Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Somewhere Between Two Rivers

When I began this quest to document my line back to the passengers who arrived in the New World on the Mayflower in 1620, I mentioned the effort would likely occur in three parts. The first involves work that has already been done by others—the lists ascertained by the General Society of Mayflower Descendants to be the confirmed lines of descent from each of the documented passengers who had surviving children upon landing at Plymouth.

Thankfully, at the end of that first part, the fifth generation of Alden descendants handily bridges the gap from the Society's Silver Books to a marriage into the Tilson line, another family whose descendants have been thoroughly documented. Thus we have confirmed documentation for the first part of the search, and an honored guide to bring us through the next three generations, from fifth generation Mayflower descendant and Alden descendant Janet Murdock Tilson, through her son William Tilson, to her grandson Peleg Tilson and her great-granddaughter Rachel Tilson.

When we arrive at the time period of those Tilson generations, though, we are also faced with a wandering family. William, having served in the French War, also apparently was said to have served in the American Revolution, according to some records held by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Yet, by the 1763 birth date of his eldest child, he was apparently far removed from his home in Massachusetts, living in a place called Saint Clair in Virginia.

And there's the quandary: where is Saint Clair? If we are researching an era devoid of such documents relied upon in genealogical research of more modern times—birth and death certificates—just how am I to locate the court records verifying the assertions made about these more recent iterations of the Tilson line?

From The Tilson Genealogy itself, I can glean geographic descriptions to gain some assistance in locating where the Tilsons settled in Virginia. For instance, Peleg, son of William, was supposed to have married his wife, Rachel (or, in other records, Rebeccah) Dungan "of Saint Clair, Virginia." But when? And where are the court records?

Peleg's first few children were born in Saint Clair, supposedly, in the 1790s. One gets the feeling this may have occurred in a place so remote that it might not have had the wherewithal to produce governmental documentation.

However, thankfully, his children born toward the end of that decade of the 1790s are reported to have been born in the northeast section of Tennessee.

Yet even that creates a problem. Just where in Tennessee would they have been born? The Tilson genealogy gives the location as "Erwin, Tennessee," yet Erwin was not established as a location until 1876.

Relying on geographic descriptions to determine location proves frustrating, as well. The Tilson Genealogy describes the Saint Clair location where William Tilson settled as in "the west part of Virginia...on the south branch of the Holstein River."

Looking up the "Holstein River" is a less than satisfying experience. There is no Holstein River. There is, however, a Holston River, which meanders for quite some way through southwestern Virginia before getting caught up in the water management system in northeastern Tennessee which has created quite a sizeable lake in the region, courtesy now of a modern system of dams. Likely not the same scenery encountered by William Tilson and family when they settled in the area in the 1790s.

Could the Holston River be the Holstein River described in the Tilson Genealogy? This is a question that could best be served by obtaining and examining old maps of the region. That in itself would have taken time. Fortunately, I happened to notice a comment in the Wikipedia entry for the Holston River, which informed me that earlier French maps had identified the same river as the Cherokee River, and that it was "later named after Stephen Holstein, a European-American settler who built a cabin in 1746 on the upper reaches of the river."

So Holston River was once called Holstein River. I headed over to the Find A Grave entry for some of my Tilson family's burials in a cemetery behind a pre-Revolutionary era church called, encouragingly, Saint Clair's Bottom Primitive Baptist Church. Clicking on the Find A Grave tab for the map to the cemetery, I enlarged the image until I spotted a squiggly blue line, signifying some sort of river or creek near the cemetery. I painstakingly followed that blue squiggle until it came to the place where the thing was actually given a name.

You guessed it: the name of that blue squiggle was indeed "South Fork Holston River." Now discovering that, it appears, then, that the location of the Saint Clair Bottom Primitive Baptist Church where my Tilson ancestors were buried was close to what is now Chilhowie, in Smyth County, Virginia.

Thus was my faith in The Tilson Genealogy restored. But that was only one of two river dilemmas. The Holston River was the one the Tilsons left behind when they moved to their new digs in Tennessee. The other river dilemma involved the river which the Tilsons lived near, once they settled in what was not quite yet the Erwin location mentioned in the Tilson book.

According to The Tilson Genealogy, William's son Peleg moved from Virginia to settle
on the west side of Nola Chucky River, one mile from the mouth of Indian Creek, and south of the Iron Bridge, about three miles from Erwin.

We've already dismissed the possibility of Peleg Tilson settling three miles from Erwin. Whatever he settled near, it wasn't yet a town called Erwin. Nor was there likely, at the turn of the century in 1800, to have been any bridge in the vicinity, let alone an iron bridge. Add to that the difficulty of there being not one but two creeks called Indian Creek (South Indian Creek and North Indian Creek), and it is pretty clear the best way to ascertain just where Peleg Tilson settled would be to find some old plat maps—if, of course, there was a government there to organize that sort of property records.

But where, again, was the river? If you are envisioning a woman by the name of Nola whose memory was perpetuated by its use to designate a river, think again. There is no Nola Chucky, person or river. However, there is the similarly-named Nolichucky River, running right through the very area which later boasted the town of Erwin among its geographic labels.

One wonders, in discovering these two small difficulties, how often other names were misrepresented in what otherwise would have been considered a reliable genealogy. Wonders, too, how often place names and geographic descriptors may have changed, over the years. The Tilson Genealogy, after all, was published in 1911. We have to have the grace to allow for things to have changed.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

And That Makes Five

Stretching from Mayflower passengers John Alden and Priscilla Mullins through the surnames I've covered—Pabodie, Bartlett, Murdock, and Tilson—we've made the stretch through the first five generations, precisely the number of generations confirmed in the Mayflower Society's "Silver Books."

From this point on, we're untethered from the assurance that we are on the right genealogical path. To join the ranks of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, I'll have to snap to and assure the accuracy of each documented step along the generational way. Though I'm fairly certain of my research accuracy, this is still a terrifying moment. Like Wile E. Coyote gone over the edge of the cliff.

The difficulty with researching William Tilson—that grandson who so fortunately inherited his grandfather John Murdock's farm in Massachusetts, but then abruptly moved to the far reaches of Virginia—is that this was not the only time this William made such a radical move. According to The Tilson Genealogy, the Massachusetts native spent his earlier years ranging as far as Nova Scotia as well as southwest Virginia.

William Tilson apparently served during the "French War," but presumably returned home to Plympton after discharge from service in December, 1761. It was in Plympton, after all, that he married Mary Ransom just a few months later in April of the next year.

Apparently, when William entered the service in March of 1759, he was barely eighteen years of age. Considering he inherited the farm when his grandfather died in the fall of 1756, that would have placed William then at fifteen—not a bad set up for a young man of that age. Perhaps that explains the note I found in The Tilson Genealogy mentioning a legal action taken in October of the same year in which John Murdock passed: William granted his father, Stephen Tilson, as "guardian" of the property he had inherited from his grandfather.

On the other hand, perhaps that detail only plants another question in my mind: what did happen to that farm after it was handed down to the fifteen year old grandson of John Murdock? And was it something that served to drive the younger Tilson away from his community?

At any rate, the next step in my attempt to document my connection with Mayflower passengers takes us far from that Massachusetts colony of the Pilgrims' landing—much farther than the minor move from Plymouth to Plympton. The next location to seek records needs to be the Virginia settlement known as Saint Clair, a place not found on the map today, and variously identified as part of more than one county in current-day Virginia.

Not only does the next generation take us far afield from Massachusetts, it also removes us from the tidily-ascertained five verified generations since the pilgrims landed at Plymouth in 1620.  

Above: "Landing of the Puritans in America," 1883 oil on canvas by Spanish artist Antonio Gisbert PĂ©rez; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Monday, August 14, 2017

To Him, His Heirs and Assigns Forever

Sometimes, in taking in the fine print in a family's legal proceedings, it's tempting to read between the lines. In examining the family which leads me back to ancestral ties with Mayflower passengers, we've been looking at the final wishes of my seventh great grandfather, John Murdock. In his will, drawn up in 1756, he gave the whole of his property in Plympton, Massachusetts, to his grandson, William Tilson.

What's strange about this arrangement is that John and Ruth Bartlett Murdock had four children of their own: Jeannette (variously listed as Janet or Jennet, who married Stephen Tilson), Ruth, James and Bartlett. I have not found it unusual, in the case of a married daughter, to see a father of that time period bequeath a token inheritance—if any at all—to such a daughter. In this case, daughter Ruth, having already married John Wall, saw her husband—not herself—receive forty pounds.

While John Murdock named his son-in-law rather than his second-born daughter, in the case of his eldest daughter, Jennet, while not naming her at all, he was rather generous in his dealing with her oldest son.

I give and bequeath to my grandson William Tillson (the son of Stephen Tillson) the whole Farm with the Dwelling House and all the other buildings thereon Standing is Situate in the Township of Plimton in the county aforesaid, and is the same now in the Improvement of Noah Pratt be the same more or less—to Him his Heirs and assigns forever.

One would presume this was the favorite grandson, seeing his generosity.

But what about taking care of his widowed wife after his departure? John Murdock saw to that, as well.

Item - I give and bequeath unto my loving wife Ruth the Improvement of all and Singular the Remaining part of My Estate both Real and personall, be the same or less however or wheresoever lying and Being, that is During her naturall life, and after that it is my Will the same Decend in equall halves unto my two sons James Murdock and Bartlett Murdock To them their Heirs and assigns forever.

Wait! Did John Murdock have more than one farm? Or was he speaking of the same property which he gave to his grandson, but let his wife have it while she was still living?

While it might seem I'll have to delve into property records of colonial times, subsequent events reveal this might have been a moot point. Apparently, that very same "fortunate" grandson, William Tilson, married Mary Ransom in Plympton in 1762, and was, by 1763, a proud father in his own right.

The difficulty with that scenario is that William's oldest son—also named William—was not born anywhere near that farm bequeathed to him in Massachusetts, but in a remote spot on the far side of Virginia in a settlement called Saint Clair. This was not a momentary visit to the far side of colonial civilization; all the rest of William's children were also born in the vicinity—and some subsequently moved to northeastern Tennessee.

One clue to the abrupt change in address for that grandson who got the farm in that 1756 will: his grandmother, John Murdock's wife Ruth, may have passed away within a few years of her husband's death. At least, an entry at Find a Grave indicates she may have died in 1761.

Once gone, which part of the property remained William Tilson's? And which part was divided between William's two uncles, sons of his so-generous yet departed grandfather? One can't help but wonder whether there was some family feuding over the rights to that piece of property. Perhaps William saw it best to move on to a future of his own making.

Above: The two excerpts from the will of John Murdock, dated 1756, courtesy the Massachusetts Wills and Probate Records collection at

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Still Counting

Now that I'm deep in the midst of researching a line that reaches to Mayflower ancestry—who knew I'd ever be spouting lines like, "and he was my eighth great grandfather"—you'd think the count on my databases would rise astronomically. But it hasn't. It seems the farther back you reach in your research, the harder the going gets to slog through the supporting documentation.

Let's take a look at progress in the last two weeks, anyhow—mainly because I promised myself I would. Tracking progress comes in handy when discouragement sets in.

The tree that stands to increase the most would seem to be the one I'm focusing on for this Mayflower research. After all, families back then were larger. Of course, on the flip side, families also lost more children to the hazards of pioneer life—everything from unexpected injuries to sicknesses to premature death following childbirth.

As it stands, my mother's family tree saw an increase of 106 names in the last two weeks, putting the grand total at 11,076. Even though it's a modest gain, at least it's an increase.

On the other hand, as focused as I am right now on putting together an application to the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, I did carve out some research time for the other parts of our family. On my mother-in-law's tree, the total jumped 188 to reach 12,557. Not bad for being focused on an entirely different project. But also illustrating my point handily: much easier to locate descendants of founder families in the mid 1800s onward than in the mid 1600s.

If only that could extend to my father-in-law's database, where the total somehow managed to inch up by one solitary name, for a total of 1,262. Or my own dad's tree, where I scrounged up five souls to make 427 in total. Chalk that up to new hints appearing at, for the most part, since newly-added digitized records sure help me muddle my way onward.

Part of that increase comes from the motivation of finding new DNA matches at any of the three companies our family has already used: Family Tree DNA, AncestryDNA or 23andMe. Whenever there is the faintest possibility that a DNA match belongs to either of our fathers' lines, I am on it, best I can be, given the lack of information on those previous generations. (And here, when I say previous generations, it certainly isn't with the luxury of boasting about far-removed centuries; both of these lines arrived in the United States well into the 1800s.)

As far as DNA testing goes, I'm sure grateful that two of the companies have decided to offer another sale this summer. It's when the numbers go up in each company's database that the likelihood of finding a match—especially in my father's and father-in-law's lines—improves. News like Ancestry's recent announcement that their database has exceeded five million customers is good news for someone like me, struggling to overcome brick wall mysteries from lack of documentation.

Still, it is becoming obvious that some people find more fertile ground for DNA matches at one company, while others reap their benefits at an entirely different company. It's really hard to tell at the outset which company will lead to the match that opens up those brick wall mysteries. Just in the past two weeks, I currently have had an increase of forty five at Family Tree DNA, fifteen at Ancestry, and a net loss of two at 23andMe. That brought me new match totals of 2,306 at FTDNA, 685 at AncestryDNA, and 1,177 at 23andMe.

For my husband, the numbers were up twenty four for a total of 1,498 at FTDNA, up six for 325 at AncestryDNA, and down eight to 1,226 at 23andMe.

Granted, those numbers represent different measurements at each company. I trace all matches at FTDNA, only fourth cousin and above at AncestryDNA, and all cousins who haven't yet removed their name from public matching at 23andMe. Yet even in this small sampling, it's interesting to see that my husband fares better at gleaning matches at 23andMe than I do, despite my significantly larger set of matches at, say, FTDNA.

The bottom line is that you can never know where distant relatives might choose to test their DNA—if at any place at all—so if you are hoping that a match will provide you with the answer to all your genealogical mysteries, you may as well resign yourself to testing at all the major companies. And if you are hoping to see the explanation for how you match another customer, you may as well resign yourself to doing some random acts of genealogical kindness in building a shadow tree for your most likely matches, if their own research prowess isn't up to providing the answers you are seeking.

 Above: "August Afternoon, Appledore," 1900 oil on canvas by American Impressionist painter Frederick Childe Hassam; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Off the Shelf:
Tillie Lewis: The Tomato Queen

Every now and then, I have to deviate from my intentions to plow through my backlog of reading. This is one of those months. Rather than pull a book down from my own bookcases, I borrowed one from the library.

This month's selection is a book I've been meaning to read for quite some time. It is not, however, a book about genealogy, but a chance to learn something more about a giant in my own city's history.

Because it involves my city, not yours, you might not think this applicable to you. But don't give up so quickly with that assessment. It turns out Tillie Lewis built a business which introduced the Italian pomodoro tomato to the agriculture of our Central Valley region. In the face of steep tariffs making imports of the Italian tomato impractical, this eventually made our county the top tomato producing county in the United States by 1940.

Following that introduction of the pomodoro to the area's agriculture, this businesswoman coupled that endeavor with development of a cannery in the city. By 1950, Tillie Lewis had grown that company to be the fifth largest canning business in the United States. If your mother made you anything with canned tomato products back then, you may have eaten an Italian dish made from tomatoes grown in my county.

I can't tell you how many times, over the years, I've driven by the old cannery bearing the Tillie Lewis name, but I had never given any thought to the business savvy that went into building that tomato empire—not to mention, any thought to what it took for a woman to make those strides in a generation in which board rooms were solely the domain of gray-suited businessmen.

While I don't have any ancestors to research in the city or county in which I now live, it certainly helps to delve into the history surrounding the home of my local genealogical society. Not only that, but it's informative and inspiring to see how another woman tackled the business challenges of her day. Tillie Lewis: The Tomato Queen is definitely a read I've been looking forward to.

Friday, August 11, 2017

According to his Will

It is probably a good thing that the will of Benjamen Bartlett was drawn up in 1717, after his daughter Ruth had already married. One simple mention of that detail in his will allows us to connect the names of Ruth's parents with her married surname, Murdock. Thus, we are provided with the stepping stone to advance us to the next generation in this procession from Mayflower passengers John Alden and Priscilla Mullins through their daughter Elizabeth Alden Pabodie, their granddaughter Ruth Pabodie Bartlett, and now their great-granddaughter Ruth Bartlett Murdock.

From that point, it was a will which provided the next generational step, as well. When Ruth Bartlett Murdock's husband John drew up his will before his passing in 1756, he referred not only to his wife and children, but remembered one particular grandson—as the Elizabeth Alden genealogy put it, "grandson Tillson," the son of Stephen Tillson—to whom he gifted his farm.

That "Tillson," of course, handily directs us to the next generation in our journey from the Mayflower's landing to our times. John Murdock and his wife, the former Ruth Bartlett, had among their children one daughter who had married said Stephen Tilson. Her name has been referenced variously as Janet, Jennet, or Jeannette.

It was during this generation, incidentally, that though the property in Plympton, Massachusetts, was provided to him, Stephen Tilson's eldest son was soon found to be settled and raising his own family, not in Plympton—not even in Massachusetts—but far to the west in Virginia.

Of course, that brings up the question: what happened? Why, if provided for with this bequest of property, did he marry in Plympton, yet move so far away to settle and raise his own family? To answer that, we need to shift from the resources provided in the Alden genealogy to a separate recounting of the family history of the Tilson line. And even there, we'll need to read between the lines, for the legal records only document the basic outline of the story.

Above: "Embarkation of the Pilgrims," 1857 oil on canvas by American artist Robert Walter Weir; courtesy Google Art Project via Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Googling for Colonial Significance

It is certainly a different world, plying my genealogical research craft to the world of colonial ancestors instead of scouring passenger lists for American immigrants of the late 1800s. Still, that doesn't necessarily mean I must resign myself solely to dusty archives or crumbling documents. As I traced one of my lines to the granddaughter of Mayflower passengers John and Priscilla Alden, I couldn't help but notice how many results came up when I took those colonial names and plugged them into the search bar at Google. Old World meets New.

It seems incredible that names like Richard Warren (Mayflower passenger) or Love Brewster (son of William Brewster) would be on the tip of the tongue of twenty first century Americans. And, in case you missed my tongue firmly planted in cheek, those names aren't. Yet, a quick search revealed that each of them has a Wikipedia entry. Somebody knew about them. And thought somebody else might be interested.

Perhaps arrival on the Mayflower conferred a sort of "street cred" among colonials. Names of those early arrivals were noted by someone, obviously, but I wondered how my luck would hold out if I tried searching for the next generation.

Using the 1897 publication by Mrs. Charles L. Alden, Elizabeth (Alden) Pabodie and Descendants, as our unofficial guide (for my final bid to become a member of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, of course I'll need to align with what has been verified in the "Silver Books"), we left off yesterday with John and Priscilla's granddaughter, Ruth Pabodie Bartlett.

She and her husband, Benjamin Bartlett, likely had nine children. This, though, may be difficult to verify as a complete list, for apparently there have been issues in which listings of Benjamin Bartlett's children may have been confused with those of Samuel Bartlett. The Elizabeth Pabodie author limits her list to those children gleaned solely from mention in Benjamin's will.

In particular, for our purposes, we are interested in Ruth and Benjamin's daughter Ruth. Born in Duxbury, Massachusetts, where the Alden and associated families moved after adhering to their seven-year obligation to the Plymouth colony, the younger Ruth eventually married John Murdock, son of the elder John Murdock and his wife Lydia Young.

While the earlier Mayflower generations provided me with names easily found on sites like Wikipedia, subsequent generations didn't carry as much historical gravitas, apparently, for while I can locate several ancestral names from this portion of my lineage, they are more likely to be found on genealogy websites than general interest pages.

Still, I can find information, thanks to Google—requiring further independent verification, of course—everywhere from the "Memories" section of to the online database listing the descendants of John and Priscilla Alden, provided by the Alden Kindred of America. That organization, interestingly enough, claims as one of its founding members—and treasurer—a gentleman by the name of Charles L. Alden, a name which we've seen affixed to a particular genealogy book of Alden descendants.

None of this I would have known if I hadn't decided to try my hand at Googling some of my ancestors' names. Granted, if there wasn't the cachet of being people associated—even several generations removed—with the landing of the Mayflower, perhaps these names wouldn't have been as ardently sought after. It's the demand that created the supply in this case. But I'm glad for access to that supply thanks to Google, nonetheless.

Above: The Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor, by British-born American marine painter William Formby Halsall in 1882; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.
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