Friday, April 23, 2021

It's About Time


To orient ourselves to the historical sequences in our ancestors' lives, we need the underpinning of dates and locations. The launching platform we've built so far for some research questions, however, provides scant details with which to even begin our quest.

Take the research question I've been grappling with this month. I'm trying to determine the identity of Mary Carroll Gordon's parents. Mary, my mother-in-law's third great-grandmother, was the first wife of William Gordon of Monongalia County in old Virginia, who moved with her husband to what later became Greene County, Pennsylvania. There, they raised their many children. And there, at a relatively young age, Mary died.

If it weren't for the headstone left as her memorial, I wouldn't even know any orienting details about her lifespan. What the marker reveals in the Gordon family cemetery in Greene County, Pennsylvania, is that Mary, wife of William Gordon, died June 3, 1812. The headstone also provides her age—best I can read it—as thirty eight years, nine months and twenty four days. A Find A Grave volunteer entered her date of birth on that website as August 10, 1773.

Therein lies the problem, not only with determining the exact timeline for Mary's life, but for ascertaining correct dates. As it happens, the Howard Leckey book, The Tenmile Country and its Pioneer Families, lists Mary's birth as occurring August 29, 1773. More concerning, her date is provided not as the headstone's 1812, but as 1814.

Two hundred years later, not many people would find themselves quibbling about a two year discrepancy. But genealogists would. Generally speaking, such dates become added to a string of identifiers helping us know we are, without a doubt, talking about the right individual.

Likewise, as we've already seen, we are hard pressed to find accurate dates for Mary's presumed father, Anthony Carroll of Monongalia County, across the disputed state line in Virginia. While hundred year old local history books report Anthony's date of death as 1832, we find his will presented in court in February of 1830.

With such blurred timeline details to guide us, all I can say for this family is that the birth of Mary's children, beginning with eldest son James Gordon in 1794 (at least, according to the math on his headstone), seems to allow for a mother who could have been born around 1773.

And yet, those calculations don't quite help us pin down the time frame for Mary's possible father, Anthony Carroll. He could have been a young father. He could, just as easily, have been more advanced in age by the time of his youngest child's birth, especially if we accept the possibility that the report of his earlier life, according to A History of Preston County, West Virginia, was correct, at least about his four wives.

All that to say, when we try to determine who that fourth person named of Anthony Carroll's "children" in his will might have been, it is near impossible to pin a date of birth on "James Walls" or engage any other research toe-hold on his identity. While I can guess that James Walls might have been son of Anthony Carroll's fourth wife—labeled as "a Mrs. Walls" by the History of Preston County—there simply is no documentation available online that I can find so far to verify or contradict that assumption, barring a trip to investigate the actual records held in that location.

However, there is yet another possibility—although a remote one—to examine, concerning the possible identity of James "Walls."  I say remote, because I'm not entirely convinced, given the dates we've already mentioned. But neither can I pass it by without at least a mention. We'll take one last look at this other branch of an intertwining family line next week.

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