Monday, February 15, 2016

Stalking Surnames

Wendy mentioned something the other day that got me thinking. Worse, it spirited me away down one of those rabbit trails I just can't seem to resist. In discussing those seemingly close connections to presidential ancestors—and those misleading names that turned out to be ancestors merely named after those famous men—Wendy's comment was
I also have a couple Zachary Taylors, and the home of the Zachary Taylor was in the neighborhood. There were a lot of men by this name in the same time period, so I can't be sure if my family was rubbing elbows with the future president or not.

Lest you jump to the conclusion that the likely answer was "or not," let's take a look at some possibilities. When Wendy mentioned Zach Taylor, my mind immediately flew to a Zach Taylor I knew in my own family tree. Of course, that was pushing the limit, as my Zach Taylor was actually a Zacharias—not to mention, of a totally different time frame than the real president, Zachary Taylor, 1784 - 1850.

The Taylor link—despite any warning alarms emerging from the surname being such a common one—was too tantalizing for me, and I had to go fishing for Zachary Taylor sightings in a few family trees.

My first stop was to see just who the real Zachary Taylor claimed as his parentage. A quick and dirty check on Wikipedia—and everyone knows "how unreliable Wikipedia can be"—showed his parents to be Richard Taylor and Sarah Dabney Strother.

Wait. Strother? I've seen that name before, somewhere...

I pulled up the Strothers in my own family tree. Remember, when talking about my seventh great grandparents in common with John Syme Hogue during that recent series on his life, that umpteenth great grandmother Margaret Watts married someone by the name of Strother. Could there be a connection?

No such luck. Not even on account of the Dabney, though I have that surname tucked somewhere in my family tree, as well. However, I have no Sarah Dabney Strother listed. But I shouldn't have been surprised. This little bunny trail was replicating an methodology almost as ill-advised as finding a D.A.R. Patriot and then trying to match your own line to that man's family. It seldom is an exercise that works.

Not to be deterred by reason, I tried another approach. I Googled the name, "Sarah Dabney Strother." Surely, there was a Strother in there somewhere for me!

Yes! It was to the rescue, with a page outlining their genealogical records for Sarah Dabney Strother, wife of Richard Taylor and mother of the president, Zachary Taylor. The page listed Sarah's parents—neither of which, for whatever reason, rang a bell with me—so I clicked through to see if perhaps her parents' page would reveal any siblings whose names better matched my own tree.

How short-sighted I was. Focused so much on my own matrilineal line, I had been concentrating, in my own work, on the wife of my Strother—Margaret Watts—and had totally lost track of her husband's name. It was William. And—oh, duh!—so was Sarah Dabney Strother's father's name.

Yes, as often happened back in those days, Sarah's father—at least, if we can rely on Ancestry's thumbnail sketch of this family tree—had been married twice. It was his second marriage, to Sarah Bailey, that produced daughters Susannah and Sarah—that Sarah, specifically, who became the mother of the future president of the United States, Zachary Taylor.

That marriage, of course, I had yet to discover on my own. All I had known about was William Strother's first marriage—the one to Margaret Watts which produced the five daughters I had known about, including my matrilineal ancestor, Jane Strother Lewis, as well as Jane's sisters Margaret (from whom John Syme Hogue descended) and Agatha (from whom came my near-miss relationship with President James Madison).

Now, with his second wife, my seventh great grandfather evidently became the progenitor of a president, after all—President Zachary Taylor, who was born in Virginia in 1784, died while in office in Washington, D.C., in 1850 and was eventually buried in the Taylor family plot in Louisville, Kentucky.

So, Wendy, who knows? Even with a surname as common as Taylor—and even with as many Zacharys as you mentioned being "in the neighborhood"—perhaps you stand a chance to claim a president in your lineage, too. And if so, I guess that makes the two of us cousins, as well. 

Above: Engraved portrait of President Zachary Taylor by the United States Bureau of Engraving and Printing; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. Now I really feel like an idiot. I just did some quick reading about ol' Zach only to discover he left Virginia at a very young age. Montebello was his home for just a short while. Therefore, it is not likely my family even heard of him let alone rubbed elbows. The Zachary Taylor who enumerated their names in the early census was just some other ZT. No cousin connection yet~

    1. It's understandable, Wendy. There were certainly plenty of those ZTs around at the time! That's why I don't mind boning up on the background details via Wikipedia, either--a quick way to brief yourself on the parameters of a potential search before getting immersed in it all.

  2. Replies
    1. It's funny what stuff can turn up, if you go back far enough!

  3. I find it interesting to see "who is popular" at the time when parents give their babies names. I've some George Washington's (3x), Benjamen Franklin, Winfield Scott (Hancock, the Civil War General) and John Madison (all first and middle names) for starters. :)


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