Family History Project
By: Brandon Penny
College Now Course - BSS 1
The Penny family is one of a long history, rich culture, fascinating stories, and best of all - strange but true facts. For example, I bet you didn't know that I am my own 8th cousin! Before approximately four years ago, neither did I. These days I know an awful lot about my family history. In fact, I know more than I could have ever imagined. I can currently trace my family back nine generations (count 'em, nine!) all the way to Devonshire, England in the year 1755. I can name almost 99% of anybody that was born between the late 1700s and now and is somewhat related to me. I can probably tell you their name, family members, date of birth, date of death, and their relation to me.
The way this all started was back in 2003, just four years ago, when something clicked in my father's head and he decided he wanted to learn more about our family background and the genealogy of the Penny family. When he began his journey, he acquired a great deal of drive and determination. Nothing could stop him and he would let nothing get in his way of finding out as much as possible about the family history. He began - where else - on the Internet. He's browsed through, what by now must be, a few hundred web pages (one of which is the records of the Latter Day Saints, because, interestingly enough, one of my relatives is/was a Mormon and posted some family records on there), purchased a few books, and I'm sure even made some telephone calls. Lucky for him, Newfoundland (the part of Canada that, for the most part, we are from), keeps excellent genealogical records and has some of the oldest parish records in North America! Within the past four years, he's been continuously filling in little pieces of the family history, but amazingly it only took him approximately a year to trace all the way back to William Penny who was born in 1755.
Speaking of William Penny, let's start my family history with him. William Penny is my great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. He was born in 1755 in Devonshire, England and at about the age of 18 he moved to English Harbour, Trinity Bay, Newfoundland with his two brothers, George and Ralph. He settled there to fish because at the time fishing was a big industry in Newfoundland. Once there, he married Ann Jones and they had William, John, Charles, James, and Samuel. Little did they know that down the line there would be a total of eight William Pennys, seven John Pennys, two Charles Pennys, three James Pennys, and three Samuel Pennys.
William Penny was one of twelve jurors in the trial of Mary Power and Robert Fling, who were accused of the murder of Maurice Power, Mary's husband, in 1772. They were accused of strangling Maurice, Mary's husband, in his sleep. As it turned out they were guilty and Robert Fling was sent back to Ireland, while Mary Power was sentenced to be hanged; however this is where it got interesting. Sometime after they sentenced her to be hanged they realized/found out that she was 5 months pregnant! Fortunately, they allowed her to give birth after four more months and then they still hanged her!
As we move on down my family tree, the next significant person would have to be Alexander Penny, who was born in 1849. Alexander was the master builder of the only church in English Harbour, Newfoundland - All Saints Anglican Church. In fact, this church is of immense relevance today because of what has become of it. Just recently, there is a group of people who are trying to save the church and turn it into an Arts Association. If this does not occur, the church that my great-great-great-grandfather built 100-150 years ago will be destroyed. The bigger plan is to turn the town of English Harbour into an artist community and have the church as a giant studio. Last year, an art auction was held in Toronto to raise money for this project, and they also applied for government grants to assist in the funding. Turning the church into an artists' studio would be a great idea, considering they cannot find any other alternate use for the church, and this would hopefully bring about a rise in the population of English Harbour. At the height of the town, in the mid-1800s, there were approximately 1,000 people in the town, whereas today there are only 48.
Today, I am beyond glad that my father decided to do all of this research and found these hundreds of people that make up my rich family history, for without it I would know close to nothing about my history. For example, I can tell you that there have been some interesting first names to share the last name Penny, such as Absalom, Bertram, Colin Gilbert, Gertrude, Honor, Mahalah, Malcolm Wilifred, Martha Sweetland, Miriam, Muriel, Pierce Francis, Solomon, Sweet, Urias, and Violet. Speaking of interesting facts, please allow me to explain how I am my own 8th cousin. My great great-grandparents, John Francis Penny and Janet Wells each had a great-grandmother (obviously). Their great-grandmothers were sisters; therefore, when the two of them got married every single person before and after them became related in a very strange way. That is why I am my own 8th cousin and my father is my 7th cousin once removed.
As I have mentioned, I am simply enthralled by all of the work that my father has done over the past four or five years. Through his hard work and dedication I have been able to find out about many, many, many relatives that I have and now I can trace my family back nine generations! This amazes me compared to the knowledge that most people have about their family. Not only does my family go way back, but now I found out many interesting anecdotes about them. (One more thing: my 15th cousin 4 times removed shares my birthday! Only she was born 118 years before me) My father now holds over 500 pages worth of family history and when I go through those pages, I feel as if I have the world at my fingertips. What is the one most interesting thing that I found out, well in my opinion that would have to be that my family really came from England, and because my grandfather left Newfoundland before Canada became free from England, I am British and not Canadian like I was lead to believe my entire life. Now that my father has gone back nine generations, he has one path in mind - to keep going back! He now plans on finding out exactly where in England William Penny is from, and who his parents are. In order to do this and find out even more, he plans to visit
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Was one of your New Year’s resolutions to buckle down and start working on your family history? Or is family history something you’ve always wanted to do, but you’re just not sure how? Many people have the desire to expand their family tree but find the thought of starting to be overwhelming. If you’re one of them, here’s a secret for success: start at the beginning—with yourself.
This advice applies whether you know next to nothing about your family, you inherited stacks of family papers, or even if you stumbled across an online tree stretching back to the 1500s. While it might feel more exciting to jump in to learning about your Mayflower ancestor or your Hungarian immigrant ancestor, resist the urge— at least for now. Instead, turn your attention a little closer. Here’s why:
- That Mayflower ancestor might not be related after all. As incredible as this may sound, not every family story is true, and not every family tree is accurate. It’s up to you to start from the beginning and work backwards, making sure the connections are right.
- It’s much easier to write down what you know than it is to uncover new information so do the easiest tasks first. Also, by preserving information about yourself and your family, you ensure others won’t have to dig for it later.
- You are the expert on yourself. Nobody knows more about your life and your family than you do, and chances are nobody has better access to the correct information and records than you. Make sure this part of your tree is done correctly by doing it yourself. Besides, if you don’t collect and preserve this information, who will?
Now that you’re convinced starting with yourself is the way to go, you just need a game plan. Don’t worry—we’ve already developed one and we’re happy to share it with you:
1) Record What You Know
If you’re starting with yourself, you should start by recording your own information. The basics in family history are dates and places for births, marriages, and deaths. (Of course, you won’t be recording death information on yourself.) Next, move to your immediate family. Record this same information for your spouse, children, siblings, parents and parents’ siblings. Avoid guessing about dates and places. Instead, take time to verify things you are unsure about. If that’s a breeze, push back another generation to your grandparents.
Just gathering information isn’t enough of course. You also need to find a way to organize and preserve it so that it doesn’t just drift back into the forgotten abyss. One simple way is with the FamilySearch Family Tree. Create a free account on FamilySearch.org, and start adding your own information. With each new person you enter, Family Tree prompts you to search the existing database to see if this person might link with other trees. Keep in mind that living people’s information is always private, so you cannot connect to another tree until you get back far enough to find deceased family members. Family Tree also allows you to attach scanned documents, photos, videos, and sound clips to individual ancestors.
Besides using an online program that connects to others, you can also save your information in a program on your own computer. Many of these connect and share information with Family Tree. Three great options are Ancestral Quest, Legacy Family Tree, and RootsMagic. The basic version of each are free; the snazzier versions must be purchased. If downloading software sounds overwhelming, just stick to the online Family Tree for now.
After you get the basics about your own family recorded, reach beyond the dry facts to record family memories and stories. If you haven’t written a life history, now is the perfect time to do it. No need to feel pressure to make this the next Pulitzer Prize winning memoir; you can start with a few pages about your own life, and continue adding to it in the future. Consider doing the same thing for your parents if they haven’t written anything themselves, and then attach these histories and memories to your Family Tree.
2) Gather Documentation You Already Have
An important part of family history is documenting your information. This makes sure all information is accurate and prevents false information from creeping in. Documentation is important even at the beginning of your Family Tree, so start gathering your papers. The most obvious documentation is birth, marriage, and death certificates. However, think broadly about other types of papers that might help tell your family’s story such as letters, relevant newspaper articles, or important government, employment, school, or medical records.
Some people will quickly find themselves facing large amounts of information. Digital cameras allow us to take hundreds of photos for almost no cost, and email makes sending family updates free. Concentrate on the most meaningful papers and photos, and then make sure these important pieces of your family story are preserved by printing or saving emails and digital photos—and labeling those photos!
3) Ask Your Family for Help
Once you’ve compiled what you know and what you have in your possession, it’s time to reach out to your relatives. Ask them specific questions about information you’re missing, and let them know you’re interested in any family documents or photos they might have.
Again, it’s important to think beyond dates and documents. Ask your family members to share stories and memories with you. You can create an audio recording of their memories, or you can write them down. Be sure to contact the oldest living generation in your family to capture their priceless information and stories before they are lost. If you need help thinking of questions, check out this FamilySearch blog, and use these to prompt your relatives to share.
Ready to get started? As you begin your family history, there’s no telling where you might end up!
You may also like:
Simple Start to Family History
Beginning Genealogy: How to Get Started the Right Way
Family History Apps for Beginners