Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Brick Wall Strategy: Step Aside

When I couldn't—no matter what I tried—find any further information on the parents of my second great-grandmother, Rachel Riley Boothe, the next best tactic is to attempt gleaning the same details from another member of the family. Thus stuck, it was time to step aside and look at Rachel's siblings.

I had the details on the household from the 1850 census—in fact, that was the earliest record I could find on the family. Perhaps, given Rachel's parents' ages, there may have been older children who had, by then, left the household, but at least in that 1850 snapshot, I had the names of two others in Rachel's generation.

Of course, the details seemed squishy, at least if you think about what the census record showed for 1850. There in Sullivan County, Tennessee, William and Cassandra Riley were listed as fifty years of age and sixty, respectively—at least, if that was the correct reading of the handwriting.

And yet, shoemaker William and his sixty year old wife had a daughter—my second great-grandmother Rachel—who was only sixteen years of age, plus another child of the tender age of three. Something in me wants to do the math, but the death certificate for Rachel providing these parents' names restrains my doubt for the time being.

Of course, the 1850 census didn't provide any explanation for just how each person in a household was related, so that three year old child could have had any family connection. As for the other two children in the Riley home—Mary and William F.—I could at least hypothesize that they were my Rachel's siblings. And those would be the ones I'd be most interesting in tracing.

Problem number one: starting with the oldest child, twenty five year old Mary, I ended up with absolutely no further details. True, by the time of the 1860 census, she was out of her parents' home. But by 1860, her parents had moved to the next county, Washington. In those ten years, Mary could have seen her life story take any of several possible next steps. She could have married someone in Sullivan County and raised a family there—or died in childbirth, leaving not a trace nor a descendant. Or she could have moved with her parents to their new home and married someone there. Finally, she could have remained single, continuing in either county alone (which is doubtful) or died as an unmarried woman in either location.

Only problem: I found no record for any of those possible scenarios.

Since my goal in pursuing Mary was solely to locate any further information on her parents, I decided to move on to other research possibilities for now. After all, Rachel and Mary did have a brother, William F. Riley. He, too, was of marriageable age shortly after the 1850 census, which prompted me to look for his marriage record in either Sullivan or Washington Counties. Besides, he, too, had not been included in his parents' household for the 1860 census.

Following the younger William's story, as it turned out, provided not only a good supply of family details, but also evidence why the tactic of researching collateral lines comes with a caution: it can easily supply a slippery slope leading the unsuspecting researcher to the brink of rabbit trails. That, indeed, was what ended up sucking me into a messy story.

Above: Image from the 1850 U.S. Census for William and Cassandra Riley household courtesy


  1. Oh boy, waiting for the next chapter!

    1. Oh, it will take a while to unwind this one--but believe me, Miss Merry, I certainly wasn't expecting what I found.


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