Thursday, May 7, 2020

When Goals Get Messy

You know how family history research goes. Sometimes, we race ahead, finding ourselves still at the computer far past midnight, only because we can't bring ourselves to stop when we are finding so much great material. Other times...

This is one of those other times. True, I had delineated a solid, easily expressed research goal: find the birth locations for my third great-grandparents, William Riley and Cassandra Fincher. I knew they had come from North Carolina, according to their youngest daughter's 1915 death certificate. But attempting to cross reference that one assertion by finding corroborating evidence in the records of any of their other children proved fruitless.

Well, almost. There was this one son. William F. Riley, named after his dad with the one exception of that prominently-displayed middle initial—what did it stand for?—had married Eliza Jane Thompson in 1852 and soon after left their temporary Tennessee home for Indiana.

At least, I thought it was them. All to eventually retrieve a death certificate, I followed a Tennessee family with those details from Washington County to Greene County, before they—or some family which looked suspiciously like theirs—removed to Putnam County, Indiana, by 1870.

Following them from decade to decade, I watched their family grow up, marry, and have children of their own, all—with one notable exception—remaining in Indiana. And then, poof! No sign of William F. Riley and Eliza Jane in Indiana, but by 1906, someone by that very name—William F. Riley, including that specific middle initial—showed up, back in Tennessee. Was it the right Riley?

The document I found him in didn't help relieve any doubt. It was a ledger from the United States National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, in the "Mountain Branch" located in Johnson City, Tennessee, right where the saga of my third great-grandparents had left off. While the one-page entry in this ledger had the name emblazoned on the top of the ledger—William F. Riley—the various scribbles across the paper didn't add to my confidence.

For instance, the William F. Riley in this document had been born in North Carolina, same as my William F. Riley. He was listed as married. He was also listed as a carpenter, although that would be hard to ascertain, because some previous census records had listed him with another trade, or simply as a "laborer."

The root of my doubt traces back to some other entries on this same page. The record indicated that this William F. Riley died on February 16, 1906, while still at the Home. While the document indicated that William was, at the time, still married, it only noted that, at the time of his death, his "widow and daughter" were present, but never named them specifically. The record detailed his personal effects at the time of his death, and how they were disposed—"Sent to Mary M. Riley, Jonesboro, Tenn., by express"—and that a "Bettie Taylor, Jonesboro, Tenn., notified by letter" on the day of William's death.

Other than another entry on the same page, under the heading, "Name and Address of Nearest Relative," Bettie Taylor was an individual whose connection was never explained. If William were still married, why was this other woman—with a different surname—mentioned as "nearest relative" instead of Eliza Jane? This, especially considering the "wife and daughter" were present at the time of William's passing, is confusing.

More to the point than the confusion of seeing these other people named—but not linked—in the document, was the fact of the document's existence in the first place. According to the ledger, the only reason William was eligible to be residing at this veterans' home was on account of his service in the Mexican War.

Keep in mind, though, that William F. Riley consistently reported the year of his birth in every census enumeration before 1900 as being 1830. This man enlisted in his infantry company in Tennessee on February 10, 1846. Anyone born in 1830 would have been about sixteen years of age in 1846. Would that have been our William, enlisting that young? Or another Riley man with the same name and similar circumstances?

Perhaps easing the doubt is the fact that there was an entry for a William Riley in the 1900 census, living in Johnson City, Tennessee, the same location as the Mountain Branch Soldiers' Home. Believe me, I searched every detail in that census entry with high hopes. If that were our William, this would have been the only census in which he gave his year of birth as 1827 instead of his usual 1830—but perhaps, as have so many boys hoping to see some action in the military in times of war, he knew he had originally fudged on his age, and now had to bring current reports into alignment with past transgressions.

While that may be debatable—and who's there to ask at this point, anyhow?—what was reassuring to me was to flip the page from William's bottom line entry on that 1900 census and see the name of his wife. And yes, it was Eliza J. Added bonus, her year and place of birth agreed with previous reports, and the length given for her marriage was just right for a marriage license dated 1852.

Still, the possibility was too messy for my liking. Those other names—Mary M. Riley and Bettie Taylor—being obviously excluded from being the widow or daughter made me wonder why it was any business of theirs to be notified of this William F. Riley's passing. Would identifying these two women from Jonesboro clear things up? Or make them even messier?

Oh, believe me...I have yet to figure that out, myself.

Above: Heading from the one-page ledger entry for William F. Riley in the U.S. National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, Mountain Branch, in Johnson City, Tennessee; image courtesy


  1. Interesting! I am sure you will find out something!

    1. Hopefully, but you know it may be a messy process...


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