Friday, February 22, 2019

Research Tip: Go Lax on Spelling Demands

It's wonderful to get one's hands on a biography about one's ancestor, but sometimes frustrating when the narrative—thrilling as it may have been—does not seem to line up with reality. What I've discovered, in banging my head against that brick wall, is to be much less rigid in my expectations about mere details like spelling. Or dates. Apparently, we do not live in a century with such laid-back acceptance of approximations.

Try as I might, I had been unable to find any verification of the family mentioned in the King Stockton booklet as having been "wiped out" by native tribes in the area where he had grown up in northern Florida. In particular, I couldn't find any record of the family labeled as that of "Richard Tilley."

Granted, I already had prepared myself to make that exception for creative spelling. But looking for "Tilly" didn't help much in this case.

It wasn't until I pulled out some of the area history books collected during my recent trip to Florida that I ran across a similar story.

You likely remember how the story goes, since I mentioned it just last Monday: at the "Tilley" plantation, Richard's wife was carrying her baby in her arms as she returned from "the lot." She was attacked, and left as presumably dead—though she wasn't...yet.

While I was visiting the Suwannee Valley Genealogical Society library, I asked about acquiring one of the local books, Echoes of the Past: A History of Suwannee County 1858 - 2000. Though it had been published by the Southern Heritage Press back in 2000, it wasn't exactly a book to easily come by at this point. But I got a copy.

Reading through the opening chapter, it only took a short matter of time to spot the following on the fourth page:
In 1841, Indians massacred the wife and four children of Dick Tillis while he was helping neighbors roll logs. Rescuers found one child, Jimmy, still alive, although he had been shot with an arrow.

Tillis? I wouldn't have spotted that on my own—though maybe the judicious use of a wildcard symbol might have surfaced that for me. After all, there weren't many people living in the vicinity at that point in Florida territorial history. It wouldn't have taken long to slog through a list of male heads of household in, say, the 1840 census.

However, trying my hand at that very exercise—well, at least the part about checking the 1840 census—still wouldn't have yielded much without considering a wild card. A very wild card.

Our unfortunate territorial settler Richard could be found in the 1840 census, alright—listed as Tullis. Not quite the Tilley we were first seeking.

As for the mention of his surviving son, Jimmy was indeed alive and still living in Columbia County (predecessor to Suwannee County), along with his father. Richard, as you may have realized, had been off rolling logs when his family was attacked. By the time of the 1850 census, he had apparently remarried, with several children of this second marriage, along with the much-older Jimmy, showing in the record.

Encouragingly, some of the other names of unfortunate families who suffered in similar attacks could also be verified through cross-checking with other records. We'll take a look at some of those other stories from the King Stockton booklet next Monday.

Above: Richard "Tullis" shown in an excerpt from the 1840 census for territorial Florida, specific to Columbia County, from which Suwannee County was later carved; image courtesy


  1. I don’t know how anyone rebounds from the massacre of a wife and 4 children.

    1. It was, indeed, tragic, Wendy. What multiplies the effect is that this wasn't just one isolated incident. These settlers likely had to live by the Spartan mandate to always keep their weapon of self defense within arm's reach.

  2. Those people were tough. What a story Jimmy had:)

  3. Every day I come here for the next chapter in this riveting detective story. For me, this is like an instruction manual. I am inspired to look again for a man written about by my ancestors in the CW letters: JJ Magee. Apparently he had quite a notable career in the RMR regiment, but contemporary newspapers and Census data etc are not giving me much. Maybe "Magee" is an easy name to misspell!

    1. Oh, do keep looking, Lisa! I'm sure those letters contain several fascinating stories.

      Would it be possible that his surname might have been spelled "McGee"? I am trying to think phonetically--and sometimes, those "Mc" names actually were pronounced more like "Ma-". The wildcard character--"*"--may turn out to become your best friend on such impossible missions.

  4. I really enjoy these chapters in the sagas of genealogy families. It is so sad to realize these things happened to real people. There was a lot of devastation in those days.

    1. No matter what frontier we decide to step into as a front-runner, we'll be up for a wild ride and some rough living. Yes, there was devastation back then, but surely those people knew what they were bargaining for. They were gamblers in a new land, hoping for the best with farming, hunting, and whatever else they could do to keep living.

      And then I run into researchers who say, "All my ancestors did was farming..." I'm convinced even "just farmers" had a story to tell, as well.


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