Whistle in the wind

Pennell manuscript boxes at the Maine Historical Society library.

Much to my chagrin, google Thomas Pennell + Pennellville and this excerpt of a Wikipedia article still comes up: “Pennellville was settled by Thomas Pennell II (1720–1770), who arrived in 1760 at the age of 40. His father, Thomas (1689–1723), had emigrated from Jersey (in the Channel Islands) around 1708. He originally settled in Gloucester, Massachusetts. He married Sarah Durrell, and sired two sons and two daughters.”

After discovering Thomas Pennell and Rachel Riggs as great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents more than twenty years ago, my doubts about Thomas’s parentage, widely reported in print, only continued to grow. Thomas Pennell married Rachel Riggs after 14 June 1735, when their intentions were recorded in Falmouth, Maine. If Thomas were the same person born in Gloucester in 1720, he would have been a fifteen-year-old bridegroom – while not impossible, highly unlikely. How could I validate my skepticism?

If Thomas were the same person born in Gloucester in 1720, he would have been a fifteen-year-old bridegroom – while not impossible, highly unlikely.

Ferreting through four folio boxes of Pennell manuscripts and correspondence at the Maine Historical Library resulted in the discovery of an overlooked piece of evidence: a letter written in French on 4 June 1743  from Thomas Pinel to his uncle Philippe Pinel of the Isle of Jersey inquiring about an inheritance. Thomas Pennell, the real son of Thomas and Sarah (Durrell) Pennell, had recently married Hannah Brooks in Biddeford, Maine.[1] Here was the knockout blow that unequivocally proved Thomas, husband of Rachel Riggs, was not the teenager from Gloucester. I collected a variety of other facts that traced the evolution of ancestral errors in this family. In August 2014, The Maine Genealogist published my article, “A Tale of Tangled Pennell Lines: From the Isle of Jersey, to Gloucester, Massachusetts, and Maine.”[2]

Excerpt of Thomas Pinel letter published in The Maine Genealogist:

Translation: I want you to know how obliged I am to you and to be in friendship. Your affectionate nephew until death. Thomas Pinel.

On the Editor’s Page of The Maine Genealogist, Joseph C. Anderson II alluded to readers bringing out erasers to reclassify their Pennell ancestry. And so, I concluded this article had cut through layers of confused pedigrees. Now, Thomas and Rachel’s descendants could start with a clean slate and focus on discovering Thomas’s true parentage, which one day may verify a link to the Channel Islands but not by way of Gloucester. It has not worked out that way. Few erasers have been used.

As the saying “a whistle in the wind” connotes, one article has not dislodged the well-worn story of the Pennellville Pennells’ roots in Gloucester. I have tried three times to correct the above Wikipedia article. Each time, it has been taken down after only a few hours because my authorship falls into the category of self-promotion! Among my 2020 resolutions, learn how to edit a Wikipedia entry. But there is a mammoth task I cannot accomplish on my own: at last count, Ancestry.com has 888 public trees, most of which have Thomas Pennell of Gloucester as the teenage husband of Rachel Riggs. Such is the power of copy and paste! I begin this year clanging like a fire bell in the night: Be wary – the sheer volume of posted trees does not make them correct.


[1] “Vital Records of Saco and Biddeford, Me.,” The New England Historical and Genealogical Register  71 [1917]: 216.

[2] The Maine Genealogist 36 [2014]: 99–122.

Michael Dwyer

About Michael Dwyer

Michael F. Dwyer first joined NEHGS on a student membership. A Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists, he edits Vermont Genealogy. His articles have been published in the Register, American Ancestors, The American Genealogist, The Maine Genealogist, and Rhode Island Roots, among others. The Vermont Department of Education's 2004 Teacher of the Year, Michael retired in June 2018 after 35 years of teaching subjects he loves—English and history.View all posts by Michael Dwyer