Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Tiptoeing Through the Tilsons


With yesterday's discovery of additional Mayflower Society resources, it would seem my research task for the month of March is already completed. All that's left would be to complete the membership application, right?

Not so fast. There may be a few tangles to straighten out in that Tilson line. Here's what happened next. Remembering that I had several DNA matches with other Tilson descendants—thirty eight, to be exact—I thought I'd use the rest of the month to straighten out my own database. After all, collateral lines can be important. In the case of this Tilson family, as it turns out, collateral lines may be our only hope for making sure we have the right Thomas Tilson...or William Tilson...or even Peleg Tilson. This Tilson line is a tangled bunch of namesakes.

That point was made clear once again as I explored my DNA matches at Ancestry's ThruLines. I was working my way through my matches who descend from Thomas Tilson, brother of my fourth great-grandfather Peleg Tilson. According to Mercer Vernon Tilson's Tilson Genealogy, this Thomas was born July 15 1767, and married Eunice Hubbell.

Their daughter Rachel—another name frequently seen in this family's genealogy—happened to be listed in the ancestry of one particular DNA match in my ThruLines results at While I had this Rachel marrying a man named Thomas Copenhaver, my DNA match's line showed someone by another surname listed for Rachel's son.

Since I only had one husband listed for this Rachel, I came to the brilliant conclusion that something was wrong here. However, realizing the Tilson proclivity to name their children after favorite ancestors, I checked my tree to see if I had recorded another Rachel married to the alternate name, Tapp.

Sure enough, there was one. This other Rachel I found in my database also had a father named Thomas, but her mother was listed as Jennet (and alternately, Jennie) Tilson. Jennet, herself a Tilson, was listed as daughter of Peleg, Thomas' brother. Do you see how this line is circling around?

I happened to notice that this other Thomas Tilson, husband of the other Rachel's mother Jennet, was himself son of someone named Thomas. And that father Thomas, husband of Polly Reynolds, was listed in the Tilson Genealogy as having been born on July 15, 1767.

But wait! I thought Thomas, husband of Eunice and father of the other Rachel, was born on July 15, 1767, too. They couldn't be birthday twins, could they?

While I was able to document the line clearly from my DNA match's ancestor—the other Thomas Tilson, husband of Jennet—I'm still tiptoeing my way through the various lines to see just where this other Thomas actually fits in. And that brings up one additional question: what if Mercer Vernon Tilson got it wrong? If that is possible, then I'm still back at square one, trying to document the connections between my own ancestors and the Tilson line. After all, if there's one mistake, it is possible that there are others. What is needed here, as always, is documentation to clear up any confusion and settle the questions.     

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Where Cumulative Learning Comes In


So, what does cumulative learning have to do with genealogy? Don't let the big words scare you. If you've ever heard folk sayings like "inch by inch, anything's a cinch," or "don't run before you can walk," you are hearing the basics of cumulative learning. Big concepts are built from smaller ideas. The steps we've already taken can point the way to next steps. When we find a way to understand the smaller building blocks first, we can piece them together to better get our head around those big ideas.

Right now, I'm grappling with the big idea of how I'm going to manage applying for membership in the Mayflower Society. It's fairly obvious there are big gaps in the necessary documentation to demonstrate a clear line of descent from John Alden and Priscilla Mullins to the members of my immediate family—and that's a problem. There are books and blog posts saying there is a connection, but a big gap in record-keeping in the murky middle of this genealogical journey has me wondering what to do next.

After purchasing the file of supporting documents for the application of a third cousin to the Daughters of the American Revolution—like me, a descendant of William "Tillson" through his son Peleg Tilson—I was dismayed to see very little references other than a few published genealogies to fill in the gaps in that paper chain of documentation. It seems to me that more actual records—coupled, at the very least with a solid proof argument—would be expected by an organization like the Mayflower Society.

Fortunately—and this is where the cumulative learning comes in—I remembered something from my Broyles research project in January. That something was the discovery of a recently-published book. That book, The Broyles Family: The First Four Generations, had been long overdue, a planned update by the Germanna Foundation which had been delayed by several factors.

Thinking of that, I remembered that somewhere I had read about the Mayflower Society also having plans to update their "Silver Books" and—possibly—add information beyond the first five generations. The key detail regarding those Silver Books is that each line of descent up through those five generations has been carefully vetted by respected professional genealogists. Applicants only need demonstrate direct relationship with that fifth generation, rather than having to document the entire way back to a Mayflower passenger.

Straight to Google I went, trying to find where I had read that detail about the Silver Books. I sure could use a confirmed line of descent stretching further than five generations. I found the answer easily: it was through Heather Wilkinson Rojo's blog, Nutfield Genealogy, where she posted news of a Silver Book Project Update in the fall of 2021. Reading the article once again, I noticed Heather included a further update at the end of last year. Apparently, the index may be out "within the next year" and "the books are all in progress."

Doesn't seem like any time soon.

The virtue of posing such questions as mine to Google is that there is always more than one answer. Studying all the search results led me on a tour of the history of the Mayflower Society's Silver Book projects. Apparently, the books have a long history from conception of the idea to precursor publications in the 1920s and 1930s up through 1956. The first volume of the five-generation concept was due to be published in 1970, but like many such enormous undertakings, suffered delays, making its ultimate appearance in 1975. In 2013—more to my current purposes—the Society endorsed a name change as it expands from the five-generation format to include subsequent generations in future publications.

Indeed, the Society's goal is "to provide clear, well-documented lineages of the ship's passengers through the seventh and eighth generations." That would clearly be of help to me. But when?

My journey through Google's possibilities didn't stop there, though. For a mere $60, the specific Project volume on my ancestor, John Alden and Priscilla Mullins' daughter Elizabeth, could be shipped to my door. But wait! Google had more to say on the topic.

Even better—though old news now—among the events included in the year-long 2020 celebration of Mayflower's four hundredth anniversary was an announcement at that year's RootsTech of the collaboration between the Mayflower Society, American Ancestors, and to make available online what is being called the Mayflower Database.

The database contains material from the thirty volume set of the five-generation project plus member applications submitted from as early as 1896, with information provided through 1910 on applications submitted as recently as 2019.

Sure enough, there is a "Mayflower Descendants Search" page at I decided to test it out by entering William Tillson, the same name (and spelling) I had used yesterday to research the Tilson Patriot at the D.A.R. website. And there he was in the new display at, showing William Tilson's tree connecting all the way through to the Mayflower passengers I had anticipated. Better yet, the tree stretched in the other direction as well, showing me the lines of descent which included successful Mayflower Society applicants descending from Peleg Tilson's line.

Following that line of descent led me through two more generations of my direct ancestors, then branched off to a collateral line. After having studied the D.A.R. application yesterday for my third cousin's paperwork, I recognized that Mayflower line as the same one I had been reviewing yesterday from the D.A.R. application.

If the Mayflower Society handles their membership applications the same way D.A.R. does, that may mean I only have to provide verification of my connecting line up to the point of Thomas D. Davis, my second great-grandfather. How's that for a step-by-step process?  


Monday, March 20, 2023

An Obvious Option


If we are stuck trying to find the origin and dates of ancestor William Tilson, but then discover the man served in the American Revolution, the obvious next research option is to see whether he is listed as a Patriot at the D.A.R. website.

Sure enough, William did have a listing on the D.A.R. website—with the minor revision of an additional "l" tacked on to his surname. The D.A.R. entry showed William Tillson born in Plymouth County, Massachusetts, in 1741, the same year as the Tilson Genealogy had told us.

According to the D.A.R. file, William was listed as having provided "patriotic service" in Virginia by paying a "supply tax" in 1783. The source of that information was listed as having come from a microfilm at the Library of Virginia regarding Washington County personal property taxes. (Fortunately, that same collection is currently available through

There was a long list of D.A.R. members who had applied for membership on account of their descent from William Tillson. The D.A.R. website sorted the listings according to the specific child of William Tillson whom each member claimed as ancestor. Included in that long list were a few descendants of Peleg, William's son whom I also claim as my fourth great-grandfather.

As I looked over the D.A.R. list, I realized that one of the descendants of Peleg Tilson was a third cousin whom I had met online during the early days of genealogy forums. Since it is possible to purchase a copy of the application and supporting documentation (with information on living people redacted), I decided to take a look at her file.

Thankfully, the purchased file walked me through document after document tracing the way from this distant cousin back through several generations. All the documents you would expect were either copied onto the file or cited in the application. Census records, obituaries, marriage licenses—all the expected paperwork, including copies of family Bible entries—walked me back, generation by generation, until the point of Peleg's daughter Rachel's marriage to James Davis. And then, the litany of records stopped.

Of course, I had most of those records already copied into my own tree. After all, those are the types of documents which we all appreciate finding at or Digitized documents rock. But what about the details beyond that point? That's what I was purchasing the D.A.R. file to find.

There were other resources listed, of course. Just not what I had hoped for. Handwritten notes, most likely added by a local D.A.R. registrar, named two books as resources to guide those making a membership decision. One of the books was a 1981 publication by Pat Alderman called Tilson Grist Mill. The other was a reference book which has become stock in trade for those of us researching our Tilson roots: Mercer Vernon Tilson's The Tilson Genealogy.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I suppose. But I had hoped for more guidance on just how writers like Mercer Vernon Tilson had pieced together the story on this family line. After all, his claim is that William Tilson can trace his heritage back to some of the travelers on the Mayflower. Depending on how strict the Mayflower folks are regarding documentation for membership in their organization, pointing to a book—even a book published over one hundred years ago—may not be enough to satisfy. 

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Fun, Florida, and Family History


I wasn't sure what two weeks of travel would do to my customary biweekly progress report. While visiting family might seem to occupy the same category as recording family history, it is an entirely different type of event. I didn't think I had recorded as many details on my family tree as I hoped. After all, growing relationships isn't quite the same as growing a family tree.

This past week, traveling in Florida, was our first opportunity to meet some great-nephews—now teenagers!—as well as to deliver early birthday wishes to a cousin turning ninety. Added to the whirlwind tour was the chance to visit a newlywed niece and her husband and be one of the first to hear the news about an upcoming addition to the extended family (it's a boy!).

In the midst of all that activity—and miles on the road—just how much family history research progress could one make? Actually, the past two weeks fared quite well, considering.

Since this month is my last month to research ancestors on my mother's side of the family, my tree became the sole focus, even though the majority of the time spent in Florida was devoted to my in-laws' family. I was surprised at that, but the numbers bear me out: not a single name was added to my in-laws' tree. Just wonderful memories of spending time with the extended family during their spring break from work and school.

As for my mother's Tilson, Taliaferro, and Broyles lines, the ones I've been working on for the first quarter of this research year, I managed to add 181 individuals to her tree. Not as many as I usually add in any given biweekly period, but it was a nice surprise to see I had made that much progress. My tree now includes documentation on 32,923 relatives.

With my next biweekly report, I'll close out this year's focus on my maternal line and we'll shift to researching my mother-in-law's family. The numbers will most certainly show that shift quite graphically, as her ancestral Catholic heritage in this country meant many large families appearing in ample documentation. Hopefully, the tasks laid out for my springtime research goals will yield more of the same, though it is always hard to predict what a research question will yield.

In the meantime, I have two more weeks to wrestle with my mother's Tilson line. I have a couple more resources lined up to discuss this coming week, including a review of all my Tilson DNA matches at's ThruLines. Hopefully these resources will reveal the information I've been seeking. One never knows, being the genealogy guinea pig, how any research adventure will turn out, but I'm always open to give any question my best try.

Saturday, March 18, 2023

Screen Fatigue Versus
the Purge of Paper


The other day, I received a promotional email from Internet Archive, advising patrons of their various digitized collections. Even though I regularly check Internet Archive for public domain volumes pertinent to my family's surnames, I was surprised to see they had specifically curated a genealogy collection.

The collection's About page named several prime genealogy resources which had contributed to the holdings—the Brigham Young University's library and the Allen County Public Library being readily recognizable among the named repositories. But the collection went beyond the familiar, including such unexpected resources as the University of Toronto and the National Library of Scotland. In fact, clicking on the Collections tab opened up a listing by record set, including national and state census enumerations, published family histories, and an overwhelming collection of records garnered through the efforts of Reclaim the Records.

Granted, seeing this wealth of digitized records should be good news to those of us who can't simply hop a flight to Salt Lake City or Fort Wayne, Indiana. Digitized records have their place—a valuable one—as any fan of the website can attest.

Swept up in the midst of this celebration of all things cyber-accessible, however, may be a downside. I had first heard of this when my daughter mentioned to me that the library of my alma mater had rid its spaces of books and journals, superseded by a new wave of preference for all things digital.

The "new" library is called the "bookless library." And it's not exactly new. The idea has been around for at least ten years—ever since San Antonio, Texas, opened its digital-only library in 2013, claimed to be one of the first of its kind.

The idea has some merit. One university library in Pennsylvania analyzed circulation on items in their holdings—mostly academic books and journals—and discovered nearly half of their collection went uncirculated for twenty years or longer. Yet, while that material may have gone untouched in Pennsylvania, a scholar on the opposite side of the country—or the world, for that matter—might have needed to study it, if only it were more accessible.

While the purge of paper may make sense, especially for those institutions with academic holdings, on the other side of digital divide preferences are those researchers for whom constant use of computer screens becomes fatiguing. Add to that the people who prefer to process material by just curling up with that old-fashioned format—a book—and reading.

It's likely that most people know exactly where they stand on an either-or question like that—paper or plastic?—but it is just as likely that the question requires insertion of a moderator. We may prefer curling up with a good book versus reading it on our Kindle or iPad, but if we need to locate the eighteenth century tax records of colonial Virginia—as I currently do for my Tilson research—I find it far more convenient to suffer screen fatigue but get the answers I'm seeking, rather than fuss with sending requests for photocopies or purchasing pricey or rare printed resources. The short answer to that preference dichotomy is: it depends.

Meanwhile, our preferences as genealogists—especially those of us involved in local genealogical organizations—may be tainted by the efforts we have expended, over the years, in amassing print material. In my own society, which just celebrated the seventy-first anniversary of its founding, there has been a long organizational history of donating reference material to our county's public library. Yet despite the thousands of volumes our society has made freely available for patrons to peruse in a comfortable working area, seldom does anyone make the journey downtown to access the material.

A consortium of local societies within a fifty mile radius in our own region is working to add a section to their website pointing researchers to the specific print holdings of each of our collective libraries, but even with this added resource, I wonder whether the numbers will increase of people willing to leave home and computer to drive to a library. We have become enamored with what we can find at the beck and call of our plastic mouse, having forgotten that, like the proverbial tip of the iceberg, not everything genealogical is visible above the plastic surface of a computer screen. 


Friday, March 17, 2023

William Tilson in Virginia:
When and Where?


We've found a claim that William Tilson, despite already having been given land in Massachusetts, had settled in Virginia by 1763. That claim, as we've seen, may have run contradictory to the rules and regulations of the colonial jurisdiction in which he lived. With so many snippets of history hinting that the Tilson claim couldn't have been possible, are there any other signs to counterbalance that assertion gone awry?

I poked around the Internet, thanks to a little guidance from Google, to see if I could find further information. From a newspaper article introducing a reference book on land grants after the French and Indian War—Bounty and Donation Land Grants in British Colonial America, written by Lloyd DeWitt Bockstruck—I learned a few key details.

One was that the king of England had authorized colonial governors to issue grants for bounty lands to those participating in the French and Indian War, with the amount of the land awarded based on the rank of the person serving. While the Proclamation of 1763 limited governors as to the location of land granted, there was none so limited as the governor of Massachusetts Colony; in Massachusetts, there was no land available to be awarded within their own borders.

In order to receive such an award, an eligible person needed first to apply. The resultant paperwork thus could reveal to a researcher not only that an ancestor received such a grant, but what rank was held by that ancestor, which colony he served for, which military engagements he was part of, and the size and location of the land he received.

Presumably, the paperwork would also provide us with some dates. After all, I'm trying to ascertain whether the William Tilson who lived in southwest Virginia was one and the same as the grandson mentioned in the Massachusetts will of John Murdock. And I've found some roadblocks to a clear understanding and confidence that the William in Massachusetts would be one and the same as the William in Virginia.

We already can see from the 1810 census that there was indeed a William Tilson living in Washington County, Virginia. In fact, the names surrounding his entry on that enumeration point to possible family members and other associates: Sampson Cole, likely namesake of William's grandson born that very year; "Hellin Dungans" and Levi Bishop, mentioned as grantees in the 1797 land record we've already examined; and probable sons Thomas and "Lamuel" Tilson. Despite any squabbles over transcription problems in the 1797 land record, other tax records showed that someone named William Tilson was already paying taxes in Washington County, Virginia, by that date.


But when we rewind history to those more messy years, I don't find any land records. What I do find, again from history records, is another warning in the guise of the 1768 Treaty of Fort Stanwix. That agreement sought to revise the colonial boundary line previously established in the 1763 Royal Proclamation. With the later treaty, some of the land previously excluded from colonial settlement was now open for claims to the bounty lands promised after the war. So, could William Tilson have settled in southwest Virginia by 1768?

Complicating matters was that the process for obtaining the requisite certificate showing proof of military service was apparently bogged down in its own red tape. Some certificates were issued by 1774—at least, those in Virginia—but some were not provided until issued by Virginia county courts in 1779 or later.

Granted, the push to revise the former treaty was a slow and messy process. In addition, history already indicates that some land speculators as well as settlers already had exercised their claim to land which was subsequently impacted by the Royal Proclamation.

Could William Tilson have been among such settlers? Hard to say, at this point. But whether he barged right in and took up residence at the first chance in 1763, waited until 1768—or even later—we do have another chance to track William's whereabouts and family connections: his service in the Revolutionary War. We'll examine what can be found of that subsequent military service next week.


Image above: Excerpt from Personal Property Tax Lists of Washington County, Virginia, 1782-1850, for 1797 entry for William Tilson; digitized image courtesy  


Thursday, March 16, 2023

Can't Touch This


So all fingers are pointing toward southwestern Virginia for the eventual landing place of itinerant soldier William Tilson after his service in Canada during the French and Indian War. There's only one problem with that story: if he settled in Virginia, William just walked away from the family farm in Massachusetts, which he had just been handed by his grandfather only a few years earlier. Are we sure we are talking about the same William Tilson in published stories like this?

Actually, I'm finding several problems with this scenario, as we'll see over the next few days. But for now, let's just discuss one detail at a time. Today, let's look at the history of the war in which William Tilson served, the French and Indian War. If we rely on history to fill in our blanks, we'll realize that the land William chose to make his new home was territory with a clear sign: Can't Touch This.

If you grew up somewhere in North America, you might remember that war as the one in which the British—and their colonial subjects in the New World—used their military muscle to evict the French from their claims on land in the continent. To strengthen their numbers, each side solicited the allegiance of various Native American tribes across the eastern half of the continent. What is not as widely realized is that this was one set of battles encased within a larger war between the two colonizing powers which also raged across their own European continent.

The first salvos fired in North America, however, began in 1754, two years before Britain officially declared war on France in 1756, the opening shots of which became called the Seven Years' War. At the close of the entire war across all theaters, the concluding Treaty of Paris of 1763, drawn up that year in February, formally ended the conflict between Britain and France over control of North America.

However, because both sides had relied on Native American nations to strengthen their numbers, the many tribes involved also wanted recognition for their efforts—and concessions for their participation. Some of those details were subsequently worked out later that year in the Royal Proclamation of 1763. Pertinent to our pursuit of William Tilson's story is one consequence of the king's proclamation: that no British subjects were to settle in lands west of the Appalachians. Those were now reserved solely for their Native American allies. 

If, as our story goes, William Tilson settled in southwestern Virginia in that same year—1763—can we rely on such a report? Let's check some other local accounts, tomorrow, to see whether we can find any verification of that assertion.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Wandering William


If you were gifted with the most important part of your family's heritage—the family farm—would you have simply walked away from it? I'm not sure I would. There would have to be some extremely weighty extenuating circumstances to make me wander from such a legacy.

And yet, William, father of my fourth great-grandfather Peleg Tilson, apparently did just that. Why?

As we saw yesterday in the will of William's own maternal grandfather, John Murdock, not only was William handily identified by his grandfather as son of Stephen "Tillson," but in the first item listed in John Murdock's will, William was specifically given his grandfather's farm.

The farm was located, presumably, in the same county where John Murdock drew up his September 16, 1756, will: "Plimouth." While the farm was in the New England colony, however, grandson William Tilson may soon have been somewhere far distant. Here's where I need to connect the dots.

There are a few subscribers who have included an unidentified printed narrative which provides the supposed explanation of the wanderings of William Tilson. I have seen this printed page in family trees in the past, but have yet to identify the source. Of course, if this is true, I'll need to locate documentation to verify each of the assertions about William's history.

According to that information, William Tilson served during the battles comprising what was called, at least in North America, the French and Indian War. He became part of Captain Josiah Thatcher's company, of the regiment led by Colonel John Thomas. By early May of 1759, less than two months after entering the service on March 29, 1759, William landed at Halifax in Nova Scotia, serving there until November 1 of that same year. He again was noted to have served in Nova Scotia beginning in 1760, from January 1 through December 18, 1761.

From that point, this unsourced report notes that William Tilson left Nova Scotia, but ultimately not to reside at his inherited property in Massachusetts, but to settle in southwest Virginia. When I have read of other men who had, subsequent to their military service, settled in locations other than their home colony, it has generally been because they personally observed the benefits of their new location due to previous military action there. Furthermore, the other ancestors I've studied who had relocated often moved with others of their company, sometimes following the officer of their unit, in peacetime just as they had done in battle.

So how did Virginia enter the equation for this New Englander? Even if William Tilson did obtain bounty land for his service in this new-to-him location, the laws of that post-war decade would have gone against him. And yet, this report states that William Tilson "migrated to the western part of Virginia" by 1763. Comparing this report with history, though, we run into problems, which we'll see tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

One Slim Link


It is almost cliched to hear a genealogist quip, "Where there's a will, there's a way." But that is what I'm tempted to say today. In brief, I've found a will. Only it isn't the will of the mystery fourth great-grandfather I'm seeking. It's his great-grandfather's will.

Admittedly, that's one thin link to go by. I'd still need to draw viable connections between my fourth great-grandfather and someone three generations removed from him on his direct line. 

First, let's get ourselves oriented to this family tree. My sticking point is finding any documentation on my fourth great-grandfather, Peleg Tilson, which would connect him with previous generations. According to Mercer Vernon Tilson's 1911 book, The Tilson Genealogy, Peleg was the second-born son of William and Mary (Ransom) Tilson.

Granted, a next step, since I can't find documentation for Peleg himself, would be to look for his father's will. And that is on my list of documents to pursue. But if we first pursue the line of his direct pedigree—at least according to Mercer Tilson's book, here's what we find. William, Peleg's father, was son of Stephen and Janet (often spelled Jennet) Tilson. Janet was a Murdock, born to John Murdock and Ruth Bartlett. And it is with this Bartlett surname that we start entering the confirmed territory of Mayflower descendants.

As it turns out, John Murdock's will in "Plimouth" colony, Massachusetts, was easily accessible online—thankfully. The reason for my gratitude and glee will be apparent when I share one additional detail with you: that John Murdock not only named his children in his will, but specifically singled out one grandson and identified him as son of John's son-in-law Stephen Tilson. Thus, one instance where someone put his money where his mouth was, in identifying the line of descent. In his first order of business, John Murdock gave his grandson William "Tillson" the whole farm.

I give and Bequeath unto my grandson William Tillson (the son of Stephen Tillson) the whole Farm with the Dwelling-House and all the other buildings thereon Standing...To Him his Heirs and assigns forever.

Why his grandson William didn't remain in Massachusetts, given such a legacy, is an entirely separate story. But in that one line we are gifted with a confirmed snippet of the Tilson genealogy, at least from the point of John Murdock's will in 1756.

Monday, March 13, 2023

B O L O : Peleg Tilson


BOLO: that's missing person lingo in the law enforcement world, for "be on the lookout." Sure, it's my fourth great-grandfather that I'm missing, but I still feel like calling out all the reserves to find him. He certainly qualifies for inclusion in a genealogist's missing persons list.

In the face of no birth record and no death record—thus, not even a will to tie him to the next generation—I'm left with one tactic: try to find the place where he was last seen alive. There are two possibilities for that question: either in Washington County, Virginia, where he likely spent most of his adult life, or in Washington County, Tennessee, where he moved with some of his family.

Confusing, I know. Washington County in Virginia was the place where I found some tax records for Peleg (at least I presume it was the right Peleg; there were others in the family given the same name). But Virginia's Washington County had subsequently been carved up to form other new county designations, such as Russell County, and later, Scott and Smyth counties. Depending on where Peleg lived in old Washington County, his might have turned out to be part of a new county, thus requiring me to chase down his telltale will in any of those four Virginia Counties.

Washington County in Tennessee, however, was a different case, being once part of an entirely different state (North Carolina), then a territorial jurisdiction before the formation of Tennessee as a state. By the time Peleg arrived in Tennessee, though—most likely no earlier than 1803—Washington County as part of the new state remained as that same entity until 1875, long after Peleg Tilson had surely died, to carve out a new county called Unicoi

The resources I already have which are pointing the way for this fourth great-grandfather include some tax records from Virginia, gleaned pre-pandemic at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, and some statements from published genealogies, such as the Tilson Genealogy published in 1911.

Those published genealogies, however, while written over one hundred years ago—and thus, possibly, further within grasp of living ancestors who might have recalled such information—notoriously lack any wayfinder to help the current generation of family historians retrace the authors' steps. While I can, for instance, use Mercer Vernon Tilson's 1911 book as a springboard to leap into Mary Langford Taylor Alden's 1897 genealogy, Elizabeth (Alden) Pabodie and Descendants, neither book provides me references to verify their assertions.

There is, however, one thin nexus I was able to find to connect Peleg's father to two previous generations. We'll look at that tomorrow. Still, my missing link is the documentation to verify Peleg, himself. While we can gather documents for the previous generation, his is the one glaring exception to this paper chain of verifications. 

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Traces of Tilsons


It is nearly inconceivable that we could carry around traces of our distant ancestors in our own being, but that is exactly what is revealed when we take a DNA test for genealogy. DNA tests can reveal small segments of patterns which we share in common with others descending from the same ancestor.

Take my fourth great-grandfather, Peleg Tilson, the one I'm struggling to research this month. I may not be able to find his will in either his native Virginia nor in his new home in Tennessee, but he apparently left me some documentation, right in my own genetic makeup.

That, at least, is according to my DNA test results at, where their ThruLines tool currently shows that I have at least fifty five matches with other test takers. There, the ThruLines readout divides my DNA matches into lines of descent from eleven different Tilson children. However, since the Tilson Genealogy book only shows ten lines descending from Peleg and his wife, it is already obvious that relying on family trees of Ancestry subscribers is a caveat emptor proposition. Any of our trees could contain an error. Sometimes, we insert such problems into our own trees unwittingly.

The task I'm undertaking for the rest of this month is to trace those Tilson DNA matches from their ancestors—each of the children of Peleg Tilson, according to the 1911 Tilson Genealogy—and then confirm those assertions according to any documentation I can find.

Granted, I find it frustrating that Mercer Vernon Tilson could make the genealogical statements he made, yet not provide sources for those statements. That, at least, is my problem with the book's report that the Tilson line can be traced back to Mayflower passengers. Lack of footnotes can be frustrating.

In the meantime, as I visit my relatives in Florida, the chorus is growing louder: there are several of us now who want to verify that line back to Priscilla Mullins and John Alden. But somewhere in the backwoods of southwest Virginia, lack of any birth or death record for my fourth great-grandfather has several of us family members stymied. All we can say is: we're still looking.

Friday, March 10, 2023

Researching Matters Which
Make Life Worth Living


We spend a great deal of time in genealogy, assembling a paper trail denoting the dates in which our ancestors were born, got married, and died. Perhaps you can call those BMD details our stock in trade. But think about that for a moment. Think about what you did yesterday, or last week, or on your last memorable vacation or achievement. If those are the matters which make life worth living, why aren't we pursuing those stories in our ancestors' lives?

I've been in Florida this week, which means having an opportunity to visit with relatives I haven't seen in quite some time. Earlier this week, that opportunity included sitting down to lunch with my eldest paternal cousin, my link to a previous generation of people whom, despite being my grandparents and their generation, I have never met—not even as a baby. This cousin, about to turn ninety years of age himself,  has been my link to the details of their lives, my eyes into the recent past of my family history.

I've always had questions about my paternal grandparents. That grandfather, you may remember, was such an enigma. Spending most of his life being tight-lipped about his origin—or claiming simply that he was Irish, if anyone pressed the issue—my grandfather turned out to have a family history originating in a separate ethnicity (Pomeranian) from the north of Poland.

I've often wondered how someone could pull off a ruse like that. My grandfather had to have come to the United States at a very early age in order to avoid any telltale foreign accent, but where those passenger records might have been, I still can't tell. At least one document claimed he was born in Brooklyn, a believable lie, considering he spent his entire life in New York City.

Lunch with my cousin last week came with much conversation about just what that grandfather was like. But I assure you: the details never mentioned dates of birth, marriage, or death, or any other dry recitation of the facts of his life. My cousin's face came alive when he recounted memories of his grandfather juggling for the kids—or in front of any audience. He talked about our grandfather's best friend Leo, who was a professional wrestler, and how they liked to hang out at the beach.

One of the things that always puzzled me about my grandfather was how he seemed to slip through the cracks, slide through life without being noticed—at least by authority figures who would have demanded he behave differently if they learned of his Polish roots during a war era in which he would otherwise have been required to register as an enemy alien. I had always characterized him as a chameleon, able to blend in with his surroundings so as to never call attention to himself.

That sort of image, I found out this week, paints a very different picture than what the man was in real life. Since my cousin knew our grandfather personally, I asked him that question point blank. Was he really a chameleon?

"Oh, no," was his immediate response. The man was gregarious, fun-loving, ready for a good game of poker with the gang. Not exactly the type to cultivate a low profile.

As he let the recollections unfold before his eyes, my cousin almost seemed to be narrating what he saw in his own memories. On my part, I gained a clearer picture of just what my grandfather was like as a person—his day-to-day life, his likes and dislikes, his personality.

Once we ascertain the BMD details of an ancestor's life, all we have gained is the license to say we are sure we know who we are talking about. But what are we really saying about that person? We've identified the right person. Beyond that, we may have absolutely no idea what that person was like, just that we are talking about the right individual.

It is priceless to be able to step beyond that inaugural point, to learn who that person really was in real life. After all, those stories reveal what each ancestor was like, his or her preferences and dislikes, the character quirks and foibles. Considering that, thanks to the DNA we share with those ancestors, some of those tendencies are actually passed down to us genetically, through this examination of ancestral stories, we can connect the dots from the personality traits we know we have to the specific ancestor from whom we gained that tendency.

When I reassemble my schedule from the last week, thinking of all the conversations and interchanges I've experienced in just that short time period, I can see all the life infused in those events. When I don't have such an accounting for my ancestors, that is precisely what I am missing from the story of their lives. Sure, finding an ancestor's diary—or even photographs—gives us a first step to enter into reconstructing the story of their lives. Beyond that—or in spite of not finding such treasures—all that is left to us as researchers is to infer what we can by reconstructing the details of their day-to-day life.

Of course, no one would demand such an effort for, say, an application to a lineage society, but for my own journey through my genealogical past, I'll opt for that conversation any day.

Thursday, March 9, 2023

Research Goals and Best Laid Plans


I've been reading a book lately—okay, so it's taken me nearly six months just to get to page 136—and ran across a quote worth considering while I'm stuck here on my latest research goal. Yeah, I thought it would be far easier to set family history research goals spaced one month apart—the better to fall down rabbit holes and emerge relatively unscathed—but there was one element I hadn't taken into account.

Here's the quote, to get started. It's from author James Clear's book, Atomic Habits, which I would never have found, if it hadn't been mentioned in Luke Burgis' book, Wanting, the volume I'm still working—and thinking—my way through.

We don't rise to the level of our goals, we fall to the level of our systems.

Luke Burgis continues the thought with his own explanation: "Our goals are the product of our systems." Or rather, as I'm discovering, our ability to attain our goals is limited by our systems.

Granted, his concept is far broader than what it seems in this tiny snippet of Burgis' work, and I certainly invite you to explore his book's expanded explanation (that's where page 136 comes in). But just for today, let's extract that one thought and apply it to my system of selecting my Twelve Most Wanted for any given research year.

The problem is that while I select a target ancestor for whom an entire month's latitude seems ample to explore his or her life's story, I have not taken into account a corollary system: that of time periods and available resources. It is all quite fine to take one month to explore great-great-grandmother's life and times in mid-western America in the 1890s, when newspaper printing presses were humming and government agencies were ramping up the record-keeping prowess of an emerging empire's every activity. When we move to the edges of civilization, though—whether time-wise or by location—a month may not be adequate when we factor in other restrictions.

In the case of researching my fourth great-grandfather, Peleg Tilson, system restrictions stretch to include record accessibility. Sure, there may be microfilms capturing original tax records for Peleg's Washington County, Virginia, obligations, but if I, researching today in California, cannot access those files without traveling to the location of my ancestor, one month may not be enough time for me to make any progress on my goal. The systems working against me need to be factored into my goal-setting equation.

True, there are ways around this dilemma, as well as plenty of time to resolve any impasses. has ample digitized resources for Washington County, requiring only that I present myself at the appropriate physical site to access them. As it turns out, stuck where I am today without any access to such repositories, I can find alternate resources. The Library of Virginia has some online items available, such as this web page, "Best Sources for Virginia Research by Time Period." And the Virginia Museum of History and Culture offers up this checklist of helpful resources.

It is always better to access original documents than to take transcriptions at face value. Having found resources such as the ones I just mentioned, I decided to look for the records mentioned in the Gordon Aronhime papers I had reviewed the other day. Alas, what I found was disappointing. Regarding the tract of land near that of Elisha Dungan, dated by Aronhime as 1796, his identification of grantees as Peleg Tilson and Lemuel Tilson looked more, in the handwritten copy, like Samuel Tilson and—worse—Peter Tilson, not Peleg.

Admittedly, when looking at the digitized document itself, the handwriting stirs up questions in its own right. Look closely at the "S" in Samuel, then down a line to the "L" in "land" and the difference in the two letters is nearly imperceptible. Could that actually be "Lamuel"? After all, the same name entered again at the bottom of the document looks more like Semuel than Samuel. And if that is the case with Samuel instead of Lemuel, what about the entry read by Aronhime as Levi? Was that really supposed to be Sevi? 

Granted, even that pristine digitized copy could be a transcription of a 225-plus year old document. But that possibility, again, would take time to thoroughly research—plus require time to access people knowledgeable in the maintenance of such government records. Once again, the point stands which James Clear made about the necessity of taking into account the systems we need to work with. If there is no system at hand with which to find what we are researching, no amount of goal-setting will solve the problem.

That said, I'm still convinced there is a way to connect my Peleg Tilson with his forebears. After all, there are other writers from previous centuries who were convinced of his connection. The trick is being able to find the resources they used to document that ancestral path.

When the Same Names Keeps Popping Up


Stuck on a family history question? When it seems as if there is no way to make any progress in discovering more about those ancestors from colonial America, perhaps we researchers seem to be grasping at straws. But when the same names keep popping up, as we wander in research circles, perhaps that is actually our clue. Let's see what we can find about one surname which keeps appearing in notes about my fourth great-grandfather, Peleg Tilson of Washington County, Virginia.

We're already at a disadvantage in researching Peleg Tilson. According to the extensive Tilson Genealogy of 1911, researcher Mercer Vernon Tilson could only give an estimate for Peleg's birth—in the 1760s—and provided no entry for his date of death. The only thing we know from the book is that Peleg married a woman from Saint Clair, Virginia, whom he listed as Rachel Dungan.

Fortunately, Mercer Vernon Tilson provided a listing of ten children attributed to Peleg and his wife in that same book. The youngest of those children, a son, was listed with the curious given names of Hellens Dungan.

Any researcher seeing an unusual name like that—Hellens Dungan Tilson—would be tempted to assume that name might represent the namesake of a significant relative from the child's heritage. Since Dungan was his mother's maiden name, could her father's given name have been Hellens? Granted, Hellens would be an unusual given name for a man, but perhaps even that might itself point towards a grandmother's maiden name.

Perhaps seeing that name Dungan has sensitized me to other appearances of the surname in relation to records on the Tilsons. Remember, in finding Peleg Tilson listed among the cards from the Gordon Aronhime papers, there was a 1796 transaction noted in reference to "Elisha Dungan's land." Not Hellens Dungan, granted, but a Dungan nonetheless.

What about looking through the Aronhime papers for any information on someone named Hellens Dungan? Not surprisingly, there was a card in the collection for a similar spelling—this time, listed as Helings Dungins. Scribbled on this index card, both front and back, were far more entries than Peleg Tilson merited in his own card.

Here are a few details which could be gleaned from the card for Helings Dungins. Though there was no date of birth, he signed his will on November 10, 1813, which wasn't probated until September 20, 1814. The will was filed in Washington County's Will Book 4, beginning on page 72, according to Gordon Aronhime's notes. The most helpful clue was that among the will's witnesses was someone named Thomas Tilson.

Looking back to the Tilson Genealogy book, and this time to examine the names of Peleg Tilson's siblings, there was indeed a brother named Thomas. However, it is unclear why this Thomas Tilson might have served as witness to Helings Dungins' will, as his wife was not a Dungins. Perhaps—and this is quite likely, given the number of Tilson descendants with the same given names—it was another Thomas Tilson who signed as witness to his will.

However, that is not the end of the Tilson-Dungan connection. It happens that Peleg had another brother who did marry a Dungan bride. That was Peleg's brother Lemuel, named along with Peleg in reference to land owned by Elisha Dungan in the Aronhime papers. Though the Aronhime entry for Helings Dungins notes that his daughter Mary "may have married Samuel Tilson"—rather than Lemuel Tilson—that entry may have been a hurried error on Gordon Aronhime's part. Other record transcripts note that it was Lemuel whom Mary married on October 8, 1795, not Samuel.

This makes enough evidence for me to wonder just who Helings Dungins—or Hellens Dungan—might have been, and what his relationship to the wives of Peleg and Lemuel Tilson might have been. That said, what about the other Dungan mention in the Aronhime cards, Elisha? We have enough clues here to begin working on a rudimentary family tree. It's worth a try, in the absence of any other information on our Peleg, to wander a bit further down this research rabbit trail to see if we can unearth any other mentions of his name.

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Collateral Lines:
End Runs Around Research Roadblocks

Whenever I'm stuck on researching a particular ancestor in my family's direct line, I've found the most successful tactic is to do an end run around that research roadblock. In other words, rather than banging my head against the proverbial "brick wall" which has stopped my progress, I simply sidestep the issue and continue on my way. How to do that? Simple: I research that roadblock ancestor's siblings, or collateral lines.

It's no secret that some ancestors got more "press" than others. There could be many reasons for this. Our direct line ancestor may have settled into a relatively sedate or obscure place in life, while a sibling could have stepped into the limelight with a position putting him in the crossroads of the community. Our firstborn relative might have been born, married, or died when newspaper reports did not tend to publish birth announcements or write the detailed style of obituaries which included those juicy details genealogists love to find—but the youngest sibling might have just perfectly fit that time frame.

Since my fourth great-grandfather Peleg Tilson seemed to fall into that slot of silence of which type we genealogists bemoan, I'm going to take my chances that one of his many siblings might have garnered the limelight despite Peleg's obscurity. It's time to explore Peleg's collateral lines—and if that fails us, broaden the circle even wider to include any possible Family, Associates, or Neighbors in his "FAN Club" who might lead us to a clearer picture of his own life story.

Yesterday, when we explored Peleg's entry among the Gordon Aronhime papers, in that impossible-to-read handwritten note I spotted a few names. For instance, next to an illegible code was the entry: "w/ Lemuel Tilson to Luis Bishop." Another note read, "adj Elisha Dungan's land."

While I can't say anything—yet—about Luis Bishop, a name like Lemuel Tilson most likely has a connection to Peleg. And while the Tilson Genealogy book gives Peleg's wife's name as "Rachel Dungan" rather than the more likely Rebecca, that Dungan maiden name certainly resonates in the mention of someone by the name of Elisha Dungan. Relatives?

With those clues—in the face of a research roadblock—perhaps it is time to explore what can be found both about the siblings of Peleg Tilson and his in-laws.

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Some Scribbled Notes Left Behind


Every now and then, a family history researcher is blessed to discover a diligent local historian on a mission to capture as much information as possible on a certain set of people in one geographic area. While the southwest corner of Virginia might not seem like a site inspiring such historical pursuits, that is indeed what transpired with the life's work of one man named Gordon Aronhime.

Though he was born in Roanoke, Virginia, Gordon Aronhime spent most of his life in Bristol, Virginia. There he worked as a writer and photographer for the Bristol Herald Courier and, having earned a bachelor's and master's degree in history from the East Tennessee State University, eventually gained a reputation as a well-known local historian and author.

It was Gordon Aronhime's "exhaustive research" on the early history of southwest Virginia which merits our review of his work today. Particularly since he narrowed his focus to the era from 1770 through 1795, and also followed some of the earliest settlers who removed to east Tennessee, his collection of handwritten notes, cards, and other records has found a place in the repository of the Library of Virginia.

The Gordon Aronhime Papers, as the collection is known, includes more than four thousand entries, filed under the pertinent surnames of the area and time period. Considering the collection contains that many entries, the list of specific surnames in the Library of Virginia's entry may seem misleading. However, as one local Tennessee GenWeb project noted, the library's introductory page is misleading, as "many, many more surnames" can be found in the collection. As that project noted, "consider the surnames to be guide words."

As far as our Peleg Tilson is concerned, he did merit one index card's scrawled references, for which I am grateful. To decipher Aronhime's handwritten notes, I needed to find a decoding mechanism, which the Library of Virginia thankfully provided.

The entry provides details which, given today's wealth of digitized documents, can mostly be assembled from online resources, once we use the Aronhime Papers as our guide. While I haven't found the original document on Peleg's wedding information, for instance, it has been noted in abstracts such as this one from Virginia Colonial Abstracts, found online at From deeds dated in 1796, 1804, and 1809, we can trace Peleg Tilson's trail from his former home in Virginia to his new location in Washington County, Tennessee.

But if Peleg Tilson owned land in Tennessee, where is any record of what became of it after his passing? Since we are stuck without much information to guide us onward, this might be time to explore another collateral line.


Image above: Card number 5 of 49 in the Southwest Virginia Card File of the Gordon Aronhime Papers at the Library of Virginia. To access, click here. 

Monday, March 6, 2023

Rachel and Beyond:
Where We Left off With the Tilsons


Turns out, it is a helpful habit to develop standardized research routines—those habits you always make sure to do when engaged in the endless pursuit of ancestors. In this case, I'm picking up where I left off last year, concerning my third great-grandmother, Rachel Tilson. Thankfully, I left notes on not only what I had already found, but what I need to do next.

Since there is always more work to do than month to finish it in, at the end of last November, I still hadn't located the information I was seeking on Rachel's father, Peleg Tilson. The main problem was isolating any specifics on his death. Considering Peleg was born in the 1760s, I assure you there should be some signs of his demise. As for a will, though, I have yet to find that particular sign.

The problem with Peleg Tilson was that he wasn't the only Tilson descendant to possess such a name. If you take Peleg to be an unusual name, in the Tilson world that notion would be considered mis-informed. I did manage to eke out a few details on not only one, but three such relatives by that given name, so I've been forewarned to tread cautiously on this research trail.

Mercer Vernon Tilson, author of The Tilson Genealogy, a 1911 collection of genealogical details on many of the descendants of the founding 1638 immigrant Edmund Tilson of Plymouth colony, showed our Peleg as second-born son of William and Mary (Ransom) Tilson. However, as for the date of birth, this Peleg's entry in the book showed an enigmatic "176—" in a place called Saint Clair, once part of Washington County, Virginia.

The only other information provided on Peleg, in his own entry in the Tilson Genealogy volume, was that he moved by 1803 to Tennessee, settling about three miles from the current town of Erwin. Another history book, predating The Tilson Genealogy, mentioned several names of those settling on what was then called "Greasy Cove," including Peleg and, likely, his brother William Tilson—not among the very first, but arriving "a little later." Yet, if he remained—as his marriage and ensuing birth of multiple children would imply—I find no sign of records regarding the disposition of any properties belonging to Peleg after his death.

That, pretty much, is where I left off with my quest to discover the connection between Rachel Tilson and her father Peleg, and their supposed ancestral connection to the passengers of the Mayflower. It's time to dig deeper into available records on Peleg. Fortunately, I was able to find some notes left by an avid history researcher from that region. We'll discuss the man who left those handwritten details tomorrow. 

Sunday, March 5, 2023

It Helps to See the Progress


I'm a big fan of keeping an eye on progress. Tracking the changes as I work on a goal provides a positive feedback loop that keeps me going. That's why I keep tabs on how I'm doing in my family history endeavors on a biweekly basis. I appreciate a well-meaning pat on the back every once in a while—doesn't everybody?

After mentioning yesterday how my family tree may look more like a bush than a redwood, I attributed that odd shape to my pursuit of collateral lines, especially to work hand in hand with researching my DNA matches. Those collateral lines represent the siblings of grandparents, great-grandparents and beyond—and all their descendants, too. Since one of my research goals is to put every DNA match in his or her proper place in my family tree, I simply could not do that without knowing who my collateral lines descend from.

Last month, for instance, I worked on the collateral lines of my fourth and fifth great-grandparents in the Taliaferro family. Because I don't like to add names without supporting documentation, I could tell my "progress" was evolving quite slowly. But when I tallied up my work over the last two weeks, I was encouraged to see I had been able to add 295 individuals to my tree. Sure, my bush, er, tree has gotten fat enough to contain 32,742 names, but each of those names has a reason for being included in that tree.

Keeping a biweekly tally like that also helps me keep tabs on when unexpected events cause additions to my work. For instance, both last month and this current month my research plans call for me to focus on my mother's ancestors. I haven't worked on my in-laws' tree since last fall. And yet, somehow, some event in the past two weeks prompted me to pull up their tree and add another individual's information, for my count has increased by one person's entry. That tree now has records for 30,793 people. And beginning in April, I'll get back to researching my mother-in-law's line, which will add even more to that tree.

I'm a big fan of "inch by inch." Being consistent in small amounts of work over time can add up to something significant. I keep my records on a spreadsheet, and when I've looked back over the years, I'm amazed to see what I started with. Only a few years ago, those numbers were less than half the size they are now. By now, a little work, day by day, has become a habit I look forward to. The bonus is learning all the fascinating stories I stumble upon in the process as I get to know my extended family better.

Saturday, March 4, 2023

. . . But What About D N A ?


While this month's research goal requires us to carefully study documents—especially as we push far beyond that magic 1850 census mark where everyone in the household had a name—it might help to take a peek ahead and look at what DNA matches might be available to help us piece together the Tilson family constellation.

Focusing on my test results at AncestryDNA—though I've tested at four other companies—I will draw primarily on their ThruLines program. Mainly, I'm doing this to gain a quick and dirty sketch of who else out there has tested their DNA and shown even the slightest connection with a Tilson ancestor in their posted family tree. Granted, not every tree on is in pristine condition, but remember, I'm using this tool as a trailblazer. We'll check the details for each case as we proceed with this month's research goal.

Right off the bat, I can see that my third great-grandmother Rachel Tilson garnered me eight DNA matches to examine. However, remembering that she was married to a Davis man—of which there were several in their northeastern Tennessee neighborhood—I could also tell that his ThruLines listing indicated nine DNA matches at Ancestry.

Pushing back another generation brings the possibility of losing some genealogical matches due to the distance of the relationship, but for those whom I match, I can be more certain that they are connected through the Tilson line instead of another line married into the family. Let's look at Rachel's father, Peleg Tilson, to see how many of those matches remain.

That move does indeed broaden our perspective. For Peleg Tilson, I show fifty four DNA matches, ranging from the doubtful strength of six centiMorgans up to a more reliable fifty eight centiMorgan connection. The increase in matches is not surprising, since Peleg and his wife were parents of at least ten children.

I've been working my way through those fifty four DNA matches in my ThruLines readout at Ancestry. With each suggested line, I go through the generations, checking documentation before I add the proposed relatives descending from Peleg's specific child. Of course, I have several more matches to review, but so far all suggestions seem to bear out. As I progress through that task list, my tree grows more robust with collateral lines, which is fine: it augments my personal research goals.

For those who don't want to include collateral lines in your tree, such a plan may not suit your purposes. With every descendant I can add of my distant ancestors, it bolsters the argument concerning their identity. With each brick wall ancestor I encounter, a side step to a collateral line can sometimes help me break through that research impasse. Sure, my tree may be more bushy than tall, but ever so gradually—and confidently—I am pushing back to my fifth and sixth great-grandparents.

Friday, March 3, 2023

Rule Number One: Start With Yourself


It is from my third great-grandmother Rachel Tilson that I have a potential connection with the line of a Mayflower passenger. That, of course, is what propels my research quest this month. My goal is to be able to sufficiently document a connection beginning with my maternal grandfather's Davis family, then moving through my Tilson ancestors until the matrilineal connection with Priscilla Mullins, wife of John Alden. However, everybody who has done family history research knows that we don't begin with such starry-eyed litanies; for our genealogical research, we begin with ourselves, then only move beyond that point step by step and document by document. Today, I'll begin recounting the pathway from my current, obviously personally known, family to the Tilson nexus.

My maternal grandfather, born in 1897, was a Davis. He was born in the tiny town of Erwin, Tennessee, in the northeast corner of the state nestled amidst the Blue Ridge Mountains and flush with the North Carolina state border. He was the youngest, and only surviving son, of the six children of "Will" and "Cassie" Boothe Davis.

His father Will—officially William David Davis—was, in turn, son of Thomas, who was son of James Davis. It was with this James Davis that the family line was established in the area around Erwin, Tennessee—although at that earlier time, the settlement was part of Washington County in that same state. I know the family was in the area at least as early as 1822, for that is when, according to an index of marriage licenses in Washington County, James made Rachel Tilson his bride.

While Rachel was obviously in Tennessee for her 1822 wedding, that is not where she began life. On Monday, we'll review what is already known about her early years before she—and, presumably, the rest of her family—arrived in Tennessee. From that point, we'll explore what can be found on that particular Tilson line in Virginia for the next few generations.

Thursday, March 2, 2023

A Tilson To - Do List


Before launching into a new research goal, I find it helpful to draw up a list of steps I want to take and possible resources to locate. Now that we're into a new month, my March quest to connect my Tilson line to some passengers on the famed Mayflower will likely fill the entire month. Here are a few items I want to include on my Tilson to-do list.

First on my list is to check what I've already accomplished. Since this is a re-take on a research goal from past years, it will help to read through the posts I've already noted in this blog. (Yes, I have an ulterior motive for blogging.) Next is to re-assemble my resources which I had found in past forays, such as online books and scanned documents from past trips to Salt Lake City's Family History Library, to keep their links and hard copies handy as I work through this month's project. But most of all, I want to work through my family tree database to make sure I haven't missed any documents which may have been uploaded to online services since I last passed this way.

Once I re-orient myself to what has already been accomplished, the path forward will become more clear. One positive aspect of genealogical research is that every discovery seems to propel the researcher forward, every discovery prompts new questions and delivers new resources for the next step.

I anticipate delving into the online catalog of FamilySearch for records in the Virginia counties where the Tilsons once lived—but since many records previously available online during the pandemic have since been retracted, I expect to drive to my local library or one of the larger FamilySearch libraries in my area to access material at their location. WorldCat may also remain at my fingertips this month, although realizing that not all libraries participate in that consortium, I've remembered to look up what my own local library features in our genealogical reference section, too. Tax records, property records, and especially wills will be top of the list for documents to target.

While I get busy on this to-do list in the background, though, let's start tomorrow reviewing the line in my family which leads to those Tilson ancestors in question this month.


Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Back on the Tilson Trail


When it's time to welcome in a new month, I flip over the page on my research calendar to a new challenge. That's what I outlined at the beginning of the year in my list of the Twelve Most Wanted ancestors I want to find. This month, I'll be returning to the Tilsons of southwestern Virginia and, eventually, northeastern Tennessee.

The task won't be easy. I've been stuck on this one for years, even after making that family my research target for March of 2020. Of course, back then I had great plans to spend time at Salt Lake City's enormous Family History Library. If there is an answer to be found to my research question, that would be the one place to contain any leads.

We all know what happened to those plans in 2020. In fact, mine became only one set of likely millions of plans and dreams that had to be set aside for the lockdowns following the announcement of the severity of Covid. I did try picking up the research trail last November, when I realized things weren't going to work for another research plan I had slated for that month.

Hence, the addition of the Tilson family to my goals for this month. In these thirty one days of March, I'm hoping to find enough documentation to link my Tilson line to a daughter of a daughter of...well, you get the idea. Let's just say that Priscilla Mullins of Mayflower fame was on the matriline of my sixth great-grandmother Janet Murdock, wife of Stephen Tilson. And that couple's son William was the one who launched out into the wild, moving from the Massachusetts settlement at Plympton to the southwest edges of colonial Virginia.

The problem with researching ancestors who were living out in the middle of nowhere—at least for those trying to locate documents on such ancestors—is that there may have been very little documentation going on. Not to mention the time period in which I'm trying to find this family, leading up to the close of the Seven Years' War, better known in its North American theater as the French and Indian War. At the close of that conflict, the King of England's Royal Proclamation of 1763 basically told my Tilson ancestors that they could no longer live where they had settled. Then what?

That's where my problem lies: in tracing the Tilsons of that generation back to Janet Murdock, where I can connect to the official "Silver Books" of the Mayflower Society. This month, I'll again try my hand at connecting those dots.


Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Ran Out of Month: Now What?


We all knew this would be a short month. Happens every year. Even those "bonus" years with an extra day still leave us feeling like we've been pulled up short. That's February for you.

That leaves me with far more research for my February goal than I have month to stash it in. That is nothing new when it comes to family history research. There is always more to find. Sometimes, the discoveries take us on detours or lead us to unexpected revelations. But when that happens in February, I make a mental note: in the future, leave month two of my Twelve Most Wanted plan for a slam-dunk proposition. Nothing difficult.

So...what to do with the leftovers of my quest to discover more about my Taliaferro roots?

For all the children of my fifth great-grandparents, Zachariah and Mary Boutwell Taliaferro, I'd like to fill in the blanks on their basic details. Birth, death, locations, name of spouse: all these help fix the identity of each child and keep me from confusing them with others of the same name and generation. Likewise, I'd do that for the previous generation: the children of Richard and Rose Berryman Taliaferro.

Along the way in this month's research journey, I found some other possibilities for future research. These come from wanting to learn more about the maternal lines in these generations. First, I'd go back to my fourth great-grandfather, also named Zachariah, to delve into the family history of his wife, Margaret Chew Carter. Both the Carter line and the Chew surname are rich with potential discoveries. I'd like to know more about these families and how my line connects there.

Then, too, I know very little about the senior Zachariah's wife, Mary Boutwell. I'll scout out the possibilities to see whether there is enough digitally-accessible material to merit a month's research focus for next year. Finally, Rose Berryman, wife of Richard Taliaferro, may be another research possibility.

This signals me to change my approach on selecting my Twelve Most Wanted for the upcoming year. Instead of saving that process for the peaceful, reflective time between Christmas and New Year when I usually tackle that question, I'll now make notes to refer back to, once I get to that end-of-year process in December.

In the meantime, as usual, I'll list the research questions I still need to tackle on my unfinished goal for this month. That list will serve as a tickler to refocus my attention, the next time I have an opportunity to revisit the Taliaferro family. With a new month upon us, though, it's time to move on to the next of my Twelve Most Wanted for 2023.

For tomorrow? Another research challenge.

Monday, February 27, 2023

Looking for Patriots


As the month comes to a close and I realize I have far more research to do than days to do it in, I thought of one possible project to undertake. In the books I found this month which included my Taliaferro ancestors, I had noted that many mentioned a Taliaferro man who served in the American Revolution. However, when I go to the source to check such assertions, I sometimes cannot find any supporting documentation. Why not reverse the process and take a quick glance through all the brothers named in the family of my fifth great-grandfather Zachariah Taliaferro, to see if any of them are Patriots?

I already know that my fifth great-grandfather was among the Patriots. After all, that's how I gained membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution. But what about his brothers? There could be five possibilities: John, Charles, Peter, Francis, and Richard.

Richard, the youngest of those siblings I've been able to find, had already been mentioned in at least one genealogy book as having served in the war. However, when I checked the D.A.R. Ancestors records, I could not find anyone with the right year of birth. He might still be one of the Richards mentioned; I just can't tell at this point.

That realization reminded me to be much more wary about claims published in genealogy books. Hence, my project to research the rest of those brothers, as they were all of an age to be involved in making history.

Starting from John, the eldest of the Taliaferro brothers still alive during the 1770s, I was rewarded for my efforts by finding his entry in the D.A.R. website. His service description was listed as "Minute Men." He served from Caroline County, Virginia.

Next of the brothers was Charles, born in 1735, who was also in the D.A.R. Patriot file. His service was identified as "provided supplies." He, too, was resident in Caroline County at the time.

When I stepped down to the next Taliaferro brother, Peter, I couldn't find any entry. While I had a year of birth for him in 1740, I haven't yet located a date of death for him. It could be possible that he had already died before the beginning of the war. However, I had a note in my genealogical database that Peter was father of a son whom he named, predictably, Richard, born in 1762. When I had looked for D.A.R. entries on the youngest brother of Zachariah—also named Richard—I had spotted that 1762 date of birth for one of the other Patriots with that same name. As it turns out, that Patriot would be Peter's son Richard.

As for the two youngest brothers of my Zachariah Taliaferro, Francis and Richard, I did not have success in finding either of them listed among the D.A.R. Patriots. There are two entries for a Francis Taliaferro, but neither aligns with my Francis' date of birth in 1745. I had the same difficulty with entries for Richard Taliaferro, as I had already mentioned. That isn't to say they didn't serve or at least support the war effort. I just haven't yet gotten enough information to adequately identify them.

Now that I've located those siblings' war records, I used's labeling system to create a custom tree tag labeled D.A.R. Patriot for each of their profile pages. Even though those Taliaferro brothers aren't in my direct line, I like to visually note their participation, no matter how small, in a key event in our nation's history.

Sunday, February 26, 2023

So I Cheated: ChatGPT


Amid howls of protest in my family—after all, we are a household of teachers—one certain family member, who will remain unnamed to, er, protect his privacy, decided to dive into the dark side. He investigated ChatGPT.

It was an innocent enough endeavor. He simply asked the AI device for some references for a particular esoteric topic he was studying. ChatGPT instantly complied.

After long household discussions about how students will never be able to learn anything, and how the entire culture is going down the tubes, and oh no, oh no, whatever shall we do, the conclusion I gleaned from those discussions was: it's a tool. I see it as a souped-up search engine. Think of it as Google: The Next Generation. Sure, I'm never going to use it to write a blog post here—alright, I know: never say never—but I was curious to see whether I could use the thing to do a simple search of the nether reaches of the Internet. For, say, genealogy.

Since I have been struggling with my research project this month, I asked ChatGPT for a rundown of resources for Rose Berryman, my sixth great-grandmother. Well, that is not entirely correct; I had mercy and added a few delineating terms, like when she was born and who she married. After all, if I didn't do that, the answer might turn out more like search results on Facebook.

The response wasn't too bad. After all, I did provide the location (Virginia) and a date (her birth circa 1708). Her husband's name—Richard Taliaferro—was probably the biggest clue. The instantly-provided paragraph indicated her parents' names as well as those of her husband. Included were the names of six, though not all, of their children.

When asked for references, ChatGPT provided links to specific pages in several books digitized on Internet Archive. Some links to other reference material from Google Books were also provided.

The upshot of this little experiment isn't that I'll now use ChatGPT to research my family tree. After all, some of the names provided in this little foray don't line up with what I've found elsewhere. I'll have to check those out, myself. And that's the point: no matter which resource you use to do your research, you still need to check out the information for yourself. The answer isn't right until it's right. And confirming such details is still part of the routine of genealogy, no matter whether I'm using AI or doing the grunt work myself.

Saturday, February 25, 2023

R@RT: A Weekend Divertissement


Before you know it, the time will come for yet another RootsTech extravaganza. Don't count on me being in Salt Lake City after this weekend; too big a crowd for me. I'll watch from my own cozy hideaway.

Even though the big event doesn't occur for another five days (it begins March 2), there are a few preparatory items to take care of beforehand. First, of course, is to register to attend online. Then, to scope out the online offerings and plan which ones to attend right away and which can't-miss opportunities can be viewed later.

Top of my list, once I've taken care of those other details, is to check out this year's Relatives at RootsTech—or, for a short take on that name, R@RT. Yes, I know, I know: apps like that are only as good as the input which fuels the fun connections. But I'll keep an eye on those false matches, I promise.

Last year, I had a chance to connect with a McClellan cousin via R@RT, right before my trip back to Florida to show my sister the old family home there. It was fun to connect with this distant cousin. After all, we may have thousands of distant cousins, thanks to all the ancestors we've researched, but that doesn't mean they all share our deep enthusiasm about genealogy. Finding a cousin via R@RT means using the app to sift through all those other relatives in our tree to find the ones who share our love of family history.

This year, my cousin count has improved. I'm not necessarily keen on how many cousins are on my readout for R@RT. More important to me is finding closer cousins. Fifth or sixth cousins may be mildly interesting, but I much prefer to find those third or fourth cousins.

Why? One simple reason: DNA testing. Yep, I'm looking for genealogical cousins who also show up as genetic cousin matches at any of the places where I've tested—or, who would be willing to take a DNA test. While it may be possible to find a fifth or sixth cousin match through DNA, it is highly unlikely to detect such matches. The third cousin level is far more reliable, and fourth cousins can come shining through fairly reliably, as well. Those are the cousins I want to message so we can keep in contact. And since the readout for participants in R@RT is only available for about one month, it's time to get busy now.

Since the R@RT system allows participants to search their readout by different keys—location, specific ancestor, or family line—I tried looking specifically for Broyles and Taliaferro cousins. After all, those are the two lines I've been researching this year. It turns out there are two fourth cousins who have those surnames in their ancestry—not many, agreed, but maybe two fellow researchers who are interested in delving into our mutual lines. Collaboration can be a great way to tackle research problems.

I've still got a few more days this month to devote to my Taliaferro research, but for this weekend, time invested in sorting the R@RT cousins—and getting in touch with family I didn't know I had—will be well worth the effort.  

Friday, February 24, 2023

Advancing Into Uncharted Territory


Does it sometimes feel as if, in exploring our family lines reaching back to the early 1700s of colonial America, we are tentatively entering into uncharted territory? That is not necessarily so, for there were many governmental and church records during that time period which can still be accessed—if, that is, one knows the appropriate repository for finding such documents.

My strategy, in planning my advance into this "uncharted" territory, is to consult with genealogical books and manuscripts to assemble a working list, then see what I can find in documents to verify or discard those published assertions.

As we've already noted, there are several books which include mention of the family of my fifth great-grandfather Zachariah Taliaferro. I already know there are more such resources, and have been on the hunt to gather together titles to store in my own notes. After all, there is far more than can be accomplished in this one month; I will be returning to this research challenge in a future iteration.

One book that I find others mentioning often is the 1926 publication, The Ancestry and Posterity of Dr. John Taliaferro and Mary (Harding) Taliaferro, by Willie Catherine Ivey. It is available at several libraries across the country, including the Sutro Library in San Francisco where, fresh out of college, I found it on one of my first forays into genealogy. ("I'll look for a book on the Taliaferros. There can't be too many books on families by that name.")

The Ivey book, thankfully, was also available online at—although in a typewritten manuscript captured dimly in its digitized version. Still, it was a resource. Further shouts of joy erupted when I subsequently located a typeset copy online through

While I intend to compare versions of the Taliaferro ancestry as I locate the genealogy in various books written in the late 1800s and early 1900s, let's zoom in right now to see who would take their place as the possible siblings of my fifth great-grandfather, Zachariah Taliaferro.

According to the Ivey book, Zachariah was the third-born child of Captain Richard Taliaferro and his bride, the former Rose Berryman, daughter of Benjamin and Elizabeth Newton Berryman. After their 1726 wedding, according to Ivey, they welcomed thirteen children into their family, although not all survived into adulthood.

Their firstborn child was a daughter, Sarah, born in Virginia in 1727. Ivey notes that Sarah eventually married a man by the name of John Lewis, which immediately puts me on the alert to look for yet another way I might be my own cousin.

Second-born Benjamin, arriving late in 1728, reminds me that this family was prone to repeat the names they gave their children over the generations. This Benjamin died fairly young, about 1751, providing yet another reason for family members to call their deceased brother to mind by naming their own sons after him.

After third-born Zachariah, my direct line, was the ill-fated son Richard. Named after his own father, the child died within days of his 1731 birth.

The next son, John, was the child whom author Willie Catherine Ivey sought to honor with her book. Her book includes an entire chapter devoted to his life story.

Yet another son, Charles, born in 1735, includes a listing of his children and grandchildren. Seeing the names echoed down through these generations—and the intermarriages with repeated other surnames—reminds me to tread lightly as I research these related lines.

Following Charles was the 1738 birth of a child named Beheathland. The author mentioned that that name originated from the Berryman family. It was repeated through additional generations of the Taliaferros, as well.

Another son, Peter, was welcomed into the Taliaferro family in 1740. His was one of the entries which included the name of a future spouse.

Children numbers nine and ten turned out to be twin daughters: Elizabeth and Rose. While the author included a note concerning Elizabeth's eventual husband, there was no further mention about Rose, leaving me unsure whether she even survived to adulthood.

The next child was also a daughter, whom they named Mary. She was born in 1743.

The last two children of Richard and Rose Taliaferro were sons. Francis, born in 1745, was followed by another son named after his father. The author noted here that the youngest son, Richard, served in the Revolution. However, in checking the D.A.R. listing of Patriots, while there were four men noted by that name, none matched our Richard's date of birth as given by this author.

Details like that remind me that no published genealogy is fail-safe. Thus, my next step: to pursue each of the siblings of Zachariah with an eye to finding supporting documentation, whether online, through footnotes in other publications, or by locating the actual verifying records myself. While the many published books of previous generations may seem helpful as trailblazers, without the support of documentation, we are still left just the same as if we were advancing into uncharted territory.


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