Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Gathering Our Census

What do you do when you can't find anything about your brick wall ancestor? You gather what you can find, lay it all out, and look for clues. Then, you branch out and look—yep—for more clues.

I really didn't know anything more about my second great-grandmother Rachel Riley, wife of William Alexander Boothe, except that she was his second wife, and that he met and married her in Tennessee, rather than his former home in Virginia. That's not much of a start for research. Back in the pre-Internet, snail-mail days, it was a real victory just to finally locate Rachel's death certificate—and then to find those words any genealogist hates to see on a government document: "unknown."

Still, it wasn't too bad a discovery; the "don't know" response was in reply to the question of where her parents were born. At least the informant, Rachel's oldest son William Horace Booth, knew his grandparents' names. As far as he was concerned, his mom's father was named William Riley. And William Riley's wife was Cassandra Fincher.

As far as where Rachel was born, though, the mistaken report of South Carolina instead of North Carolina added some extra time to the research process. That's where I learned to look at each decennial census report to see if the "facts" agree with each other over the decades.

Sure enough, tracing Rachel back over her life's trajectory, I could finally see some consistency in reports of her native state. But if I had just looked at the 1880 census, for instance, it, too, would have pointed me to South Carolina. And if I hadn't clicked through to see the actual document for 1860, the transcription (at least at Ancestry) would have told me her place of birth was in Nebraska—a detail pointing me in a totally incorrect direction. Other than that, the census consensus seemed to be that Rachel had come from North Carolina, as had her parents and siblings.

It was, in fact, a good thing Rachel had siblings. Searching for a name like William Riley—even if I could get the right state location—would be challenging. I was thankful to realize, as I discovered the given name of Rachel's mother was Cassandra, that that was the same name given to my great-grandmother, Rachel's daughter. As I was to find out, the family did favor use of namesakes.

I was able to locate Rachel's parents in the 1850, 1860, and 1870 census—although, in those later decades, William and Cassie lived by themselves as an older couple, their children all gone from their household. After leaving North Carolina, the Rileys had taken a predictable migration pathway, first to Sullivan County, right up against the Virginia border and not far from the mountain border of western North Carolina. From there, they moved across another county line to settle in Washington County.

That was where the trail went cold for my Riley ancestors. I have yet to find any death records for William or Cassie Riley. Of course, I could trace my direct line ancestor, their daughter, all the way from that point until her own death in 1915. But those "don't know" responses on family documents didn't help me figure out anything further on Rachel's parents.

The next option, of course, is to follow collateral lines, of which I had a few choices. I could take them in order, from oldest sibling on down, follow their own family histories, and upon discovering the date of their own death, look up what someone reported for their parents' names. Hopefully, this tactic would produce another certificate that not only confirmed Rachel's parents' names, but their location of birth, too.

That would be the reasonable approach to take. But that didn't guarantee it would be the successful route to my needed answers. You know there will always be other roadblocks on our way to smash through these brick walls standing in the middle of our research route. It was time to branch out to a side line to look for those needed clues.


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