Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Keepers of the Family Stories

Most families manage to pass down some of the stories of their ancestors to the next generation. In many cases, those are oral traditions, which run the risk of inadvertent alteration. In the case of the Gilmer family—those ancestors to whom missionary Peachy Taliaferro Wilson can point when affixing responsibility for his rather unwieldy given name—they can claim the good fortune of having at least two books compiled for that very purpose of preservation of family history.

One of those books was not the anticipated dull, dry tome that you might expect for a genealogical litany of begats, but a volume spiced with anecdotes of strong personalities, punctuated by the author's own wry comments. While a writer nowadays might not be able to get away with some of the revealing observations tucked between the covers of Sketches of Some of the First Settlers of Upper Georgia, the candid remarks by author George Rockingham Gilmer afford us a glimpse of life for these family members which we might not otherwise see.

The other book, privately printed nearly fifty years after the earlier Gilmer edition, was written by John Gilmer Speed and published along with a genealogical record compiled by Louisa H. A. Minor. It is in this edition, The Gilmers in America, that the issue of conflicting reports of the origin of the Peachy name surfaced.

This later researcher observed, "The name Peachy Ridgway Gilmer will be found to recur very frequently in the Gilmer record"—which is true—and began to provide the various explanations of why that might be. All have to do with the original Gilmer settler in America, a Scottish doctor named George Gilmer who—not unlike many men of that period and circumstances—was married three times.

The first wife was said to be the only child of a London doctor with whom Dr. Gilmer had worked, by name of Ridgway. According to the Speed book,
In one branch of the family at least there was a tradition that Dr. Ridgway's wife was the daughter of a French military man named Peachy, and that the name "Peachy Ridgway," given to Dr. Gilmer's first son, was a combination of the two family names of his first wife.

"I doubt this," was the blunt assessment given by the author. For one thing, the young couple were privately married just before Dr. Gilmer took an assignment in 1731 by the directors of the Royal Land Company to examine and report on some large properties in the British colony of Virginia, which he did, leaving his wife in London. Upon his return home almost a year later, he was greeted with the unfortunate news that his wife had died in his absence.

Understandably, one would presume that Dr. Gilmer's first son could be named Peachy Ridgway Gilmer—which he was. One could also presume that that son would have been given two family names from his maternal side.

The only problem with that scenario was: that son's mother wasn't likely Dr. Gilmer's first wife, the daughter of Dr. Ridgway and the French military man, supposedly named Peachy. That son was born to the second wife of the good doctor.

Some parts of the family assert that the name was given in honor of that beloved first wife, even though she was not the mother of the child. And yet, knowing the full name of second wife—referred to as "Miss Walker" in some documents—was Mary Peachy Walker, it seems more reasonable that the Peachy came not from any French military ancestor of a previous marriage, but from the maiden name of his own mother.

All that, and even more detail on the controversy, was provided in a three-page-long footnote beginning on page eight of the Speed book. Still, it doesn't speak to the issue of where the Ridgway name did come from. Perhaps the true explanation lies somewhere in the middle: a little of the one tradition for the Ridgway portion, the rest dependent on the documentation referred to in the Speed book, alluding back to the Gilmer book and the underlying basis supporting that earlier book—the Gilmer family Bible.

In that record, at that point in the hands of the author, the former Georgia governor, George R. Gilmer quoted:
     Mary Peachy Walker, daughter of Thomas and Susan Walker, of King and Queen, was married by the Rev. Mr. Jno. Skaife, at his house, her Stepfather, to George Gilmer, May 13, 1732.
     March 6th, 1737-8. A son born, christened the 20th by the Rev. Mr. Hith, by the name of Peachy Ridgway...

Quite clearly the son of Dr. Gilmer's second wife, this Peachy Ridgway Gilmer, no matter how he happened upon his name, became the inspiration for several namesakes in subsequent generations. As to how well-received the gift of this honorable mention might have been, the author commented,
The present generation of the families that once were proud to call their children Peachy appear to think the name not entirely lovely, for I know of several instances where pseudonyms have been adopted instead of the once highly cherished Peachy.

While John Gilmer Speed wrote his family history in 1897—just one year before our P. T. Wilson's death—I can't help wondering whether that was the case for our Peachy. Or was his a name simply subsumed by the era's penchant for addressing gentlemen by their double initials?


  1. If the second book was written before P.T. died, did the author interview him? I wonder what P.T.'s understanding of his name was.

    1. Now that's an interesting thought, Wendy: that the author would have actually interviewed him. The only thing I can tell is that the second author did know about his being a missionary, for that is the only comment included among the listings of P.T. Wilson and his siblings in that family grouping.

  2. The family lore is now peach cobbler!

    1. Don't you wish some of these family details could just be known, and not remain such enigmatic possibilities?!

  3. Replies
    1. That is a good point, isn't it, Far Side? My guess is that enough people of that generation knew that P.T. Wilson was a missionary that any number of relatives could have reported that to the author. Since he returned as a self-funded missionary, perhaps some of those family members even put their money where their mouth was.


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