Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Never Think the Trail Will Be Easy

Rabbit trails have their inherent pitfalls. We knew this when we accepted the assignment. It’s not easy, following those rabbit trails detours.

I’d like to label this post with a title such as, “Oh-Oh,” but realize I already have at least one other entry—if not two—sporting the same title. Just something to bear in mind.

So, I’m following the path of my Tilson ancestors from their home in Plymouth colony to their new digs in southwestern Virginia. I’m trying every buzzword I can scavenge from the narratives to help locate the Saint Clair community in which the Tilsons supposedly settled in Virginia.

The Tilson Genealogy provides a few hints to lead me there, especially in the mention of William Tilson’s youngest daughter, Janet. She had married a man in that Virginia community by the name of Joseph Cole, staying behind to set up housekeeping there while her brothers—and later, her parents—continued onward to Tennessee.

You may remember I had mentioned yesterday that, after William’s wife had died in Tennessee, he returned to Virginia. Though William’s sons had stayed in Tennessee, apparently his daughter and son in law had never left the original Virginia settlement. According to The Tilson Genealogy,
[William] soon returned to his former home near Holstein Mills, Virginia, and died at his son-in-law’s, Joseph Cole’s, about 1825.

Though I was able to locate Saint Clair, thanks to Google Maps, I was having trouble finding any other entries fixing the town in Washington County, as the genealogy had listed it. The book’s narrative indicated that the town had later become part of Smyth County, but even so, I couldn’t find any other sources to corroborate that.

Heading to my favorite convenient utility for sorting out which town belongs in which county—a link I found years ago at the old Rootsweb website—I was informed that Saint Clair is actually considered to be part of Tazewell County.

That didn’t help much. Neither the Wikipedia entry for Tazewell nor that for Smyth indicated inclusion of a town bearing the name Saint Clair—though some of the other towns on the Google Map showed up in the listings for Tazewell. At least I was close.

Search difficulties like this remind me of my agonizing elementary school days—you know, those never-ending days of wearying exercises to look up words in the dictionary and dutifully inscribe them in some paper to be handed in before afternoon recess. Why, oh why, I ended up reading the entire dictionary page before actually writing down the assigned word and its definition, I never knew—but I think you can guess, now.

It will come as no surprise to you that I, back in the present and stumped with my inability to find anything online about this mysterious Saint Clair settlement, found anything and everything to catch my eye. Including this:
St. Clair’s Bottom Primitive Baptist Church.

Admit it: if you had found a search result like that, wouldn’t you click on it and go take a look?

So I read the fine print:
One of the few remaining pre-Revolutionary churches in Southwest Virginia, St. Clair’s Bottom Primitive Baptist Church was organized in 1775. The present building was erected in 1851 on the site of a log meeting house, which was deeded to the congregation by Colonel Joseph Cole. Colonel Cole is buried in the cemetery surrounding the church.

Wait! Joseph Cole? Wasn’t that the same name as that of my William’s son in law?

The scramble was on. I was now searching, not for William Tilson, but for Joseph Cole. Yet I couldn’t find anything for a Colonel Cole. If he was a colonel, within that time frame, when would he have served but in the Revolutionary War? I checked on the D.A.R. website, which obliged me all too well with several Joseph Coles—none of which bore the rank of colonel.

Since the narrative mentioned this Joseph Cole was buried in the church cemetery, I thought I’d wander over to see whether that cemetery was included in the many records on file at Find A Grave. Fortunately—or, perhaps, ominously—the results were more than obliging. I found not one entry for Joseph Cole, but two. In one, he was listed as having been born on May 22, 1750. In the other—which included a more detailed biography—his date of birth was claimed to be March 14, 1750. Both entries provided the same place of birth and death, as well as the same date of death. The entry with the later date of birth also called him Captain Joseph Cole.

This is all well and good. Quibbling about a date of birth that is off by eight days plus one or the other of two months whose names both begin with the letter “M” is trivial at this point—especially considering what else I found in these entries.

Despite having found someone by the right name (Joseph Cole), right location (Washington County A.K.A. Smyth County, Virginia) and right time frame (alive in 1825), this Joseph Cole had a wife by a different name than Janet Tilson. In fact, he had two wives: Remember Cole (yes, that was her maiden name) and Margaret Leeper.

Two chances to miss the right wife. How did that happen? Could this be a different Joseph Cole from that same tiny settlement?

I struggled with this observation, despite knowing both that published genealogies are no less immune to errors than any diligently-researched family tree posted online today, and that websites like Find A Grave often have volunteer-generated entries in error, as well.

And then I remembered one more clue from the Tilson book: if William Tilson had returned to the Coles in Virginia after the death of his wife, he would likely be buried in the same cemetery as his son in law.

Wouldn’t he?


  1. There could have been a Joseph Cole who held rank of Captain, perhaps during the Revolutionary War, and later was appointed Colonel of the County Militia. It would be easy for a seeker to forget that the County Militias had continuing existence, and even that there might be more than one battalion in a given County. Take a look at Hening's Statutes at Large, there could be some clues about post-1783 militia organization.

    1. That's a good point, Geolover. At least in the case of my William Tilson, his military service spanned different entities. It is very possible that the militia could be in that mix--the same going for Joseph Cole.

      However, another concern I have is that there may be more than one contemporary in that area having the same name--and, possibly, the differing military rank, as well.

  2. I don't know if the "information" on this web page helps or not...


    1. Well, it sure doesn't provide any support for a Tilson-Cole wedding, does it? But the sidebar information on the formation of Washington County was helpful.

      Thanks for providing the link, Iggy. There was a lot more detail on other families, as well. I followed some of the links. Interesting.


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