Sunday, April 17, 2016

Seeking William

What little clues we sometimes have to go on in reconstructing the lives of family from past centuries. Add to that complicated lives, and it gives you a puzzle worthy of late night frustration, despite the wonders of instant online access to genealogical records.

The only hint that could be found for William, eldest son of missionary Peachy T. Wilson, was thanks to a newspaper article tucked away in obscure Helena, Montana. This was certainly far from the Illinois home left behind when the widowed Reverend Wilson decided to return to India, the land of his calling. All we had been aware of, before that hint, was that this father had "arranged homes" in which to place his children so that they could be raised in their homeland—and, presumably, with a surrogate mother's touch.

Despite the bonus of that hint, we discovered it in the midst of an article explaining how the Reverend was in town, hoping to visit his son before the end of his furlough, when he would again return to India. The difficult realization came when The Daily Independent revealed the distress of the visit: Peachy was indeed at the very place he and his son had planned to meet, but William was nowhere to be found.

The newspaper had, thankfully, given a timeline of William's life—his twenty seven years up to that point of disappearance—and had provided one additional clue for our own search: that he had been raised by an uncle.

Considering that Peachy Wilson had six brothers—almost none of whom I've been able to find documentation for, past their appearance in their widowed mother's household in the 1850 census—the search to find the right uncle who served as William's caretaker would be a challenge. But I was willing to give it a try. Still, remembering the difficulty in locating William's older sister, Mary—who, as we've seen, was listed in the 1880 census as part of a family which was no relation to her, and in which household her own surname never even appeared—I had my doubts of any success in the search for William.

Sometimes, when I'm stuck on a search, it helps to construct a timeline. Granted, the Daily Independent gave me a rough sketch of William's later years, and the passenger listing when the family had returned home from India provided a few other key dates. Putting both of these resources together, here's the snapshot that emerged of William's short life, up to the 1894 date at which he disappeared:
  • born, approximately 1867, in India
  • arrived with his family in New York City, April 4, 1873
  • death of his mother, May 23, 1874, in Springfield, Illinois
  • placement with his uncle, approximately 1874
  • about 1888, left for Custer County, Montana
  • about 1890, moved to Choteau County, Montana to work for C. Wallace Taylor
  • winter of 1892-1893, moved to Helena
  • March 1894, letter from his father returned, not delivered

In that brief window of time at his uncle's household, the only possible census in which he might be located would be the 1880 census. It was already clear that this would be an uncle on his paternal side, for his mother had only sisters and, as we've already noted, neither of those two would have been possible candidates to accept placement of a child in 1874.

Whether it was Thornton, William, Alexander, Henry, Daniel or John, the chase was now on to figure out just where Peachy's six brothers were in 1880. Although I made little headway—other than to determine that Daniel was listed by his middle name, "Harvey," and living as a single adult still in his mother's household—that all changed when I remembered one thing.

In that era, it was customary for gentlemen to go by their initials rather than by their given names.

Armed with that tactic, I was off, seeking the household of a Wilson sans first name, living with a nephew from India. 


  1. Hope you find him, perhaps he was sick and could not meet his Father:)

    1. I keep hoping it was a mix-up like that, Far Side. It does seem odd that William would just disappear. However, we are talking about a winter in Montana. Who knows...

  2. seems possible. The newspaper announcement of his death says nothing.

    1. Oops, wrong one. He wasn't that old - in 1897 -

      I am reminded of the John Denver song, "Wild Montana Skies".

      His mother died that summer and he never learned to cry
      He never knew his father and he never did ask why
      And he never knew the answers that would make an easy way
      But he learned to know the wilderness and to be a man that way..

    2. Actually, Iggy, I believe this headstone is for the same man mentioned in the newspaper link you sent. There was a more detailed obituary later on down the page in that link, which contained some date errors. It appears he was the same man as the newspaper's report. He was a Mason, died in the same year as the obit, and (despite the inaccurate report of birth year), most likely born in 1868, in agreement with the headstone. The obit and the headstone are, in my opinion, for the same William Wilson. Just wish he were ours...

      How fitting the words of that song are to our Wilson scenario!


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