Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Somewhere Between Two Rivers

When I began this quest to document my line back to the passengers who arrived in the New World on the Mayflower in 1620, I mentioned the effort would likely occur in three parts. The first involves work that has already been done by others—the lists ascertained by the General Society of Mayflower Descendants to be the confirmed lines of descent from each of the documented passengers who had surviving children upon landing at Plymouth.

Thankfully, at the end of that first part, the fifth generation of Alden descendants handily bridges the gap from the Society's Silver Books to a marriage into the Tilson line, another family whose descendants have been thoroughly documented. Thus we have confirmed documentation for the first part of the search, and an honored guide to bring us through the next three generations, from fifth generation Mayflower descendant and Alden descendant Janet Murdock Tilson, through her son William Tilson, to her grandson Peleg Tilson and her great-granddaughter Rachel Tilson.

When we arrive at the time period of those Tilson generations, though, we are also faced with a wandering family. William, having served in the French War, also apparently was said to have served in the American Revolution, according to some records held by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Yet, by the 1763 birth date of his eldest child, he was apparently far removed from his home in Massachusetts, living in a place called Saint Clair in Virginia.

And there's the quandary: where is Saint Clair? If we are researching an era devoid of such documents relied upon in genealogical research of more modern times—birth and death certificates—just how am I to locate the court records verifying the assertions made about these more recent iterations of the Tilson line?

From The Tilson Genealogy itself, I can glean geographic descriptions to gain some assistance in locating where the Tilsons settled in Virginia. For instance, Peleg, son of William, was supposed to have married his wife, Rachel (or, in other records, Rebeccah) Dungan "of Saint Clair, Virginia." But when? And where are the court records?

Peleg's first few children were born in Saint Clair, supposedly, in the 1790s. One gets the feeling this may have occurred in a place so remote that it might not have had the wherewithal to produce governmental documentation.

However, thankfully, his children born toward the end of that decade of the 1790s are reported to have been born in the northeast section of Tennessee.

Yet even that creates a problem. Just where in Tennessee would they have been born? The Tilson genealogy gives the location as "Erwin, Tennessee," yet Erwin was not established as a location until 1876.

Relying on geographic descriptions to determine location proves frustrating, as well. The Tilson Genealogy describes the Saint Clair location where William Tilson settled as in "the west part of Virginia...on the south branch of the Holstein River."

Looking up the "Holstein River" is a less than satisfying experience. There is no Holstein River. There is, however, a Holston River, which meanders for quite some way through southwestern Virginia before getting caught up in the water management system in northeastern Tennessee which has created quite a sizeable lake in the region, courtesy now of a modern system of dams. Likely not the same scenery encountered by William Tilson and family when they settled in the area in the 1790s.

Could the Holston River be the Holstein River described in the Tilson Genealogy? This is a question that could best be served by obtaining and examining old maps of the region. That in itself would have taken time. Fortunately, I happened to notice a comment in the Wikipedia entry for the Holston River, which informed me that earlier French maps had identified the same river as the Cherokee River, and that it was "later named after Stephen Holstein, a European-American settler who built a cabin in 1746 on the upper reaches of the river."

So Holston River was once called Holstein River. I headed over to the Find A Grave entry for some of my Tilson family's burials in a cemetery behind a pre-Revolutionary era church called, encouragingly, Saint Clair's Bottom Primitive Baptist Church. Clicking on the Find A Grave tab for the map to the cemetery, I enlarged the image until I spotted a squiggly blue line, signifying some sort of river or creek near the cemetery. I painstakingly followed that blue squiggle until it came to the place where the thing was actually given a name.

You guessed it: the name of that blue squiggle was indeed "South Fork Holston River." Now discovering that, it appears, then, that the location of the Saint Clair Bottom Primitive Baptist Church where my Tilson ancestors were buried was close to what is now Chilhowie, in Smyth County, Virginia.

Thus was my faith in The Tilson Genealogy restored. But that was only one of two river dilemmas. The Holston River was the one the Tilsons left behind when they moved to their new digs in Tennessee. The other river dilemma involved the river which the Tilsons lived near, once they settled in what was not quite yet the Erwin location mentioned in the Tilson book.

According to The Tilson Genealogy, William's son Peleg moved from Virginia to settle
on the west side of Nola Chucky River, one mile from the mouth of Indian Creek, and south of the Iron Bridge, about three miles from Erwin.

We've already dismissed the possibility of Peleg Tilson settling three miles from Erwin. Whatever he settled near, it wasn't yet a town called Erwin. Nor was there likely, at the turn of the century in 1800, to have been any bridge in the vicinity, let alone an iron bridge. Add to that the difficulty of there being not one but two creeks called Indian Creek (South Indian Creek and North Indian Creek), and it is pretty clear the best way to ascertain just where Peleg Tilson settled would be to find some old plat maps—if, of course, there was a government there to organize that sort of property records.

But where, again, was the river? If you are envisioning a woman by the name of Nola whose memory was perpetuated by its use to designate a river, think again. There is no Nola Chucky, person or river. However, there is the similarly-named Nolichucky River, running right through the very area which later boasted the town of Erwin among its geographic labels.

One wonders, in discovering these two small difficulties, how often other names were misrepresented in what otherwise would have been considered a reliable genealogy. Wonders, too, how often place names and geographic descriptors may have changed, over the years. The Tilson Genealogy, after all, was published in 1911. We have to have the grace to allow for things to have changed.


  1. We have to remember that municipalities are not immortal in most of the US. When the jobs move away, the people move away, and eventually the population drops to the point that the post office closes and the village loses its standing as a municipality for election purposes. Or a neighboring municipality (or airport or industrial development or dam) grows to the point that it swallows the smaller one (officially or otherwise). The local people might know exactly where the name refers to, but what authority keeps that name on its list? Also note that "Holstein" River was not wrong. Instead, some authority changed the spelling to Holston to suit its own needs.

    Treasure those old atlases and gazetteers.

    1. So true, Marian. Sometimes those old maps are our only resources to identify long-gone towns, or trace the evolution of a place name.

      In the case of Erwin, Tennessee--incidentally, originally intended to be named Ervin, in honor of the man who donated land for the downtown area, but switched in error to Erwin on the application to name their first post office in the vicinity--the town is still most definitely in existence.

      Then, too, it was settled long before its official designation as a town. The place was once pioneer territory and, apparently, my ancestors were some of those first settlers in the area. Not only was the town lacking in an official designation for nearly 100 years, but the county in which it was originally established (Washington County) is not the name of the county in which it is currently situated (Unicoi). Even that designation came much later than when the settlement was first established. The roots in that place grow much, much deeper than establishment of any municipality.

  2. Some people just couldn't spell. I had an uncle Ervin, and some to this day call him Erwin...might be a scandinavian thing:)

    1. Funny to hear about your Uncle Ervin, Far Side! And there are many other ways to misspell that Ervin and Erwin name, apparently.

  3. I'm Victoria Lynn Tilson. My father Robert Taylor Tilson was born there in Erwin. My family is also intermarried with the Tiptons,Williams, and Edwards families. They were interwoven in Spivey Mts, Tilson Mt, the Blue Hole area, and along the Nolichucky River. My dad has a Tilson genealogy book that was done in the 1970s that had my name in it.

  4. I'm Victoria Lynn Tilson. My father Robert Taylor Tilson was born there in Erwin. My family is also intermarried with the Tiptons,Williams, and Edwards families. They were interwoven in Spivey Mts, Tilson Mt, the Blue Hole area, and along the Nolichucky River. My dad has a Tilson genealogy book that was done in the 1970s that had my name in it. And by the way, on my mother's side, we are Steven's uprooted and sent to Oklahoma.

    1. V, do you have any family residing around Erwin today?

  5. Hi Jacqi! We have the same remember and place our ancestors in their rightful place in history. Mine is also with this same branch of the Tilson Family but through the daughter Rebecca who married Elisha.
    It's so hard to know where to look! I have started the Mayfliwer application process and my use of the Gilson book was not acceptable. This made document hunting very strenuous as the book listed no references for their documentation. Does the Univ of Virginia hold sources or is someplace else better?
    I would be happy to share what I have.

    1. Kay, I would love to compare notes with you. Please email me at afamilytapestry gmail com and we can discuss this further. Lots of work to do! This will take locating records, likely at or close to their original source. The University of Virginia may well be a resource. I have been hoping to pursue some other sources, as well. I'm interested to see what you've already found.

  6. Thank you for your beautiful style of writing. I am related to Kay, noted above ... we have used the Tilson Genealogy a great deal + are searching for an actual link that our Rebecca Tilson (1792-1831) is in fact a daughter of William Tilson II a sister or a niece to your Peleg. Outside of my going to Washington Co., VA, what might I do to assist your investigation? A 'Peleg Tilson' has in fact been included as a qualified descendant of the Mayflower people. Also, if you are seeking GSMD membership, they have not admitted one new person in over 5 years. Again, your writing style is wonderful, I appreciate and admire it.

    1. Thanks for stopping by--and for introducing yourself as another Tilson cousin! I'm always a firm believer in collaborative work, so perhaps you, Kay, and I could tackle this Tilson question together? Please feel free to contact me by email and let's all three of us do some problem solving on this case. I had started making progress on it in January of 2020--but then Covid hit, and I haven't been back to traveling to research. But I'm sure there are documents out there which could be useful for a cogent proof argument.


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