Forget reserving that warning—"expect the unexpected"—only for those about to submit to a DNA test. Yes, anyone who decides to follow the trail laid out in their own genetic genealogy does need to understand that path may lead to unexpected discoveries. But anyone researching her family history may be in for a surprise. The unexpected lurks in all of our family histories.
All families have stories. Of all people, I should have remembered that when I got back to work on my fourth great-grandfather Job Tison's descendants. When dealing with an ancestor born in 1770, though, the antiquity persuades us to gloss over such a stern warning. After all, what could be buried in the genes of folks gone for nearly two hundred years?
My research routine is to follow all lines of descent for each of my ancestors. Job Tison's oldest daughter, Sidnah, was the one who married George Edmund McClellan, of whom I've written so much over the years. But Sidnah had many siblings, so I had much work still to complete on Job's family.
Last week, I was working on the line of Sidnah's younger brother, William H. Tison. Born in 1812 in Glynn County, Georgia, William was eventually married twice. While that was not particularly difficult to document, it was the next generation which brought me problems.
It was William's eldest daughter's oldest child—his granddaughter named Mary Ellis Walter—who had stumped me in my research, and I was digging deeper to untangle a mess of names.
You see, this particular granddaughter of William H. Tison had married a man by the name of George Mercer. To complicate matters, Mary Ellis Walter had a father whose name was also George. Mary died young, right before Christmas of 1900. I suspected it was after giving birth, a common cause of premature death for so many women, so I was looking at the census enumeration immediately following her death to confirm my hunch.
Sure enough, the 1910 census did show her husband George's household. By that time, George Mercer had remarried and I could see from the census that George had a son by this second marriage, as well—but it contained a detail which puzzled me. It took a while to sort out the sons, as Hugh Mercer—the one who did indeed arrive just a week preceding his mother's death back in 1900—was listed as being only eight years of age in 1910. But there was another puzzle to sort out.
George Mercer must have really loved his own name, for in his 1910 household, along with his second wife Lillian and their infant son John plus the motherless son Hugh, there were two other sons, both named George. There was seventeen year old son George A. And there was second son George W., four years younger than his brother with the same given name. Two sons named George. What was up with that?
It took some additional digging through records to discover that son number one had the full name George Anderson Mercer—like his father and his father before him. The second son, apparently, was named after his mother's father's full name: George Walter Mercer.
I tried to find some explanation for such an odd choice for naming two brothers. I thought perhaps Mary had named her second son this because his birth coincided with her father's passing. But nope, the original George Walter died in 1888, while Mary's son George Walter Mercer was born nearly ten years later.
Determined to strike out in the wild nether regions of the Internet to find an answer to this puzzle, I turned first to the newspaper archival services I use. I started with a general search and looked for the name George Mercer. I left the parameters wide open—after all, I wasn't just looking for a birth announcement or obituary—and set the only delimiters as the state where they lived (Georgia).
Imagine my surprise when one of the first results that turned up in my search was an article headlined, "Ransom Delivered for Mercer Kin."
The 1980 article was about someone named George Mercer IV. Datelined Savannah, Georgia, the report continued,
A ransom has been paid for the missing 22-year-old grand-nephew of songwriter Johnny Mercer, a family member revealed Wednesday. Chris Hammond, uncle of George Mercer IV who has been missing since Jan. 29, said a demand for a ransom was received about a week after Mercer disappeared.
Who was George Mercer IV? And did he have anything to do with the multiple Tison descendants by that same name?
There was more than that, though. In finding that newspaper clipping, I discovered it was already too late: I had already fallen down the rabbit hole. Forget all those confusing George Mercers. Now what I wanted most to know was: who was songwriter Johnny Mercer?
Above: 1910 census for the Savannah, Georgia, household of George Mercer; courtesy FamilySearch.org.