Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Not to Complicate Things, But . . .


Trying to trace an ancestor through times and locations in which record-keeping was not, ah, shall we say a precise science can be frustrating. Just as I closed my post yesterday regarding just what, exactly, my second great-grandmother's given name might have been—I had settled on Catherine, plain and simple—what should I find but yet another indicator that maybe, just maybe, that wasn't exactly the name she went by.

Oh, groan.

I happened to recall I had purchased a book from the series, "Images of America," which featured a scrapbook-style approach to recounting the history of the town of Erwin, Tennessee—home of my Davis roots—and thought I'd flip through the pages to see if any of my kin might have been included. They were. In fact, there were two photographs which featured the very woman in question, and each was labeled clearly, "Cassa Laws Davis."

Just like she figured in the 1860 census—at least, if my presumption is right—the wife of Thomas Davis was labeled in this book not as Catherine but Cassa. Yet, nowhere else did I find her under that name. Unless, of course, there were two men by the name of Thomas Davis in the vicinity, I think we can safely presume there would be one wife of Thomas Davis for us to concern ourselves. Granted, Davis is a common surname, but even in 1880, the first census following the formation of Unicoi County, the population for the entire county was only 3,645, making it hopefully less likely that there would be duplicate Thomas Davises of the same age residing there.

Finding discrepancies in records regarding the target of our search can be disconcerting. After all, my goal for this month is to discover the identity of Catherine's parents. But that can't easily be done without knowing her own specific identity. Is she really Catherine? Or Cassa? Whatever became of the report that her first name was actually Sarah, with Catherine as a middle name? Each variation added to the mix means a search for yet another identity.

To complicate matters, we don't have specifics on something as simple as the circumstances of her birth. The 1860 census shows "Cassa" as born in Tennessee in 1840. Ten years later, her year of birth in the state had been moved back to 1835. But by 1880, her year of birth had been restored to 1840, yet the location had jumped the border to North Carolina—with the added information that both her parents had been born in that other state, as well.

It is fairly clear, by looking at the photograph of her headstone and that of her husband, that we are looking at two sides of one monument. So, at least by the point of their death, family seemed to agree on a name of Catherine for their mom, and Thomas Davis for their dad. Her headstone provides a date of 1838 for her birth, nearly averaging out the two census estimates—perhaps more as a compromise than an actual fact.

To be clear, while it seems a simple process of looking in that small county for records of any other families by the surname Laws, I get the distinct impression this is not going to be such a straightforward project. Even the record of their marriage in 1856—back then, in what was still part of Washington County, Tennessee—includes such a scrawl of her name as to make the surname look like "Laus." Even worse was the fact that Thomas—if indeed that was him—was listed only by initials, and not the two we'd assume from subsequent records (T. D.), but with an added third initial. Same person? Hard to tell.

Though I'd like to say "fortunately" in preface to my comment that I have several DNA matches to help untangle this research problem, even that is a messy situation. If I use "Thru-Lines" at Ancestry.com to sort out the matches, that program relies on subscribers' own submitted trees—mistakes and all. And who's to say mine doesn't include any? After all, I'm already stumped, and this is only my second great-grandmother.

Granted, sometimes our research is a process of trial and error. We test the possibilities and evaluate whether they can be supported by evidence. Some of those tests will lead to a decision to abandon that hypothesis. Hopefully, one will stand out as amply supported by the documentation it leads us to find. But unless we give the process a try, we'll never know. Tomorrow, we'll begin looking at the DNA possibilities and what they show us.


Above: 1856 marriage return in Washington County, Tennessee—predecessor to Unicoi County—is it for our Davis and Laws? Or do those extra initials and sloppy handwriting point to another couple? Image courtesy Ancestry.com

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