I dream of genealogy

Opening the door to great stories from the past

Photo of Bill Chadwell courtesy of the Northfield Historical Society.

Photo of Bill Chadwell courtesy of the Northfield Historical Society.

I recently learned that the people of Northfield, Minnesota—population 20,500—gather every year to celebrate the day their ancestors shot and killed my great-great-great-uncle and one of his buddies.

Bill Chadwell had it coming. On Sept. 7, 1876, he and the rest of the members of the James-Younger gang tried to rob the First National Bank in Northfield. The citizens foiled the robbery and shot him dead. These days, The Defeat of Jesse James Days celebration draws a crowd of about 20,000 people a day. This year’s celebration kicks off on Sept. 7.

Choose a resource

I’ve been interested in doing a little genealogical research for several years now, but I was always turned off by the cost of websites like Ancestry.com, where yearly subscriptions run between $200 to $400. But I’d heard about a free alternative—a site run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It’s called FamilySearch.org, and more than 4 billion names and records can be accessed through it, free of charge.

I was curious if the site would have records relevant to me because, as far as I know, none of my ancestors were Mormon. My husband, Nathan, was a member of the LDS church as a kid, so I decided to take this and other questions about FamilySearch to him. Over a bottle of zinfandel on a recent date-night, I interrupted Game of Thrones and asked him to explain the Mormon church’s interest in genealogy.

He explained that the Mormons do exhaustive genealogical research, and much of it is on people who have no association with the church. FamilySearch—formerly known as the Genealogical Society of Utah—is an entire wing of the LDS Church and employs full-time researchers whose work helps populate the records on FamilySearch.org. The records used to be available only to those who visited one of the church’s family history centers, thousands of which have opened worldwide since the ’60s. In recent years, though, the church has started moving the information online.

But why do the Mormons collect the genealogical records of people who aren’t associated with the church? Nathan explained that it’s a part of the church’s doctrine that relates to the practice of baptism for the dead.

As the names of deceased peoples—non-Mormons who would not have been baptized in life—are identified, they are added to a list, and young Mormon men of the Aaronic priesthood are baptized in their names. The idea is that the deceased can posthumously decide on their own behalf whether or not to accept the baptism.

The Mormons have baptized countless people from different periods in history—each of them corresponding to a genealogical record the church has uncovered. And while the practice has raised the hackles of people belonging to many other faiths, the result is that these genealogical records are now easily available to anyone with access to the internet.

Get started

The first step in genealogical research is to take stock of what’s already known and see if any blanks can be filled in by talking with surviving family members. After setting up an account on FamilySearch.org, users get access to tools to help preserve stories, photos and documents that are uncovered during this initial phase of research. A cool feature is the ability to upload and save audio files. When I got started on my own genealogical hunt, I was particularly interested in discovering whether or not I was really related to an outlaw who rode with Jesse James. I remember hearing about Bill Chadwell as a child. My father’s father spoke about us being related to the outlaw. Unfortunately, my grandfather passed more than 20 years ago. My father also remembers being told about Bill Chadwell, but we don’t have any documentation to prove it. Perhaps other Chadwells do, but Chadwells have never been very good at maintaining contact much outside of their nuclear families—the reasons for which I suppose I could document using FamilySearch’s stories tool.

While I didn’t find any documentation to suggest my relation to Bill Chadwell, I did come up with plenty of other stories, photos and documents to add to the family’s genealogy.

At this point, I was ready to proceed to the next step—exploring FamilySearch’s family tree tool. And that’s when things started getting really interesting.

Upon signing up, FamilySearch users are informed that, “Since researchers and volunteers from around the world are adding to Family Tree daily, some work may have already been done …” FamilySearch only archives deceased individuals, so a user has to manually enter any living relatives. I did this and, afterward, found that all four of my deceased grandparents immediately came up. After linking them to my family tree, I saw that much of the work had been done for me.

Entries auto-populated on my family tree, and, with just a few mouse clicks, I was able to trace my father’s side of the family back to 1000 A.D. Just a few links back on the chain from myself, I found my fourth great-grandfather, William Chadwell, whose youngest son—born in 1853—was also named William but went by “Bill” until his death in Minnesota in 1876, at the age of 23.

Dig deeper

One of the wonderful things about genealogy is that there’s always a new avenue to explore, a new ancestor to track down, new records to read. And there are a wealth of tools on the internet to facilitate the hunt for information.

In semesters past, my students at the university have joked that I must be a Google spokesperson for as often as I tout the value of Google’s various tools. What can I say? They’re great. I’m especially fond of the Google Newspaper Archive, which I used to track down articles containing five or six different versions of the events that transpired on the day Bill Chadwell and the James-Younger gang tried to rob the bank in Northfield.

Many people are probably already familiar with the National Archives and Record Administration website—archives.gov—which is an excellent tool for genealogical research. A lesser known but also excellent tool by a similar name is archive.org, a website that’s essentially a library of the internet. It even contains archived webpages. (You can go there to see what the RN&R website looked like a decade ago.)

A search for Bill Chadwell on archive.org led me to an old Atari game called Sixgun Shootout. Made by Strategic Simulations, Inc. in 1985, it featured several scenarios—levels, basically. One level was called “Northfield Nightmare.” Players could choose to play as the good guys or as members of the James-Younger gang, including Bill Chadwell.

In the end, I find, it’s always refreshing to get off the internet and talk with a real person. So, when I found a newspaper article from 2012 in which the executive director of the Northfield Historical Society, Hayes Scriven, theorized that my ancestor might actually be buried in his buddy and fellow gang member Clell Miller’s grave, I gave the historian a call to learn more.

Scriven explained that the man who shot Clell Miller back in 1876 was a med student named Henry Wheeler. He took both Miller and Chadwell’s bodies for medical research, but Miller’s family requested that their son’s body be returned to them for burial.

Wheeler may have given the Miller family Bill Chadwell’s remains instead because, in later years, the doctor displayed a skeleton at his medical practice and told people it was the outlaw Clell Miller. The skeleton is now in a private collection somewhere.

Scriven and a forensics expert and university professor named James Bailey are interested in exhuming the remains from the Miller family plot at Muddy Fork Cemetery in Missouri to see who it really is. I hope they get permission because I’d also love to know the truth. Is my ancestor buried in someone else’s grave? Or is he one of those creepy mounted skeletons?