Wednesday, May 5, 2021

About Those "Three Brothers"


There are some details which have, due to their over-use in family histories, become cliched at best, unbelievable at the worst. One of those lead-in lines which give a doubtful spin to genealogies is "there were three brothers." In so many instances, that once-upon-a-time ambience casts doubt on the reliability of everything that follows in the tale.

Now that I've set aside the month of May to devote to the question of Sarah Howard Ijams' parentage, I'm confronting that same sing-song reference. Sarah, third great-grandmother of my mother-in-law, was supposedly the youngest child of William and Elizabeth Howard Ijams. Unlike her many siblings, Sarah was the only one to have been born in the territory which eventually became the state of Ohio. Her birth there was likely in 1796, two years after the next-youngest Ijams child was born in Maryland.

There were, according to what I can find, more than just three brothers. In fact, I've been able to find five mentioned from various sources. But the "three brothers" tag comes from an entry in the 1883 History of Fairfield and Perry counties, Ohio, in an entry concerning Sarah's husband, John Jackson:

His [John's] first wife was an Ijams, a sister of William, John and Joseph Ijams, well remembered by the older citizens of Perry county.
A curiously similar entry can be found in an earlier local history volume, A Complete History of Fairfield County, Ohio. That 1877 publication provides the names of three brothers, as well—except that, other than William, the names of the two other brothers are different:

Isaac, William and Thomas Ijams, brothers, came from Frederick County, Maryland, and settled immediately on the west of the present village of West Rushville, among the earliest settlers of Fairfield County.... 

Granted, the two texts refer to different counties, but there may be an underlying reason for that. With the reports of Ijams family arrivals in the area—anywhere from 1796 through 1810—we must use a little history of geography to orient ourselves. Fairfield County originally encompassed the territory covering what is now several counties. Among them was Perry County, which was formed from Fairfield County in 1818, after the arrival of several of the Ijams family members.

The three brothers conundrum is not the only research issue to wrestle. Sarah Ijams' own story presents its twists and turns. Stories of her later childhood include her father dying about 1815 and her widowed mother traveling with her to the territorial outpost of what was once known as Cantonment Belle Fontaine near the current-day city of Saint Louis. There, Sarah's mother married the widower, Major John Whistler, and apparently remained there until her death in 1826. (I say apparently, only given notice indexed from publication in that year in the Boston newspaper, the Columbian Centinel. Though her Find A Grave memorial and that of Major Whistler were, in the past, included at Find A Grave, they have since been redacted with no explanation.)

Sarah, however, returned to Ohio with her new husband, John Jay Jackson, where she eventually gave birth to four children: Elizabeth, who died unmarried in 1842; Nancy Ann, my mother-in-law's direct line, who married a Snider and was a lifelong resident of Perry County until her 1905 passing; Joseph who, not long after his marriage, moved to Iowa and remained there until his 1913 death; and Robert, whose 1879 passing in Iowa gave us a headstone showing he was born six weeks before his mother's passing.

There are, of course, problems with some of these details of Sarah's brief life, not the least of which may be a mis-identification of the William Ijams who was supposed to be her father. That William, whose sunken headstone supposedly revealed his date of death in 1815, does not seem to align with a will drawn up by someone with that same name in that same county at a later date. After all, it would be poor form to draw up one's will after leaving the scene with such finality.

Hence, we look to those "three brothers" to see if we can sort through the collateral facts and gain our genealogical bearings. Just which William was it who arrived from Maryland to settle in territorial Ohio and establish a farm in what was then Fairfield County? As a type of triangulation, sans DNA, we need to use those three brothers to point us to the right William—or whichever Ijams was their father.

Since the name William was brought up in both the reports we've found in those hundred year old history books, we'll look first at William and the will drawn up after his date of death was etched in that sunken headstone in the Stevenson-Ruffner Cemetery. My first question will be: just how many men by the name of William Ijams can we find in 1815 Fairfield County, Ohio? 


  1. My dad was one of three brothers, I gave birth to three brothers. I almost feel like I don't believe me, LOL. That was the first thing that caught my eye yesterday. The infamous three brothers syndrome.

    1. So funny, Miss Merry! I remember you mentioning that before.

  2. Hi! By any chance do these Ijamses have any relation to the Rev. William Ijams of Iowa? And the Ijams child who was the first pupil of Maryland School for the Deaf in Frederick, MD? Many thanks! What an intriguing family history


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