Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Following the Dotted Line

Some pedigree paths lead clearly from the current generation to those sought-after ancestors. Mine, sadly, do not. Even my Virginia ancestors—the ones I'm currently chasing—have turned out to be more stubborn than the stereotypical genteel aristocratic leanings of Virginia roots might have suggested. However, let us not presume that their Virginia origin, despite bestowing upon them citizenship at the Center of the Universe, confirms that aristocratic status. Among this untraceable lot may lurk forefathers wanted for skipping out on debt or, at the very least, pushing the edges of legality.

Let's look, today, at one of my second great-grandfathers, whom we suspect may have done just that: skipped town when bankruptcy stared him down. Tomorrow, we'll follow up with another Virginian who camped out just on the other side of permissible Virginian territory. Either way, it's easy to see why the paper trail didn't quite keep pace with these escaping ancestors.

The story, as I originally heard it nearly twenty years ago, came to me from another family researcher. He was a second cousin to my mother, though I doubt she ever met him or was even aware of his existence. He was, however, a determined and diligent family historian who left a trail of research information on the Boothe line all over the then-nascent Internet. After seeing his posts on such relics of pre-web existence as GeoCities, I finally got in touch with him by email, followed by telephone.

What I learned from this researcher was that this man—my second great-grandfather—was known as William Alexander Boothe, and that, though living in northeastern Tennessee, had been born in a place called Nansemond County, Virginia. He had come to Tennessee not as a single man, but as a widower with two young sons, having left Virginia, according to my researching Boothe cousin, on account of some bad debts after the death of his wife. My informant believed William Alexander Boothe may have fancied horses a bit more than his pocket could afford, and perhaps had squandered his money on that era's equivalent of bright, shiny sports cars in hopes of improving his social status.

For whatever reason, his midlife-crisis ruse didn't work, and the widower Boothe made his escape from Nansemond—relatively close to the border with North Carolina—to Washington County, Tennessee, nestled in the corner between the borders with North Carolina and Tennessee.

While I've been told he was born in 1812, I've yet to find the names of his parents—or even the name of his first wife. In census records for his newly-adopted home in Tennessee—in 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880—he consistently used the name Alexander Boothe rather than William. That, likewise, was the name registered for his marriage to my second great-grandmother, Rachel Riley. It wasn't until I had located an entry at Find A Grave that I saw the use of the name William.

Revisiting that Find A Grave memorial now reveals that someone has posted the name of his parents—though I have yet to find any paper trail to support that contention. And that is my problem: I don't want to presume, based on someone else's post on a website. I need to find these documents for myself.

Finding them, however, will be a challenge. If, for instance, my William Alexander Boothe was truly born in Nansemond County, Virginia, that county is no longer in existence. And while some records are now held at the Independent City Courthouse in Suffolk, civil records for birth and marriage were only kept beginning with the year 1853, eliminating any chance to find his first marriage record, and certainly any hope of finding a birth record for William Alexander or even his sons, both of whom were born before 1850. I won't mourn that problem much, though, for even if they had been kept, those records would have been lost in a fire there in 1866.

Fleeing financial woes might have been bad news for my second great-grandfather, but that might have turned into good news for a researcher like me: while governments might not have kept the best records in the past for births, they certainly took care to track the flow of money, especially when it came to taxes. If Mr. Boothe skipped out on account of money issues, there is sure to be a paper trail—or perhaps even a newspaper report—to point me in the right direction.

While we may not mention genealogical research and skip tracing in the same breath, such search techniques might come in handy in seeking the path of my second great-grandfather from Virginia to Tennessee. That—and a thorough overview of available record sets from that era of Virginia history—are some of the main reasons I'm looking forward to that class in Virginia research at SLIG 2020. However, you can be sure I won't wait until January to begin the investigation. 

Above: Map showing the now-extinct Nansemond County, just above the border with North Carolina, from an 1895 map of Virginia; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. Welcome to the fun of Virginia research! You’re in my territory now, so if I can help, give a holler.

    1. Wendy, whenever I think of Virginia research, you are the first person who comes to mind! While I'm so grateful for your offer, better yet would be if I could get to Virginia myself--and then include a chance to meet up with you!

  2. I love reading the different methods you use to track down information.

    1. Thanks, Miss Merry. You know me: I'll try almost anything, if it will help find the answers about my mystery ancestors.


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