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10 July 2018

Prominent Ancestors: A Mixed Blessing



By Chris Pattillo

Like many people, most of my ancestors are very ordinary folk. Hard-working, honest people of no particular note. I seem to have few forefathers who served in the military during any period. There are lots of farmers in my background, particularly tobacco farmers. Researching these family members can sometimes be discouraging because it seems impossible to find out anything about them. I’m the kind of family historian who wants to get to know my relations. I want to go beyond the basic facts of birth, marriage, children, and death. But these ordinary folk did not get written up in the local newspapers. Genealogists of the past did not write books about them, so it is slim pickings.

On the other hand, I occasionally stumble upon a famous ancestor and even a whole line of prominent people in my family tree. This is what happened when I took my Genealogy Journey in 2017 – a two-and-a-half-month long adventure to the southern United States to do research. I had many objectives, but probably most important to me was finding the parents of Joanna Gaines, a second great-grandmother on my father’s side. Finding Joanna’s parents had been my tallest brick wall for about fifteen years, and I was determined, but not very optimistic.

First, a confession. In 2011 I took a month off from my job as the founding partner of PGAdesign, a landscape architecture firm in downtown Oakland. The office was slow – we did not have enough work, so I took the month off without pay, and I spent that month doing research at the CGS library. I was in the library every day and made a lot of progress on my research. One day I asked Vinnie (Lavinia Grace Schwarz) for some help with Joanna. She spent about 10 minutes on her laptop and handed me a note saying, "check this out.” At that time I was still a novice and had no idea what to do with the information. 

A few months later, I joined CGS in Salt Lake for the first time. While there I followed up on the tip Vinnie had given me. What I found included a reference to a Joanna Gaines and her sister Margaret. It said their mother was Hulda Waller, but as I read the document, I understood it to say that this Joanna had died in 1834. I immediately discarded the lead because I knew my Joanna had lived until 1902. (To be honest, I was glad Hulda was not my third great-grandmother because I did not like the name "Hulda.”)

Back to 2017: I am still looking for Joanna’s parents. To make a long story short, I found the will of Joanna Thompson McGehee, who as it turns out was Hulda’s mother. Joanna’s first husband was Benjamin Waller. Now, as a more experienced researcher, I read the will carefully and realized that the Joanna who had died in 1834 was my 4th great-grandmother Joanna. 
Detail from a family portrait of my 2nd great-grandmother, Joanna Gaines. The infant is my paternal grandfather, Lewis Wood Pattillo.

So, the moral of this story is yes, sometimes it is a good idea to go back and look at things years later when you have more pieces of your puzzle to put things into context.

This brings me back to the primary story about having prominent ancestors. It turned out that Benjamin Waller is part of a long line of distinguished Wallers that go back to England and beyond. This was a family of wealth. They owned plantations, not just farms. They were doctors, lawyers, county clerks, vestrymen, a sheriff and members of the House of Burgess. Oh, and several served in the military, too. Since I returned from my Genealogy Journey I have been possessed with this newly discovered branch of my family tree, and I fear there may be no end to it.

Endfield, the plantation home of my 7th great-grandfather Col. John Waller, first in this line to immigrate to Virginia from England.


I have found more than a dozen eBooks that include extensive narratives on this family. They include all the basic facts plus information about their homes, positions, civic involvement, personal letters, and lawsuits. The amount of material written about my Waller ancestors seems to be endless. After months of research, I decided to write a series of posts for my family history blog: one post for each of Joanna’s ancestors going back to my 8th great-grandfather, Dr. John Waller (1645-1716).


As I start writing each new bio I find myself wanting to pursue an aspect of that individual’s life or to look for images to illustrate each post. This extra research inevitably leads me down the proverbial "rabbit hole" otherwise known as a Google search. I find myself copying several more pages with new tidbits I had not previously found and on and on it goes. Ah, the joys of genealogy.

You can follow my progress at http://pattillothornally.blogspot.com/


Editor's note: we welcome your family stories! Contact jdix@californiaancestors.org
Copyright © 2018 by California Genealogical Society

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