Thursday, June 4, 2020

From Five Georges to a Hugh,
With Someone Named Johnny in the Middle

Family history is a pursuit which requires us to ask questions, then warns us to beware when we chase after the answers.

In my case, the chase may have been ill-advised, but so worth the effort. It all started when, following the line of descent from my Tison ancestor in Georgia, I traced one of his great-granddaughters who married a man from Savannah named George Anderson Mercer. As is my custom, I pulled up all the census records to confirm the family constellation when I noticed something unusual: this George Mercer must have loved his own name so much that he named both of his sons by that same first name.

As it turned out, this father was not the first in the family to have been named George Anderson Mercer. He was named after his father, who bore the exact same name. That man, in turn, got his middle name from his mother's maiden name; she was an Anderson. And her father? His name was George.

This Anderson woman was wife to the Hugh Mercer whom we mentioned last week as the man who commissioned the building of the residence in Savannah now known as the Mercer House. From this couple came their eldest son George Anderson Mercer, whose son—also George Anderson Mercer—married my Tison relative. And their oldest son, also named George Anderson Mercer—as opposed to his younger brother George, who was named after his mother's father—became the father of a son with the same exact name, who in turn fathered yet another son bestowed with that repeated name.

If we count that unbroken line from the first George Anderson Mercer, son of Hugh, forward all the way to the unfortunate young George Mercer whose kidnapping was reported in the Georgia newspaper clipping I found, we discover that the slain George Anderson Mercer was not George IV, as reported, but George Anderson Mercer V. 

Shortly after the 1900 census, my Tison relative—Mary Ellis Walter, daughter of Frances Tison—disappeared from records. In the 1910 census—where I had first noticed the irregularity of two sons being named the same—I realized two things. First was that indeed, Mary Mercer had given birth to a son right before her death, whom the couple named Hugh after two of George's well-respected Mercer ancestors. The second discovery was that by 1910, widower George had already remarried—to a woman named Lillian.

We've recently found confirmation of that second marriage when we took a look at that George Anderson Mercer's own death certificate. His wife, according to the record, was named Lillian. As it turns out, that same Lillian, showing in the 1910 census, had a son, born only months before. George and Lillian named him John.

When we put that together with all the other news clippings subsequently found, plus the biographical sketch of the songwriter known as Johnny Mercer, we realize that his mother's name was indeed the same as what we had found in those two other documents. John, the son named in George Mercer's household in the 1910 census—yes, the Johnny Mercer—was half-brother to my Tison descendant's two sons named George, by virtue of descent from a man who was the in-law to my Tison-linked family.

Since that original Tison ancestor—Job Tison—was my fourth great-grandfather, you can imagine how distant a relative this ultimate George Anderson Mercer would have been to me (my fifth cousin, hardly anyone I would have known personally).

I would never have stumbled upon his story, but for two triggering incidents. First is that I make a habit of doing descendancy research as part of my quest to identify significant DNA matches to my family. But second—and this is most important—I make sure to look at all the documents I affix as confirmation to the relatives in my tree, and learn to ask questions when I see unexplained irregularities. Especially if both sons in the family are given the same name.

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