Sunday, April 3, 2016

Hiding Behind Those Innocuous Initials

It is that custom of affixing double initials to the front of a gentleman's surname—followed suit almost as maddeningly by his wife with the title "Mrs." to precede the entire enigma—that becomes frustrating to the persistent genealogist seeking full-named identities. What I realized, in uncovering the story of the distant cousin whose name ended up in a well-known novella of the era, is that just as some men grew beards or mustaches to disguise a misshapen jaw line or upper lip, some men opted to use initials rather than bear the burden of an impossible given name.

Such may be the case with P. T. Wilson.

Wilson? You may ask that with eyebrows raised, for Wilson is no rarity in the English-speaking universe of surnames. The initials preceding it, I assure you, are much less common—as is the man's life story, itself.

The Reverend Doctor P. T. Wilson made his first arrival in India on January 20, 1863, having left Boston harbor in the company of eight others in his party. These nine were bound for Calcutta for one express reason: to serve as missionaries by appointment to a special location in that foreign country.

At the time of his first appointment, he was not yet a medical doctor—that addition to his professional repertoire came during a long furlough back in the states on account of his broken health, attributed to the living conditions in India. The Reverend Wilson, persistent on completing his mission, returned—likely against all medical advice—to serve at various posts throughout the subcontinent for the remainder of his life.

The son of William Wilson and his wife, Lucy Walker Gilmer, P. T. Wilson entered this life in Christian County, Kentucky, on October 26, 1832. The family soon moved to Illinois, where the young man graduated from what was then known as McKendree College. Following this, he attended a course of theological training at a school in Evanston, Illinois, which led up to his appointment as a missionary to India.

In the ten years of his initial appointment, the missionary had married a fellow missionary from the United States. Though the couple had had four children, apparently his wife had also suffered, healthwise, from her stay in India, and subsequently passed away during the years of their furlough.

It was during this time that the missionary determined to attain a medical degree, which he did in California, then followed this with further medical training at a school in Chicago.

Astoundingly, the new doctor was so intent on returning to India that he went as a self-supporting missionary—a telltale sign that no missionary society was willing to appoint a man in such broken physical condition to a post in the very location that had ruined his health in the first place. Even so, P. T. Wilson continued serving in the country of his calling for another twenty years, twice the span of his original post.

In whatever material I found recounting the Reverend's service in India, he was always referred to as "Rev. P. T. Wilson," never including either his first or middle name. Perhaps that was simply a device of the era; we genealogists have become used to gritting our teeth at the inconvenient custom because it was so common. And yet, there was no secret what those two letters stood for; they are easily uncovered, despite the era's convention.

I can't help but wonder, however, what the man thought of his own name. You see, though Wilson is a common enough surname, neither the P nor the T represented anything a parent would want to name their child, today. When we look at those choices through genealogical eyes, though, I can see the reasons for the choices: they recall ancestors the family held in a great deal of respect.

While hearing the initials "P. T." may conjure up memories of a famous name claiming those same two initials—P. T. Barnum—I warn you not to jump to that conclusion. This was not another Phineas Taylor Barnum.

In my family, any time I see a middle initial beginning with "T," it brings to mind the oft-used surname of my maternal line: Taliaferro. If you had guessed that for the Reverend's middle name, you are quite perceptive—as well as possessed of an impressive memory.

It's the first initial, however, that gets complicated—and may include one of those unreliable family legends. There is a reason for the choice of name hiding behind that "P," but it will take quite a bit of explanation.


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