re-discovered the remarkable story of a family’s journey and relocation into the Mississippi Territory. The story entitled, “A Texas Patriarch: Story of a Pioneer Who Lost His Loving Companion After 72 Years of Matrimonial Fidelity,”[1] published in The Dallas Morning News in 1901, was one man’s stated autobiography.

William Harrell, who was born in East Feliciana Parish, Louisiana in 1810, began by asking the newspaper to print his life story. He said that he “had something to say,” that he wanted “printed for the benefit of many parties” who had been asking for information about the Harrell family.[2] William then proceeded to recount a story that he openly admitted was “all from memory.”[3] And, WOW! I am so happy that he did!

The Harrell family journey

As I read and analyzed the first few paragraphs of William’s story, I was reminded of the hardships and perils that my 4X great-grandfather, Levi Harrell, and his six children and their families had encountered when they migrated in 1803 from South Carolina into what is now Louisiana and Mississippi. His story also sparked new research avenues for me to explore.

One example that spurred me to do further research was William’s hint about Levi’s decision to move his family using the longer and less direct route to their destination. Levi had settled on this safer northern route because of news describing the southern route as “being infested with robbers.”[4] Being unaware of the existence of southern and northern routes into the Mississippi Territory, I decided that I needed to dig deeper and learn more about the migration route that my ancestors followed.

In doing so, I uncovered a wealth of new insights into my Harrell family line. For example, I learned that, although the Mississippi Territory had been opened for settlement in 1798, only a small number of pioneers had actually settled there by 1810.[5] Reasons cited for this reluctance to migrate into the region included fear of powerful Native American tribes and the ease of acquiring cheap land in Georgia. But, William’s story stated that the Harrell families had gone there in 1803. Wow! That meant my Harrell ancestors had been among those few pioneers. Just wow!

Another insight that I derived from William’s story was how Levi’s family had traveled a northern route to “some point on the Mississippi River in Tennessee.”[6] That statement led me to think it was likely the family was near Memphis when they built and set out down the River to Fort Adams in flatboats.[7] Now that I had a better idea of locations the family had passed through, I could refine my areas of focus for future record searches.

Paying it forward

William’s story is filled with names and details about his father and mother, as well as his siblings and half-siblings. He included statements about his father’s brothers and their families. The final half of his story described how he met his wife and their life together.

Although the information in William’s story has been an invaluable resource to me, the story itself represents so much more. It underscores and highlights the benefits of collaborating with other family historians. But it also challenges us to write and share our own family discoveries, insights, and stories. Regardless of the mode we choose by which to share them, every book, blog, or article we write “pays it forward” to future generations.

[NOTE: The author wrote this story as a participant in a monthly meeting of the “Writing Your Family History” Special Interest Group (SIG) offered by West Valley Genealogical Society. The author shared it at the 24 March 2021 meeting.]

[1] William Harrell, “A Texas Patriarch: Story of a Pioneer Who Lost His Loving Companion After 72 Years of Matrimonial Fidelity,” The Dallas (Texas) Morning News, 29 June 1901; image copy, ( : accessed 22 March 2021), Stories, Memories, & Histories.

[2]Ibid., paragraph 1.


[4] Ibid.

[5] FamilySearch Wiki contributors, “United States Overland Travel 1784 to 1839, National Road, Old Federal Road, Chicago Road,” FamilySearch Wiki, rev 14 July 2014, 14:25, <,_National_Road,_Old_Federal_Road,_Chicago_Road_(National_Institute)> [accessed 24 March 2021.

[6] Harrell, “A Texas Patriarch…”

[7] Ibid.