Thursday, September 14, 2017

If Not Why, Perhaps How

As I'm struggling with the brick wall in my family history research, I've wanted to learn just why it was that the descendants of my Mayflower ancestors would have left their by-then-established settlement in Massachusetts to move to the backwoods of Virginia in 1763—and then pick up once again and relocate in northeastern Tennessee.

Just because I want to know the answer doesn't necessarily mean I will find the answer. After the journey I've been on to seek out that answer, the corresponding trip through local history of that era has convinced me that perhaps a more helpful question might be how those ancestors moved beyond their Virginia settlement to their stopping place in Washington County, Tennessee.

Googling and then following my nose has unearthed several helpful sites in this information gathering stage. I already knew that the area in question was once part of a place in the state of North Carolina dubbed the Washington District. After Tennessee statehood, that same location became the "mother county"—the oldest county—of the new state.

I've located lists that serve as finding aids to guide me to further resources as I try to sift through the details and determine just why—and how—my ancestors from Massachusetts eventually ended up in Washington County, Tennessee. Of course, the FamilySearch wiki for Washington County genealogical resources provides many links. Interestingly, so does the Tennessee Secretary of State's website, with two pages providing a list of resources and a more detailed bibliography.

Shifting my focus—rather than looking at what I could find about my ancestors' destination, checking what is available about the land they left—I found a website explaining the history of the old Washington County region of Virginia which contained the Holston River area where my Tilsons once lived.

Better yet, I located a page which explained why settlement in these far-west locations was urged: the government of colonial Virginia saw it as a great scheme for creating a "buffer zone" between more-established immigrant communities in the eastern portion of the colony and the ancient wilderness domain of native populations. To that end, by the 1740s, the government was authorizing land grants, such as the Patton Grant and the Loyal Company Grant.

Having located those resources, I began adding to my reading list. I've found a couple other online articles to read about the westward settlement, back in that era—one of which focuses on southwestern Virginia, the other on a more general review of settlement west of the Blue Ridge mountains.

But this was back in the 1740s. When I think of what must have been available to settlers back then, that's when my mind demands to know just how they managed to do what they did. How did they get to their destination? How did they even decide on that destination? For my Tilson, Davis, and Broyles ancestors, what brought them down the path they selected? In fact, what was the path?

Wondering about "how" led me to seek out articles on the way those ancestors got to their new home. That's when I started circling the details on one particular route, known by various names, but generally called the Wilderness Road. I decided it might be worth my while to see if that Wilderness Road was the route that might have led my wandering ancestors to the promise of better land that they might have been seeking. 


  1. I, too, have ancestors migrating from the north (New York) to Culpepper then NC and found a great webinar on Legacy Family Tree called "What Happened to the State of Frankland - Using Tennessee's Pre-Statehood Records " and found it very helpful. The TN records you are looking for might well be in NC as this is where they were kept until 1796. NC State Archives might be a place to search. Good luck with this. I love reading your unraveling and have learned so much. Thank you!

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words, and for sharing that resource! It turns out that webinar is by J. Mark Lowe, a respected instructor on research in the U.S. South.

      When I read your comment, I was partly thinking, "Of course those documents would be housed in the governmental entity for which they were originally drawn up!"

      But then, I remembered that I had found the 1782 will for another of my ancestors in that same Washington County predating Tennessee statehood, and the repository now is actually the state of Tennessee, despite the fact that when the document was drawn up, the location would actually have been part of North Carolina.

      Either way, it is always good policy to check for archived material in the jurisdiction of the time period in which it was originally created. Thanks so much for that reminder!


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