Monday, December 9, 2019

Pursuing a Family Secret

Has your genealogical research ever been complicated by a family legend? I know mine has—and, as it turns out, the legend which complicates the quest to find my Boothe family's origin is a story spread far and wide among my distant cousins. People I don't even know have told me, "Oh, I heard that story, too."

Since I'm in a research mode to focus on my roots leading back to Virginia—after all, in five weeks, I'll be taking a course in colonial Virginia research at SLIG—I figured I may as well face the facts now and see if I can sort them into a logical stack of notes. So, this week, I'll start that process with my Boothe line.

William Alexander Boothe—"Alexander"—my great-great grandfather, is easily discoverable in east Tennessee, where my maternal grandfather grew up. From the time Alexander married my second great-grandmother, Rachel T. Riley, on September 12, 1854, he spent the remainder of his days in Washington County. Like clockwork, I could find his large family's entry in each subsequent census, up until the time of his death in 1895.

But that first census record after Alexander and Rachel were married gives a clue to a life before this marriage. The oldest child in the Boothe household in the 1860 census—David—shows an age pre-dating the marriage joining the two adults in the family. Sure enough, checking the previous census record for Alexander and David, a household of three males shows us a father and two (likely) sons: David and an older brother named Quinton.

Furthermore, both census records show us that William Alexander Boothe was born in Virginia, not Tennessee. But where?

That is the point at which I—and several other distant cousins researching the same line—lose the paper trail. Thankfully, over the years, I've had the privilege of connecting with these distant cousins about our mutual research problem, and we've shared our notes regarding this puzzle. One avid researcher, decades ago, told me he couldn't find much documentation, but he had traveled from Tennessee to Virginia to follow the paper trail at the very earliest times of online genealogical resources.

His conclusion: William Alexander Boothe originated in a county in Virginia called Nansemond. More tantalizing, this researcher divulged his discoveries about just why Alexander might have left home in Virginia to move his two young sons to Tennessee: after the death of his wife, he might have gotten himself into some financial trouble, and the best way to resolve his money woes might have been to skip town.

Of course, that isn't the only family legend tied to this Boothe surname, but taken by itself, it was a lead that might easily be followed up on. Sure enough, there was an Alexander Boothe at the very bottom of one page of the 1840 census for Nansemond County. Even better, his household included a young son of about the same age as our Alexander's oldest son, Quinton, who was born about 1838. It would just be a matter of going through property and tax records of that decade to see what might have prompted our Alex to make a hasty departure across the state line.

Simple enough, right? Only problem: there is no such place as Nansemond County in Virginia—not any more, that is. It is an extinct county. Though the records were shifted to the independent city courthouse in Suffolk, even finding them there would not solve my research dilemma, as the earliest records date back to the 1850s for births, marriages and deaths—and the late 1860s for land and probate records.

Besides that, you know the story for many of those southern jurisdictions: what was there to help with research inevitably was destroyed in a fire, some time in the county's past history. Sure enough, that was indeed what happened to older records such as the 1810 census, which might have shown us Alexander's possible father's household just before his 1812 birth; Nansemond was among eighteen Virginia counties for which such a loss occurred.

Still, it is worth the time to take a look at what can be discovered about any possible Boothe family members living in the former Nansemond County. As it turns out, there are several resources which can be accessed, online—and there is no time like the present to start up my to-do list for locating books and microfilm to consult, once I get to Salt Lake City for that week-long training session next January. After all, I have another family legend to vanquish while I'm in the neighborhood.

Above: Entry of Alexander Boothe's name in the 1840 census for Nansemond County, Virginia, found courtesy of   


  1. Those darn fires. I am interested to see what other leads you can trace.

    1. Thankfully, there are a number of other resources, Miss Merry. Here's hoping they will yield usable details!

  2. Sounds like you are doing some good groundwork before you go to the convention:)

    1. There are so many resources at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City--and so little time!--that I'll have to make my plan carefully. Got to make the most of such a research opportunity.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...