Thursday, December 15, 2016

When That Theory Didn't Work Out

In searching for details on our ancestors, we sometimes have to form hypotheses and then go test them against the facts of documents and records. Looking for someone with a name as common as William Riley, I found myself coming up with a lot of theories.

Locating a man by the same name and similar date of birth, back in Tennessee, when our Tennessee Rileys had (theoretically) moved to Indiana, I discovered a burial record indicating this William F. Riley had volunteered to serve in the Mexican War. Not having researched any ancestors directly involved in this conflict, step one was to get up to speed on the overarching history of the Mexican War.

Since the one record I had found on this William F. Riley provided further information on his pension documents, but since I had, unfortunately, discontinued my subscription to such sources of military information as Fold3, I had originally assumed I'd have to give up the chase until I could renew my subscription there. Except...when in doubt, I always try to remember to take a spin through the wiki at

As it turned out, there were plenty of entries for "Mexican War" at FamilySearch. From an overview page on Mexican-American War pension records, I learned there were some records available online. Fortunately, the few states included in this online collection included Tennessee, where my target William F. Riley had signed up for duty. I took a look at the United States Mexican War Pension Index for 1887 through 1926, to see whether there was a match for the record I had already found.

There was a card on file for a William F. Riley, who had enlisted in Tennessee, but lived in Indiana at the time in which he applied for his pension—February 10, 1887. At the bottom of the page, I happened to notice a line labeled "Bounty Lands," which made me wonder whether that might have been the incentive for our William Riley to leave home in Tennessee. So I hopped over to the Bureau of Land Management's Government Land Records page online. Sure enough, there was an entry for a William Frank Riley, who purchased land in Indiana. Unfortunately, though, the entry designated him as William Riley of Decatur County; our William Riley lived in Putnam County—at least in the 1870 census. The land document, as it turned out, was dated in December of 1849.

True, he could have gotten the land, then turned around and headed to Tennessee to claim his bride and then zoom back to his new Indiana home. But doesn't that feel just a tad too much like pushing the details to fit a narrative?

Worse, another page in his pension records—there were two entries that I could find at FamilySearch—came out and flatly put an end to wondering. The Mary Riley mentioned in the document I had found yesterday was specifically identified as his widow in this record.

Yes, I know this could be our William's second wife—women often died young in these earlier eras. And realizing how much detail sometimes went into such widow's pension files as were documented after the Civil War, I could hope that some of the same obsession with details care would have been evident in this earlier time period. But I could also take the alternate approach of trying to determine just what happened to our William's wife, Eliza.

In the end, having also been frustrated by lack of any further clues as to what became of William's children, let alone what happened to his own siblings (other than my second great grandmother, his one sibling I have been able to trace), I decided to set aside this search for the time being. There may be a time in the near future where more records will be available to reveal details hidden from view right now. Patience is definitely a valuable companion to the long-range researcher.

But for now, I'm quite tempted to assume that the William F. Riley we found in Indiana isn't one and the same as the William F. Riley related to my second great grandmother, Rachel Teresa Riley Boothe of Tennessee.

Above: Scene with Ice Skating, 1613 oil on panel by Flemish painter Pieter Brueghel the Younger; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.  


  1. Replies
    1. Well, I'll be adding that to my New Year's resolutions...

  2. Hmmm... the plot got complicated...

    1. Well, let's hope playing the waiting game is the key to a resolution here. It seems there are always more digitized records to come. I sure hope so; I won't be traveling in that direction for a long time to come.


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