Thursday, December 10, 2015

Messy Lives Don't Yield Easy Research

Think of all the difficulties that face any one of our families today—the serious illnesses, the premature deaths, the divorces, the job losses and transcontinental career changes—and then, imagine trying to put that story back together again, after the passage of two or three hundred years. Oh—and do it with only three documents or less per family member.

After all the twists and turns you know Life comes packaged in, think you could reconstruct a three dimensional narrative of that ancestor's family story?

I mentioned yesterday about one family in my mother-in-law's line, one that I called a mystery. It isn't exactly a mystery. Somewhere, likely, there may be papers that could give me some clues. But I haven't found them yet.

Complicating matters is that handy little custom among many cultures of naming children after their parents or other ancestors. Trouble is, when a good percentage of the next generation sports that same given name—bestowed, incidentally, to all within an age range of five years or less—it becomes rough going on the research road.

That was the case—well, at least my case—with the William Gordon I referred to yesterday. William was evidently a popular name in the Gordon family, or at least in that branch of the Gordons who emigrated from Pennsylvania to Perry County, Ohio, in the early 1800s. But that wasn't the only name seeing multiple repeats over the years. William's son Adam may have had a close cousin with the same given name as his own, too.

The case with our William Gordon was that he was named as my mother-in-law's second great grandfather, and father of her great grandfather, Adam Gordon. It even says so on Adam's death certificate.

The problem isn't so much with Adam's father's name. It has more to do with his mother. In the death certificate, above, it's pretty clearly listed as "Lida Miller." In other places, I've seen her name written as Lidia. According to Perry County records, Lidia married William Gordon on April 24, 1838. Adam followed soon after, arriving in February of the subsequent year.

The next time I see any mention of Lidia was in the death index for Perry County. There, it indicates that she died January 6, 1840—once again, barely a year after the last time the family was officially documented.

I had presumed she had died in childbirth or shortly thereafter. She was of an age where that could be a possible risk. As for her husband, it had appeared that he simply dropped out of sight.

Working with another Gordon family researcher, we thought we spied William surface with another part of the Gordon family in Fort Wayne, Indiana. But then, there was this other William whose early demise was marked by a fuzzy headstone photograph we had snagged during our last trip to Perry County. (Fortunately, a Find A Grave volunteer captured a much clearer shot of the difficult-to-read inscription on that stone, showing William to have lived for "23 years, 11 months & 4 days, may his soul rest in peace, Amen.")

So, did Lidia die in January 1840, and her husband follow her later that same year? It seems possible. He was young enough to fit the image of a young father at the point of his death. Furthermore, in the 1850 census for Perry County, there was his son, Adam, living in the home of an elderly widow by the name of Mary Gordon—which, coincidentally, was the name of William's mother. Could Adam's grandmother have taken in this orphaned child?

What about the William who supposedly married and moved on to Fort Wayne? There was a William in Perry County who was married in 1847—actually, there were two of them. This is enough to give me pause. Was it my William who passed away in 1840, or not? If not, which 1847 wedding involved my William? Or was he not involved in any of that?

As if that many Williams were enough to confuse the average researcher, Find A Grave volunteers bring up another wrinkle in the record: an entry for a William M. Gordon, with a date of death given as February 25, 1841. There is no photograph of any headstone, but the volunteer makes the additional entry that this William was the son of "William and Lydia" and that his age was "1 M." If that meant an age of one month, we have a problem here. Do the math: it doesn't add up.

This is one of those rare times when I wish for the services of a juicy gossip column in the local newspaper. A tell-all column may not always be a bad thing.


  1. Oh I know how something like this affects me: I can easily skip meals determined to figure it out. You're good at this. You'll probably be able to solve the mystery on a full stomach.

    1. If only that were so, Wendy...but I'm more likely to forget about eating when hot on the trail of an elusive ancestor.

  2. I'm doing the math.

    These two were too young to pass on. :(

    1. This is one of those instances that wakes me up to the fact of how good we have it in life now. We really have no idea...


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