Tuesday, April 20, 2021

The Trouble With Spelling


I don't suppose it would be entirely necessary to determine just who James Walls, heir of Anthony Carroll, actually was. I do have one reason for my search, however. Depending on who James Walls was—and how he was related to his benefactor—I might simultaneously uncover information which could help answer other research questions. For one, it might identify who Anthony Carroll's wife Temperance was, and if she had been previously married to someone named Walls. For another, it might straighten out yet another relationship mess I've stumbled upon. That, as it turns out, has to do with some spelling issues during that same time period of Anthony's will—the early 1800s.

I've searched for information on James Walls, believe me. And I've realized one thing: in the area of Monongalia County, the western region formerly part of the state of Virginia, there were several similar surnames to be found, all claiming James as a given name. In addition to James Walls, there was the predictable James Wells. Besides that, though, there was James Wills. And, in nearby Preston County, there was a James Wales—and yes, I looked, and can't excuse that as simply poor handwriting; it actually looks like Wales.

If that time period was rife with clever clerks who considered the knack of creative spelling to be a way to demonstrate their intelligence, how will I ever know I've found the right James Walls?

One thing I did find: Anthony Carroll—the one who named James Walls in his will—lived in what at the time was called the "Eastern District" of Monongalia County. He was easily spotted in the 1820 census under that heading. Of course, creative spelling rendered his surname as "Carrill." But we can use our imagination, too.

So, it would be no surprise to find, in the 1830 census, an entry in that same Eastern District for someone named James Walls. But trying to find him in the 1820 census, I can only come up with someone named James Wells. Same person? Impossible to tell from that entry alone.

Remembering our discovery that so much more was written on Anthony Carroll's family in the history book published for neighboring Preston County than for Monongalia County, itself, I wandered over to that neighboring county to see what could be found there for anyone named James Walls.

Fortunately, there was something to be found in A History of Preston County, West Virginia. The entry on one featured community member by the name of John Ormand Walls began with this promising observation on his family's roots: "The Walls family, of Grant District, are descendants from James Walls...."

Of course, we have to realize that, despite the nearness of the two counties, there was no guarantee that this James Walls was the same as the one we are seeking. However, the continuation of that sentence in the history book provided some insight: "...who settled in that part of the county before its separation from Monongalia."

I took a look at a map. Sure enough, somewhat to the northwest of Preston County was what is the remainder of Monongalia County, now all in West Virginia. What we have, at least in this situation, could be someone who, at one point, lived in Monongalia County—until the county lines were redrawn, carving out the new county—and suddenly, he was a resident of Preston County.

That, apparently, was what happened. Preston County, formed in 1818 from Monongalia County, may well have included what had previously been claimed as part of the "Eastern District" of the former county. While James Walls was clearly listed in Monongalia County in the 1830 census, that doesn't necessarily preclude his owning property in what eventually became the other county.

Whether the James Walls in the History of Preston County turns out to be the same as the James Walls mentioned in Anthony Carroll's will, I can't yet determine. But stumbling upon this detail points up one condition to remember: boundaries change. In the case of the vast colonial region which once encompassed Monongalia County, not only was it affected by this relatively benign boundary change, but there also were other boundary disputes which may come into play as we continue to explore the possible relatives of Mary Carroll Gordon. The lesson to be learned: know your geography—even the minutiae of historical changes to those borders.    

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