Daughters of the American Revolution challenged by Bates family of Virginia

July 14, 2011

Wayne Witt Bates did not set out to take on the Daughters of the American Revolution. But he is not used to being challenged on his genealogy. A short list of his credentials: researcher for the B ates Family of Old Virginia (300 members and counting), coordinator of the Bates Family DNA project and, for 15 years, editor of the family newsletter, the Bates Booster.

“I am surprised DAR wants to fight me about the Bateses,” said Bates, 88, of Centreville, who has been researching his family tree since retiring as a Pentagon employee in 1974. “I know more than anyone wants to know.”

The genealogical throwdown began in January, when a cousin in Nevada, Suzanne Witt Adrian, told Bates that the Daughters of the American Revolution had turned away her application to have one of their ancestors, Reuben Bates Sr., recognized for his Revolutionary War service.

Proving direct descent from someone who aided the Revolutionary War effort has been a prerequisite for joining DAR since it was founded in 1890 as a response to women being excluded from Sons of the American Revolution. DAR — which describes itself as “dedicated to good works, such as promoting patriotism, preserving American history, and better education for children” — has more than 165,000 members, with hundreds of applications pouring in each month.

The organization, however, has strict standards when it comes to proof, with a preference for primary sources such as probate records, wills and census records. A DAR genealogist told Adrian, who is already a DAR member, that she didn’t prove she was descended from Reuben Bates or that he served in the war. She appealed to Wayne Bates for help. He submitted evidence to bolster their case, including DNA test results that, along with paper records, seemed to show conclusively that Adrian Bates descended from Reuben Bates Sr.

But in March, she learned DAR doesn’t accept DNA evidence, and the society turned back her application for a second time, saying she still hadn’t proved lineage or service to qualify Reuben Bates as a patriot. For Wayne Bates, this amounted to a declaration of war.

Bates, who resembles Colonel Sanders in giant square eyeglasses, began shooting off daily e-mails to DAR genealogists. He went on genealogy message boards and posted mini-screeds with titles such as “Current Rigid Methodology Renders DAR Immune to Logic” and “DAR credibility suffers.”

His lobbying campaign did not go over well at DAR’s downtown D.C. headquarters, at 1776 D St. NW. Stephen Nordholt, DAR’s administrator, warned Bates that if he didn’t stop bugging them, there would be “no further attention being given your matter — even if you are able to find new documentation that proves service of the individual in question.”

Among Bates family members, Reuben Bates Sr.’s Revolutionary War service has been accepted as fact since the 1970s because of something Wayne Bates had found at the National Archives.

Back then, when his knees still let him scour courthouses and church basements, he came across a book that contained a list of Continental Army soldiers assigned to Virginia. Inside was a description of what essentially was a pay stub for service in the Continental Army by one Reuben Bates.

It read: “Bates, Reuben — Soldier of Infantry — paid by Mr. Duval on March 4, 1783 — 36 (pounds).”

The payment record alone is not enough to prove service, Wayne Bates concedes. Colonial-era parents were not terribly creative when it came to naming their offspring. There were multiple Reuben Bateses and William Duvals running around the newly liberated colonies in 1783.

So Bates narrowed his search. He found four men named Reuben Bates living in Virginia during the Revolutionary War and looked up their vital statistics. Only one would have been the right age to have served and lived in the same county as a Duval: his ancestor, Reuben Bates of Louisa County.

Bates surmised that Duval was most likely Maj. William Duval, whose service in the Continental Army is verified by military pension records at the National Archives. In his pension application, Duval said he commanded troops from Louisa and several other counties and that he also owned land in Louisa in 1783. He was, in fact, the only Duval in Louisa County in 1783, tax records show.

Bates thought for sure that was all the proof he needed. He figured that as Reuben’s neighbor and probably his commanding officer, Duval had paid him for his service.

But DAR was still not convinced. Genealogist Thomas Ragusin, in a letter to Adrian and Wayne Bates, said the Duval on the payment record could not have been Maj. William Duval of Louisa because the record mentions “Mr. Duval,” not “Maj. Duval.”

Bates offers his own explanation for that. The war had been over for two years by then, and Duval would have returned to being a civilian.

‘An art form’

Bates admits to being a tad obsessive. For fun, he once tracked down every man who served on his Navy destroyer in World War II. He spent much of the 1980s researching the causes of railroad accidents after his brother, a railroad engineer, was wrongly blamed for one. “I cleared his name, clean as a whistle,” he says proudly. “It took 12 years, but I did it.”

The genealogical staff at DAR, by contrast, gets about two hours with each application. More than 90 percent are approved. The Bates case is part of a small minority that, instead, receive detailed “analyses” that lay out what is missing and what other documents to look for.

Genealogy “is not a science. It’s an art form,” says Terry Ward, who is DAR’s chief genealogist and leads a staff of 40.

Ward has short, gray hair and a slightly gravely voice. She’s worked in the DAR genealogy department for 14 years and remembers the days when correcting an old record involved scratching off the typewriting and then typing in the right information.

She has been the most frequent target of Bates’s barrage.

Ward has seen her share of applicants get upset when they are turned away, although they’re not usually as relentless as Bates. She doesn’t take it personally, she said. Nor do her staff members. They understand that genealogy is, at heart, an emotional exercise.

“It’s research and human nature. Someone goes up into the attic and finds Grandma was married twice and my uncle isn’t my uncle,” she says. “We understand that. We all started out researching our own families.”

She said proving service for a soldier in the Continental Line is rarely easy. Given the proliferation of identical names, proof of residency is critical to properly identifying someone. But the men who served on the Continental Line were pulled from different states, making it harder to know whether an ancestor is, for example, Reuben Bates from Virginia or Reuben Bates from New England.

Wayne Bates and other proponents of using DNA in genealogy argue that is precisely what DNA could help with. Within the Bates family, DNA has helped distinguish who descends from which branch. He said DNA evidence also backs up his claim that he is descended from Reuben Bates Sr. The Y chromosome DNA is passed down from father to son. Wayne Bates’s DNA was an exact match for that of a relative who, by paper, can document his lineage to Reuben. Other lineage societies, including Sons of the American Revolution, accept DNA evidence.

Ward and her colleagues said their problem with DNA is that it is still too imperfect a tool for them to rely on, unless someone is able to find every ancestor, dig them up and test their DNA. “If life were like ‘CSI,’ ” Ward says, “that would solve all of my genealogical problems.”

On a recent morning, Wayne Bates makes his way down to his cluttered office in the basement of the home he shares with his wife, Rose. At the foot of the stairs is a map of Fairfax County in 1760.

Refusing to quit

He grumbles that he doesn’t move as well as he used to and that he has to fork out $40 an hour to send a professional genealogist to ferret out documents for him. He does most of his research perched in front of his computer, his face hovering a few inches from the screen.

He picks his way around piles of binders, boxes, an old exercise bike, file cabinets and an armchair. He points to a volume titled “Ancestors and Descendents of William Whitt (1775-1850),” by David F. Whitt.

“That’s a tremendous book,” he says.

Bates looks around at the mess. “You ought to see it up here,” he says, tapping his forehead.

“I still think the first genealogist made an innocent mistake,” he says. But the rejection by Ragusin, the other DAR genealogist, was galling. “He ignored all the evidence.”

At one point, Bates’s cousin suggested they ditch the effort to recognize Reuben Sr., but the old man refused.

“My poor ancestor is blue in the face from holding his breath,” he says. “DAR is still holding him in limbo.”

Annys Shin has been a staff writer at the Washington Post since 2004.
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