A climb up Cape's family tree

Monday, March 13, 2006
Diane and John Gray of St. Peters, Mo., examined a grave marker at Old Lorimier Cemetery while in search of her ancestor, Joseph McFerron's, grave. (Fred Lynch)

To look at Diane Gray's book of ancestral records is to see how the Internet has democratized information gathering.

"Some of this stuff I couldn't find again if you paid me," said Gray. "It was just like I find one icon online and I click on it and that leads to another icon and I click on that and before you know it I've got all this stuff about my family."

"Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and find her slumped over the keyboard," laughed husband John.

Gray, of St. Peters, Mo., has good reason to be interested. As the great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter of Joseph McFerron, the first clerk of Cape Girardeau District, she is a descendant of one of the city's founding fathers.

McFerron signed the initial plat of the city 200 years ago when Louis Lorimier gave his four acres to create Cape Girardeau.

Diane, her husband, and her daughter Allison made their first trip to Cape Girardeau last weekend to visit the home of her ancestors and to do more research about family history. But before traveling anywhere, Diane spent countless hours looking at microfiche in her local library and scanning the web for anything McFerron related.

"She's part Irish and part Norwegian, that means she's really stubborn, but that's also what makes her a great researcher," said John.

Diane said part of her interest comes from family tragedy. "I guess I first got interested when we had a 14-month-old son die in infancy," she said. "One of the things the doctors asked me was whether it was genetic, if anyone else in my family had died in infancy and so I looked and I found it happened a lot in my family. After a while I just kept digging and digging and eventually it turned into this."

"This" is a massive tome of census records, photographs, death certificates, newspaper clippings and other miscellania concerning the history of the McFerron family dating back to Episcopal preacher Joseph Senior's immigration from Ireland to Pittsburgh in 1795.

Diane is not alone in this field.

Web sites like ancestry.com and webroots.com have proliferated in recent years, giving genealogy seekers clickable access to all sorts of data. Many census records, probate records and land records that previously required hours of bleary-eyed microfiche work are now available online.

Enterprising genealogy sites have even purchased thousands of domain names of common surnames that redirect amateur researchers to for-profit sites.

But that's not all, as more and more people put their own family's genealogical research online the network of available family data grows and grows. Diane found a treasure trove of information through the Web site of a distant cousin named Barbara Breedlove of Texas. Breedlove had done thorough research of the McFerron family and her Web site helped fill in gaps for Diane.

Persistance has paid off for Diane.

Piggybacking off the research of others, she unearthed some long-forgotten details about what caused McFerron to take part in a duel on a Mississippi River Island where he killed another man with a shot to the head.

In an old newspaper article, Diane found reference to a hotel license written by McFerron in 1806 for a William Ogle. In the license the county clerk wrote the following: "And the said William Ogle binds himself to keep a house of good repute and free of licentiousness."

This wording implying that Ogle intended to open a brothel was a severe affront to the hotel owner's sense of dignity.

Before long the two men were standing ten paces from one another on "Bloody Island," a favored spot for dueling on the river. Here Diane also uncovered new information suggesting, through a book published in 1932, that the duel lasted three rounds before McFerron lodged the fatal pistol shot in Ogle's brain. Previous accounts had suggested McFerron killed Ogle on the first shot and got away unscathed. This account said McFerron was shot once in the thigh.

McFerron, although volunteering to give up his office in light of his deed, was kept on due to public sympathy and remained the clerk until his death in 1821.

"I hadn't seen any of this until now," said Jane Randol Jackson, curator of the Cape Girardeau county archives, who had researched McFerron for the city's bicentennial.

But the trip back to Cape Girardeau hasn't been all about the past. Through her research Diane connected with Paul McFerron of Advance, also a direct descendant of Joseph. Paul, a farmer, has done some research of his own on the McFerron line. The two families spent the weekend plodding through cemeteries in Kelso, Advance, Jackson and Cape Girardeau. They photographed the headstones of many common ancestors, but one eluded them.

"No one seems to be able to tell us where Joseph is buried," said Diane.

"I bet he's buried here, but the writing has just worn away," said Paul, wading through ankle-deep mud amid the mossy stones of Lorimier Cemetery on Fountain Street.

Genealogy can be frustrating.

"I just wish we could find him, that would be so cool," said Diane.

But success comes in many forms. The two families hit it off so much, the Grays plan on coming back for a McFerron family reunion on July 8.

For others interested in genealogy, the Cape Girardeau County Genealogical Society is offering a free workshop for people who are direct descendants of the those listed on the original 1803 census. The workshop will take place at 7 p.m. May 9 at the Red House.

tgreaney@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 245

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: