Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Life of Riley

There comes a time in every swamped researcher's tenure when she just has to take all those disparate strands and find a way to categorize them.

I've thought long and hard about my nine hundred DNA "matches" refusing cooperation. This stalemate has got to stop, I keep telling myself. And yet, I know I have several branches of my family tree which have been abandoned—wide open voids just daring me to fill them—while several specific matches who all seem to match each other on this unknown spectrum simply refuse to connect to any of my lines.

So yesterday, I grabbed one of those recalcitrant surnames by the neck and stared it straight in the eye. Stern warnings that it would not get the best of me were more likely for my own benefit than for anyone else, though. But at least I'll give this a try.

The random surname I grabbed—Riley—belonged to the second wife of my mystery man in Tennessee, William Alexander Boothe. I already know from years of working with a fellow researcher that William, himself, will be more entrenched in his genealogical hiding place than will be his wife. Still, she needed some work done on her line—a lot, in fact. May as well give it a start, now.

Widower William left Virginia with his two sons to settle in Tennessee. Not just any part of Tennessee, though. By 1850, just five years after his younger son was born, William showed up in the census for Washington County, Tennessee—the very place that now dubs itself "The Birthplace of Tennessee." Just four years later, in that same county, he and Rachel Teresa Riley were married on September 12. And until his death in 1895, William Alexander Boothe remained in Washington County.

When you think of Tennessee, no doubt you have a certain image about that locale. Washington County, as it turns out, may not fit so nicely into that image. While the rest of Tennessee is comfortable with being pigeonholed into the regional category called "The South," Washington County may not have been, historically, as satisfied with that label.

When it was first officially designated as a county, the area which was to become Washington County was established by the neighboring state of North Carolina in 1777. Of course, included within those county lines was territory encompassing what later became nearly the entire state of Tennessee. A little editing of that extensive land grab, however, became a contentious matter. Washington County became part of the newly-claimed State of Franklin in the 1780s, and after a battle in 1788, became part of lands designated as the Southwest Territory. Statehood for Tennessee—and new political designation for Washington County—became official in 1796.

That wasn't the end of contention for the northeastern "overmountain" territory of Washington County. Much later, as the Civil War drew close, the vote for secession was strong in most of the state of Tennessee—all except for (you guessed it) Washington County.

The reason I take this seeming detour into the county's history is because it seems to match my own family's story there. Southern in everything but politics, my maternal grandfather's lines may have resonated with the spirit of the region. William Alexander Boothe, according to another family researcher, may have been rumored to have left his home in Virginia, not because of grief over the loss of his wife, but concern over the loss of his finances. A renegade like this would have found the hideout in Washington County to be just what he needed.

Then, too, he may have married into a family with a like spirit. Father of his bride, William Riley, was portrayed by this same family researcher as having skipped out on some responsibilities back home in North Carolina, himself—perhaps even changing his name with the move to Washington County.

What was it with this Riley family? I could trace them in the 1850 through 1870 census—and then they disappear. Was it because of dissatisfaction over the state's decision to side with the South during the Civil War that caused William Riley's only son to pick up and abruptly move to Indiana? Or was that even the same Riley?

Whatever was the cause behind the difficulties in tracking this Riley family, it's a challenge I can't ignore any more. What if this Riley line funnels into the descendants who are trying to connect with me as DNA matches right now? Like it or not, I'm going to have to decipher whatever became of the William Riley family of Washington County, Tennessee at some point. It may as well be now.

Above: "The Blacksmith's Shop," 1871 oil on canvas by Dutch-Canadian artist, Cornelius Krieghoff; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. Replies
    1. Oh, gladly. Only...this one might not give up and surrender without a trip to Tennessee!


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