Monday, February 21, 2022

Finding Catherine's Family:
Through the Paper Trail


DNA may present us with options for building out the shadowy branches of our family tree, but those DNA matches may not always send us a clear signal. Even with what we resignedly call "brick wall" ancestors, though, there may be a paper route to a clearer genealogical answer.

For the case I'm currently grappling with, I'm looking at the family of my second great-grandmother. I have seen notes that her full name was Sarah Catherine Laws, but when I trace her life through the usual documents we use for family history, I see her name listed—with only one exception, the census just after her marriage to Thomas Davis—as Catherine, not Sarah Catherine.

I also already know that Catherine has shown up in census records as having been born in either Tennessee or North Carolina. However, don't go joining me in a collective moan over that discrepancy. Let's flip that unclear signal on its head: what it tells me is that she wasn't born in any of the other state options presented during her lifetime.

Speaking of that lifetime, even her date of birth was up for grabs. In the 1860 census, her birth was attributed as a Tennessee occasion in the year 1840. Ten years later, it was reported as a Tennessee happening in 1835, but in 1880, the date was back to 1840—but the state was changed to North Carolina. However, that 1880 census was also the enumeration in which a person's parents' place of birth was also noted; Catherine's parents were said to also have been born in North Carolina.

While this information may seem like a case of mixed messages, it really doesn't complicate our search strategy too much. We simply look for a woman named Catherine Laws who was either born in Tennessee or North Carolina—and who, at the time of the enumeration, was also living in either of those two states. We set the age parameter to include women born between 1835 and 1840, a very simple task to do, given the current capabilities of online searches and the availability of digitized records.

Next, keep in mind we will be the recipients of some genealogical good luck in the next fact necessary to find Catherine in her parents' home. Since Catherine and Thomas married in 1856, we couldn't possibly discover who her parents were through any census gathered later than that—unless there were extenuating circumstances requiring that married woman to return to her parents' home with her children. Since I already know that is not part of Catherine's life story, the only place we can—hopefully—find Catherine at home with mom and dad would be in the 1850 census. That is the only remaining enumeration in which all individuals in a household were listed by name for the census.

Simple. Our search has been narrowed for us: one enumeration, two states, a date range limited to a five-year span for Catherine's birth. What can we find for that?

Brace yourself for the onslaught of listings with a name as common as Catherine. I know I did when I decided to strike out into the wilds of online searching. And, you know what? I found only two candidates for Catherine's possible parents.

One was the household of John and Jane Laws, who lived in Beaver Island township on the eastern side of Stokes County, North Carolina. The Catherine listed in that household was fifteen years of age in the 1850 census, born in North Carolina. On the down side, John—her possible father—listed his own birthplace as Virginia, not North Carolina. Likewise for Jane. But the biggest complicating factor, at least in my own mind, was the fact that the household also included a three year old girl named Sarah. If our Catherine does turn out to have used a full name of Sarah Catherine, it is doubtful—though admittedly possible—that another member of that family would also be given that same first name.

The other candidate for likely family was also residing in the state of North Carolina. This was the household of William and Elizabeth Laws, living in Yancey County. The compelling detail about Yancey County is that it is just over the state line from Unicoi County, Tennessee. Of course, back in 1850, there was no such entity as Unicoi County; it was still part of Tennessee's Washington County, the very county where Catherine married Thomas Davis and was found with her young family for the 1860 census.

William and Elizabeth Laws' 1850 census entry was enticing for a number of reasons. A natural first point was that the Catherine included in this household was likely born in 1838, same year as etched into our Catherine's headstone when she died in 1893. That year, by extension, would make her eighteen years of age upon the occasion of her marriage to Thomas Davis—not that Tennessee marriages never saw wives of younger ages, of course, but it was a common enough age to nearly qualify it as a traditional marrying age.

What is necessary for Catherine's potential family, however, was that she at least have brothers. This was obvious for one reason: among my DNA matches are several distant "cousins" who descend from the Laws surname. While my own patriline certainly doesn't come into play in such a case, for these Laws matches to show up when I perform a search specifically for that surname means that has to be the story for their patriline. No Laws brothers for Catherine in the family listed in that 1850 census, no possibility that that line would lead to my Laws DNA matches.

There is yet another reason this second 1850 census entry looks promising as a candidate for Catherine's lost family. When I look closely at the trees posted by some of my Laws DNA cousins, they contain one particular name for their ancestor which is an unusual given name. That name happens to be included in this same census readout. While I can also find that name in other census records for 1850, this is the only family which I can find in either North Carolina or Tennessee which contains both this man's name and Catherine's own name.

We'll start examining that individual's story more closely this week, and see whether this 1850 household includes collateral lines which lead us to any of those Laws DNA matches.

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