MURRAY, Ky. — Murray State alumnus Dr. Martin Tracy’s new book charts his family name back a millennium — a journey that runs through a cast of characters including William the Conqueror’s Norman lords, an assassin of Archbishop Thomas Becket and one of the California wing of the Republican Party’s earliest and most enthusiastic Abraham Lincoln supporters — but a pair of early New England settlers fascinate him most of all. The finished product, “The Puritans Thomas & Stephen Tracy: A Personal Quest for Family Lineage” (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017), is not just an exploration of their lives but also an insightful guidebook for aspiring genealogists that outlines his process, sources and hazards of the trade.
Tracy was born on June 10, 1940 in Fort Collins, Colorado, where his father, J. Albert Tracy, worked as a high school teacher. The family moved several times while he was very young — including brief stops at small colleges in Idaho, Florida and Ohio — as his father searched for the right academic fit before joining the Languages at Literatures faculty at what was then Murray State Teachers College in 1947. J. Albert embraced his family’s idyllic new community, organizing a highly competitive travelling college debate team and later rising to become head of his department. Young Martin had the sort of precocious upbringing typical of the children of academics, travelling out of town with his dad with the debate team, mingling with coeds and working out of college labs at a time when most of his peers would have been enthralled by TV westerns.
Despite having lived and breathed higher education since childhood, Tracy opted for the U.S. Army rather than going to college straight out of high school in 1958. He spent his three-year tour as a Specialist 4th Class stationed at a Nike Hercules missile base in New Jersey, where he served as a computer operator, and then he came home to Murray State College to earn a B.A. in History and Political Science. After graduation, Tracy embarked on a fascinating career path rooted in development work, public service and academia. He spent the period from 1965 to 1967 working on ESL instruction and community development as a Peace Corps volunteer in central Turkey, then went on to graduate studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He had stints between degrees working as a research analyst, first at the U.S. Social Security Administration in Washington and then at the International Social Security Association in Geneva, before completing his Ph.D. in Social Work in 1982. He thereafter served as a professor and director at both the University of Iowa and Southern Illinois University before finishing off his academic career as a professor and associate dean for research at the University of Kentucky from 2001 to 2004.
After this long and roundabout journey, Tracy and his wife returned to Murray, where they have been enjoying a comfortable retirement in a familiar setting for the past 13 years. When he’s not taking in local theater and art or cheering on the Racers, he occupies his time as a board member of the Calloway County United Way and is the director of vocational and international service at the Rotary Club of Murray.
Tracy’s inspiration to look deeper into his family genealogy came in 1993 while he was on a hiking trip in the Cotswolds in Southwest England with his son Morgan. The natural beauty of the area is enough of a draw for most tourists, but Tracy wanted to see it for himself for sentimental reasons. This was, after all, the medieval stomping grounds of his noble-blooded Norman ancestors. The visit motivated him to begin a genealogical research project that he chipped away at for nearly a quarter century, and one that ultimately challenged some core assumptions about where his ancestors had really come from.
There is an understandable tendency amongst genealogists to highlight a particularly significant forbearer in order to boost their own sense of worth in some small way, but Tracy instead works toward correcting what he believes to be a commonly accepted falsehood: that his ancestor Thomas Tracy was a nobleman from Gloucestershire and not a more humble Norfolk carpenter who shared the same name. Thomas went on enjoy a good measure of success as one of the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s early settlers, but his origins appear to have been deliberately misrepresented. Martin concludes that the myth of Thomas’ noble status was perpetuated by none other than turn-of-the-century financial magnate J.P. Morgan, who took Frances Tracy as his second wife. Morgan commissioned a genealogical study that concluded she was a descendent of the Gloucestershire nobleman Thomas Tracy, which would by extension make her a worthy partner to one of America’s most powerful men. Professional genealogists tried to correct the Thomas Tracy mixup in subsequent years, but the noble origins myth has until now dominated in the amateur online genealogical community.
“What was surprising to me when I was doing the research was here you’ve got the founder of genealogy in the U.S., Donald Lines Jacobus, and he wrote in his book on the [Waterman, Massachusetts] family that most likely Thomas Tracy came from Norfolk,” Tracy said. “There were subsequent articles to that in minor journals … and no one either paid attention to it, or they just blew it off because they preferred to think of themselves as from an aristocratic family. I had bought into that, and then the more research I did, I said, ‘Hey, wait a minute. There’s something wrong here.’”
When Tracy began to focus more of his energy on the project back in 2008, he took full advantage of the Murray State resources at his disposal. He credits Duane Bolin, a Murray State history professor, with steering him toward books that got him become better acquainted with 17th century American history, a period that is covered well at Waterfield Library. Help came from other quarters at Murray State, too. Ashley Ireland, dean of University Libraries, and Sarah Hopley, director of archives and special collections, were amongst those who helped him navigate the university’s genealogical materials.
“The Murray State library has always been very gracious to me,” Tracy said. “I got some material out of Pogue [Library] and also Waterfield [Library], especially the history books they had. Early on, the genealogy section at Pogue was very, very helpful.”
Hopley notes that anyone interested in doing local genealogical research will find many useful resources at Pogue. She wrote, “Our LibGuides page lists a lot of our collection, and all of our books are searchable in the main library database. (Some can even be checked out.) Our genealogy materials here focus on western Kentucky and include censuses, cemetery lists, some marriage licenses and lots of self-published family histories.”
Other potentially useful resources at Pogue include “vertical files which contain family files and files on Calloway County, Kentucky and Murray, Kentucky information and history as well as the Jackson Purchase,” along with “manuscript collections [consisting] of diaries, correspondence, business records, photographs and ephemera that focus upon the rich history and culture of southwestern Kentucky and northwestern Tennessee that make up the Jackson Purchase.” The library also holds historic newspapers from the Purchase area going back to the Civil War era, and its website provides links to a vast array of online genealogy resources, both local and international.
Martin’s book debunks a long-standing myth, but it also serves as a how-to guide for newcomers. He had a formal academic article on Thomas Tracy published in the March 2017 edition of “The Connecticut Nutmegger,” so he chose to use the book to reflect more personally on his project. In doing so, he devotes considerable space to discussing the resources he used, the importance of networking with local historical societies and, perhaps most importantly, why it’s important to approach sources with a healthy dose of academic skepticism. As he discovered repeatedly, just because something is written down in an official-looking document doesn’t mean it’s true.
“The more I got into it, the more I prioritized some of the minefields you go through because I found things that were totally erroneous, and I got so much serendipitously,” he says. “As I started writing I thought more and more about the process. So that was as much for my edification as it was for my readers, but as I kept on doing it I thought to myself that this is something that is going to be useful for not only family members, but anyone who picks up the book.”
Early takes have been unexpectedly pleasant for Tracy. “Actually, I’ve been surprised there hasn’t been some negative feedback. ‘What do you mean he wasn’t from Gloucestershire?,’” he said. When he checks the Tracy family page at the ancestry.com thread now, he has found that many in the online community have finally come around to his view that Thomas Tracy was a commoner from Norfolk rather than a Gloucestershire nobleman. “It’s been gratifying to see that,” he said.
What’s next for the retired 77-year-old? “It was meant to be a fun and interesting book. It was … for me, and I’ve tried to convey that in my writing,” he said. “I’m continuing to explore connections. There are always missing links, and I’ve got a lot of them that I’ll continue looking into.”