An example is John Swift. Reverend John Swift’s identity is clear. He appears in Acton Town Meeting records, chosen in 1738 to be the first pastor of the town’s new church. (The formation of the church was a requirement for Acton to become an independent town.) Reverend John Swift, (son of Reverend John Swift, the first minister of Framingham), graduated from Harvard in 1733, was living in Framingham when he was called to Acton, and married Abigail Adams of Medway. He served as Acton’s minister for 37 years. According to Fletcher’s 1890 Acton in History, as Isaac Davis’s Company passed Reverend Swift’s home on the way to Concord on April 19, 1775, he “waved his benedictions over them.” It fell upon him to conduct the funeral of Isaac Davis, James Hayward and Abner Hosmer who were killed that day. Unfortunately, Reverend Swift contracted smallpox and died In November, 1775. He was buried in Woodlawn cemetery.
There seems to be agreement on those facts of Reverend Swift's life. However, over time, some stories have become muddled because he named his son… John Swift. Son John was born on November 18, 1841. He graduated from Harvard in 1762 and became Acton’s first physician. In 1767, Doctor John Swift married Catharine Davies of Acton. On the morning of April 19, 1775, he saw that Thomas Thorp was heading to join Isaac Davis's Company without a cartridge box and gave him one that 60 years later, Thorp recalled in a deposition "had on the outside a piece of red cloth in the shape of a heart." In the midst of the excitement and tragedy that unfolded, Doctor John was also dealing with family matters; his son Luther was born the following day. Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors in the War of the Revolution shows that John Swift of Acton marched as a private with Capt. Simon Hunt’s Company to help fortify Dorchester Heights, March 4, 1776, a service of 6 days. Because the only documented Revolutionary military service of an Acton John Swift took place in 1776 after the death of the Reverend and we have found no indication of other John Swifts in town, this must have been John the physician. Doctor John died in 1781, leaving wife Catherine and two young sons John Hollis and Luther.
Up to this point, we were confident that we had identified two John Swifts in Acton, one a Reverend who died in November 1775 of smallpox, and another, his son the doctor who marched on Dorchester Heights in 1776 and died in 1781. Probate records available through AmericanAncestors.org confirm the family relationship and their death years. However, along with the online availability of records that help us to answer questions has come the availability of sources that can raise more issues.
A 1913 Concord Enterprise article (“Historical Sermon,” October 22, page 10) stated that Reverend John Swift “labored for the soldiers who were in camp at Cambridge and died from small pox.” This may well have been true, but documenting Reverend Smith’s service in Cambridge has proved difficult. The article seems to imply that his service to soldiers is how he contracted smallpox. Smallpox in the crowded camps and in Boston at the time was a well-known problem, but Fletcher says that smallpox was also in Acton. Where the Enterprise writer got information about service in Cambridge, we don’t know. Because this story did not appear in any other source that we could find about Reverend Swift, we couldn’t help wondering if the person who was in the camps was actually the son Doctor John Swift. We have no way of knowing.
We were not the only ones confused. Shattuck’s 1835 history of Concord mentions college graduate “John Swift, only child of the Rev. John Swift, born Nov. 18, 1741, grad. 1762; settled as a physician in Acton where he died of the small-pox, about 1775.” Thomas Harrington’s 1905 history of Harvard Medical School discussed the six members of Harvard’s class of 1762 who entered the medical profession, including John Swift who “was in practice at Acton, where he died of smallpox during the epidemic of 1775.” In the 1859 New England Historical & Genealogical Register, (Vol. 13, page 308), a footnote about the first Reverend John Swift (of Framingham) said: “His only son, John, b. Jan. 14, 1713-14, (H.C. 1733) was ord. at Acton, 1738, m. Abigail Adams of Medway, had son, John, H.C. 1762, who was a physician and d. of small-pox in 1775.” If we had not been puzzled before reading that sentence, we certainly were afterwards. A church history of the Worcester Association and its Antecedents written by Joseph Allen in 1868 acknowledged both John Swifts, saying that Reverend Swift died in 1775 “of the small-pox as did also, the same year, his son John, who was a practicing physician in Acton.”
The two John Swifts of Acton are obviously a challenge to differentiate. Both of their professions could have led them to Cambridge to serve the soldiers stationed there, and it would have been logical to assume that it was the doctor who died of smallpox in 1775. Separate gravestones would have helped to separate the two Johns and their death dates, but there is no individual stone for Doctor John Swift, apparently no death record, and no burial record to prove that he was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery. Doctor John’s wife remarried and was buried in Stow, MA, and their surviving sons moved away. Records of the Massachusetts Sons of the American Revolution show that they had marked the Acton grave of John Swift by 1901. Presumably, the marker was placed by the burial mound with a single gravestone for “Reverend John Swift and his Family,” but there is no SAR marker there today, and exactly which family members are buried in the plot is unknown.
The moral of this particular story is that just because a source is old or a “fact” has been repeated many times, it is not necessarily accurate. Today’s family historians know to double-check modern family trees found online, but it is easy to assume that writers of older histories and genealogies had access to people’s memories, Family Bibles, and other lost sources that gave them better information than we have. That can be true, but in the case of our John Swifts, it was not. In this particular case, we were fortunate to find probate records for both men and for Doctor John’s children; the dates and relationships in those records allowed us to recognize confusion and errors in the other sources we came across.