Friday, April 15, 2016

A Home for Mary

A genealogist may seek out details on a couple's descendants in order to trace the line through further generations for specific reasons. In the case of the missionaries to India, Peachy T. and Mary Whitcomb Wilson, I needed to research descendants from two generations for one reason: I needed to find where the motherless Wilson children were raised.

Upon Mary Whitcomb Wilson's death, back in the United States in 1874, the Reverend Wilson had seen fit to return to India. There was only one complication: what to do with the children. With his wife gone, someone else would need to care for these young ones. Perhaps India was not, after all, the best place to raise them. According to reports, their father decided to find homes for them in America before returning, alone, to India.

The most logical place to find these children—at least, that's what I thought—would be with family members. That's why I was elated to find listings of Mary Whitcomb's siblings in the White genealogy I mentioned the other day. On the same page as her own entry, there were sections for each of Mary Whitcomb's two surviving sisters. I checked them carefully for possibilities that they might have taken in the Wilson children.

No such luck. As it turned out, one of the two married sisters—Nancy—had died within the very month in which she had married James M. Robbins. No chance she would turn out to be the doting aunt, having passed in 1866, long before the Wilson children had even returned home.

The other sister, Ellen, didn't marry until she was in her late forties. Besides, the year of her marriage—1889—was much too late to make a suitable household arrangement for the Wilson children, either.

I was gearing up to do a thorough search among Peachy's six brothers, to see who might have taken his children in, when I stumbled upon that hint of his daughter's subsequent marriage to someone named Gill. It wasn't long after I began googling for a Mary Wilson Gill that I came across one detail that seemed sure to be just the hint I was seeking.

The document was Mary's 1917 application for a passport. Just like her father after the death of his spouse, the widowed Mrs. Mary Gill was intent upon returning to India, and was set to sail in November or December of that same year.

I knew I had the right passport application, for she identified herself as daughter of Peachy T. Wilson, who was born in Christian County, Kentucky—which he was. She then further identified herself as widow of Joseph H. Gill, and explained the timeline of his emigration from County Tyrone in Ireland to school in Evanston, Illinois, via New York City—including date and location of his naturalization formalities.

In addition, she identified her "permanent residence" in the United States: a town in Illinois called Pekin (which in later missionary reports was rendered as "Peking," causing some confusion). Even better, additional pages of the application provided statements in support of her birth information by people who knew her since childhood—a type of delayed birth report, as evidently she had no documentation from the time of her birth in India.

One statement, by a man named Walter T. Smith—oh, Smith...did it have to be Smith?!—affirmed that he knew "the above named Mary Wilson Gill personally for forty years." I did a little quick math on that one, arriving at a date in 1877, only three years after Mary's mother had died. Conceding that might be close enough, I noticed that Mr. Smith's residence also happened to be in Pekin, Illinois.

Even better than that was the statement given on the subsequent page, by a Caroline Pieper Smith,
This is to certify that Mary Wilson Gill lived with me from June 1874 to February 1891 and that her father Rev. Peachy T. Wilson informed me that Mary Wilson Gill was born on July 10th 1865 at Rae Bareilly U.P. India.

What more could I ask? This must have been the couple who took in the Wilson children! How plain it all seemed, now. All I had to do was search for the 1880 census—the only possible year in which Mary would show in the enumeration in that household—and I would have the proof to back up this statement. wasn't so easy. For one thing, there wasn't any Mary Wilson in Pekin, Illinois, in 1880—at least, not one who was born in 1865 in India. As for husband and wife, Walter and Caroline Smith, there wasn't one of those couples, either.

What I did find, however, will suffice me—I hope. Sure enough, in Pekin, there was a Smith household in the 1880 census which contained a Walter and a Caroline, but Walter turned out to be the fifteen year old son of Caroline and her husband, D. C. (don't you hate those initials?) Smith.

The significant detail about that particular Smith household was not only the lack of anyone with a surname Wilson, but the listing of the rest of the children. After their oldest son Walter, the rest of the children were named, in order: daughter Mary, son Earnest, daughter Mary, son Dedrick, daughter Carry, son Austin.

Yes, you read that right: two daughters named Mary.

What was interesting about that older Mary—whose age was given as fourteen in this enumeration—was that, unlike all her "siblings" whose place of birth was in Illinois, hers was listed as something that looked like "Hindostin." And unlike the pattern of parents' birthplace listings for all the other children—father from Hanover, mother from Illinois—this Mary's father was from "Ketucky" and there was no entry for mother's place of birth.

I don't know about you, but I'd buy that as evidence of Mary's childhood home.

With no sign of her brothers, though, we'll have to look elsewhere for clues as to what became of them. Since it seems Mary's surrogate parents were not close relatives, the possibilities on this next search could be endless.

Above: Images from the 1880 United States census for Tazewell County, Illinois, courtesy


  1. My 2X great-grandfather took in a neighbor's son when the family had just too many children to care for financially. I would look at the Wilsons' neighbors in earlier censuses.

    1. That's a great reminder to keep in mind, Wendy! You can learn a lot by keeping an eye on those neighbors.

  2. Wow. Looks like the kids were broken up and sent to different families. I've a close cousin in which this sort of thing happened - they remained a "family" since they went to homes that were close together.

    1. I'm afraid that's exactly what happened, Iggy. We'll likely find ourselves looking for as many households as children--including that one mystery baby who reportedly was born after the Wilsons' arrival back home in the United States.

  3. Mary Wilson did indeed live with Dietrich Conrad Smith and Caroline Pieper Smith, my great-grandparents, in Pekin, Illinois. Apparently D.C. Smith found homes for the other children with friends in Chicago. The connection may have been that D.C. Smith and Mary's father were classmates at Quincy College (Quincy German and English Seminary, now defunct.)


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