Expert traces family trees, equine-style

Genealogist's latest effort documents 19th-century horse breeding in Harford


Last year genealogist Henry Peden hunkered down in the Historical Society of Harford County to conduct research for the latest in a long string of books he has written.

For this project, he perused thick volumes of business licenses. He came across a batch of licenses granted to horse breeders, and the more he read, the more intrigued he became. Peden's mind raced as he soaked up details about horses with names such as Nicodemas, Mountain Boy, Orphan Boy, Paddy Whack and Oysterman.

Eventually, it occurred to him that he could undertake a project that few, if any, researchers had undertaken: a book documenting the history of horse breeding in Harford.

He doesn't own or ride horses, but Peden thought that such a book would find an eager audience in a county that is home to a large number of equine enthusiasts and history buffs.

"I thought that horse lovers and historians might like the book because the horses played an important role in the county's early history," said Peden, 59, a Bel Air resident.

So he began compiling a book on horse breeding in Harford from 1822 through 1900.

"There's so much history out there, I had to limit the years I covered," Peden said.

Four months later, Peden's work culminated in a book called Harford County Stud Book, which catalogs pedigrees, descriptions and owners of stallions in 19th-century Harford. The $15 book is published by Colonial Roots Inc. in Lewes, Del.

Despite his previous lack of knowledge about horses, Peden proved an ideal researcher for the task.

For starters, as author of 117 other books on a wide range of genealogy topics, Peden has established himself as perhaps the best genealogist in the county, according to Douglas Washburn, president of the Harford County Genealogical Society. Washburn said thoroughness is among Peden's many virtues.

"Henry is very good at wading through the vast records and presenting them in a way that is both interesting and user-friendly," said Washburn. "He's become knowledgeable about everything from church records to census records."

Michael McCormick, director of reference services at the Maryland Archives, took regard for Peden's abilities a step further, calling him one of the most prominent genealogists in the state.

"He has opened up and brought together resource collections from around the state," McCormick said. "At one point or another, anyone working on a genealogy project in Maryland will use one of Henry's books."

One of his books - A Guide to Genealogical Research in Maryland - has become the definitive guide for some family historians. "It's a guide everyone that wants to do genealogy research in Maryland needs," McCormick said.

Other books written by Peden this year explore Marylanders who immigrated to Ohio and Indiana, tinsmithing in 19th-century Harford and inhabitants of Cecil County from 1174 to 1800.

But his most recent book is his first on the topic of horse genealogy, and as far as he knows, it's the only one in existence. And Washburn said that's what gives the work it's appeal.

"And it's unique because genealogists usually work on family trees, not horse trees," he said.

The book contains little-known facts about horses owned by well-known historical figures from the county, such as John Wilkes Booth.

Peden's research led him to information on Cola Di Rienzi, a horse owned by Booth. In the book John Wilkes Booth: A Sister's Memoir, by Asia Booth Clarke, Peden found an obscure passage about Booth's horse that he included in his book.

"Wilkes had a beautiful black colt without a white hair or spot, a long silken mane and tail which I frequently used to braid in tiny plaits, he was so gentle and docile. He has an Ivanhoe forehead, on which was printed many a loving kiss by his master, who had broken him in himself and named him Cola di Rienzi.

"Wilkes taught me to ride, with and without a saddle ... . He would start me off with, `The Chocktows are after you, ride for your life.' And Cola, seemed to believe it."

Peden's forays into genealogy began 30 years ago when he undertook researching his family history. "As a teen, I had questions about my family history," said Peden. "I wanted answers and started seeking them."

As Peden watched the rapid growth in family history research, he realized he wasn't alone.

"There are a lot of people that are asking who their great-grandparents are," said Peden, a Vietnam veteran. "They get conflicting answers, so they turn to genealogy resources for the facts."

Once people get into family history research, they're hooked, said Peden, who earned his bachelor's degree in geography in 1973 and his master's in environmental planning in 1980 from Towson State University.

"I think genealogy has passed stamp collecting as the most popular hobby," he said. "Genealogy is the disease for which there's no cure. There's one person in every family that wants to research their history."

And once they get answers to one question, they want to get answers to another, Peden said.

The researcher is a strong advocate for family history preservation, and when people voice indifference to the potential value of documenting their lineage, Peden asks them: "How do you know where you're going if you don't know where you've been?"

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