Thursday, April 30, 2020

Getting the Right Riley

Face it: researching a surname as common as Riley can be a rough go. Add in an equally common given name, and you're gifted with a challenge doubly as difficult. Fortunately—at least, according to surname statistics at—there were far less Rileys living in Tennessee in the late 1800s than elsewhere.

That, however, can hardly be counted as consolation. In seeking William Riley, son of William Riley and brother to my second great-grandmother, Rachel Riley Boothe, I entered the search with the queasy feeling that, at any time in the process, I might make a mistaken research turn and end up with the wrong William Riley. It would be so easy to do.

Keeping my goal in mind—I wanted to find the death certificate for one of Rachel's siblings to confirm the origin of her parents—my only remaining choice was to pursue Rachel's brother William. Their older sister, Mary, disappeared without a trace after the 1850 census. At least, that was the last place I had found her in her parents' household, back in Sullivan County, Tennessee.

By the time of the 1860 census, the elder William and his wife Cassie had moved to nearby Washington County, Tennessee, where they lived alone as an elderly couple. Their daughter Rachel had by then married my second great-grandfather, William Alexander Boothe. And Rachel's brother William? Well, that's what we'll muddle over, beginning today.

By the time of the 1850 census, young William F. Riley was twenty years of age. He could possibly, within the time before the next census, have been married, considering his age—and hopefully in either of the two counties in which I had found his parents in Tennessee. Of course, there was the wild expanse westward which could have beckoned him, or military service to relocate him (or, worse, cause his demise). But the best research course is to assume all possibilities are plausible and look for the most reasonable one first.

I opted to check first for marriage records in Washington County, since that was where William's parents had moved before 1860. Sure enough, there was a marriage record for a William Riley in 1852 in that same county. On June 10, William Ellis, then the Justice of the Peace, signed to verify that he had performed the duties uniting one William  Riley with a woman named Eliza J. Thompson.

If I could be sure that was the only William F. Riley of marriageable age in Washington County at the time, I'd rest more assured of my little research victory—but given the prevalence of a surname like that, no matter how hard I worked, I could not escape that nagging doubt.

Still, onward! I decided to follow the trail out to the end to see where this William F. Riley would lead me, right or wrong. At least, when I reached my goal at the end—remember, I'm after his death certificate with the prize of the full identity of his parents—I'd quickly learn whether I had barked up the wrong family tree.

The only trouble was these Rileys didn't make things simple for me. For one thing, they didn't stay in the same place for long. The only consolation in finding William F. and Eliza J. Riley in the 1860 census—having moved, once again, to nearby Greene County, Tennessee—was to see that the younger William had picked up his father's trade as shoemaker. Another nice touch was recognizing in the names of his three children two which had been repeated from the Riley household's previous generation: Mary and Rachel.

Onward once again to confirm what became of this William F. Riley—right one or wrong—meant an even greater leap of faith in locating him in the 1870 census. Granted, I found William, his wife Eliza and their three children exactly ten years older for that next census—a feat which, strangely, does not seem to occur with the clockwork precision we'd hope such things should—but I didn't find them in Greene County. Nor did I find them in "the next county over" in Tennessee. The only match I could find for a family with almost all those details exactly intact—Eliza Jane had turned into the more staid Elizabeth—was in a place far removed from Tennessee.

I found them in the western portion of central Indiana, in a town called Bainbridge. What had brought them there?

Above: Image of the 1852 marriage record for William F. Riley and Eliza J. Thompson of Washington County, Tennessee, courtesy of

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