Friday, March 31, 2023

So There's a Will


It can be quite frustrating, when finally locating an ancestor's obituary, to discover that, after paragraphs about the person's virtues and accomplishments, all that was said about the bereaved family members was that, yep, there were family members. No mention of names, frustratingly. If the researcher is lucky, the notice might at least include a count of members in the family.

That was the situation after the 1850 passing of Comfort Ijams Stevenson, the only other daughter of Elizabeth Howard and William Ijams of Fairfield County, Ohio. Since I already knew her husband—Edward Stevenson—had died before that point, my only hope in finding names for the couple's supposed four surviving daughters was to locate his will.

If, that is, he left one.

As it turned out, thanks to this era of increasing digitized resources, his was one of the wills included in a collection at But don't think it was that simple a matter to find it. Entering through the front portal of the website and searching the catalog for Fairfield County court records directly yielded me nothing. Even when I searched with the quite common alternate spelling—Stephenson—nothing came up in response to my query.

Winding my way through the FamilySearch wiki to the broader Ohio probate records category, I once again looked for Edward Stevenson. This time, I was in a collection which was not searchable, but thankfully had enough way-markers to point me in the right direction. The index provided the page number for an entry on Edward Stevenson—yes, spelled that same way—and it was just a hunt and peck matter of tiptoeing my way through the records.

Once at Edward Stevenson's own will, it didn't take long to assure me I had the right man. First mention was his wishes for his "beloved wife Comfort." And among the witnesses to his will was someone identified as F. R. Ijams, possibly Comfort's brother, Frederick R. Ijams.

To the matter at hand, finding the names of the four daughters supposedly alive by the time of Edward Stevenson's will, was my next goal. This was not as straightforward a process as I'd hoped. First named was a daughter identified as Elizabeth Walker (although later listed as Elizabeth Walters), to whom her father gave specific properties, including one at which the Walker family was already residing. Reading further in the will, it appears that her husband might be the man identified as Richard B. Walker, whom Edward Stevenson appointed as executor of his will.

The next daughter named was, by that point, already married and called Lucinda Greer. This is the daughter I already knew about—often listed as Lucinda Grier—and have researched her line of descent.

The third daughter mentioned in Edward's will was apparently not married by the time of the 1844 will, her name being listed as Mary Ann Stevenson. Like the first daughter in Edward's will, this was a name I had not found in any other records, presenting me with another task to complete in tandem with exploration of my mother-in-law's matriline through the results of my husband's mtDNA test.

But what about a fourth daughter? At the time of the 1830 census—the most recent one in which I had been able to find an entry for Edward "Stephenson" in Fairfield County, Ohio—it was apparent that there were four girls included in that household. As we continue to look for further information on the two daughters found today in Edward's will, perhaps we'll encounter clues as to what became of that fourth daughter.


Thursday, March 30, 2023

Looking for Comfort


In our quest to better determine the full identity of Elizabeth Howard, wife of William Ijams, we need some powerful tools to help us press back to the era in which she lived, the mid-1700s through the date of her death in 1826. Top of the list for those tools is the mitochondrial DNA test, called mtDNA for short. Finding an exact match on that mtDNA test means that both the matching "cousin" and our test-taker share a most recent common ancestor who was mother to daughters who had daughters who had daughters...

In Elizabeth's case, though she had many sons, there were only two women who called her mother: my mother-in-law's direct ancestor, Sarah Howard Ijams, and Sarah's sister Comfort. While Sarah did have two daughters before her untimely death, adding Comfort's female descendants to my search would help.

There is, however, a problem with using Comfort Ijams: there are sparse resources for learning more about her life. Thanks to a volunteer's notes on Find A Grave, I learned that Comfort and her husband, Edward Stevenson, had at least one son and one daughter. But the very year in which she died—1850—was the first year in which American census records began listing all the names in a family, not just the head of household. Wherever those daughters might have been named in that census, it would not have been within the household of Comfort and Edward Stevenson.

Thankfully, some kind subscriber had uploaded an (unfortunately) unidentified resource which abstracted material from The Western Christian Advocate. From the abstract, I could see that Comfort and her husband Edward Stevenson were parents of eight children, all but one of whom were daughters.

Unfortunately, not one of those daughters was named in that publication. And I want to find every one of them. After all, those may be the very ancestors from whom my husband's mtDNA matches descend.

Since it seemed that the entry shared on Ancestry was an abstract, I was off to look for the original source. First step was to learn more about The Western Christian Advocate. Thanks to some tips from Google, I learned that it was a weekly publication of the Methodist Church in the United States, established in Cincinnati in 1834. Better yet, I discovered that some editions have been digitized and can now be found online. However, like many periodicals, archived versions may have limited date ranges available.

Fortunately for me, the issue I wanted—dated August 14, 1850, according to the abstract posted by the Ancestry subscriber—could be found within the collection available at Genealogy Bank. Searching for Comfort's married name, Stevenson, I found the original entry from which the abstract was drawn. Yes, the original still only had the phrase "seven daughters and one son," but I now know there were at least four daughters still living—presumably in Ohio, where the family settled—at the time of Comfort's 1850 death.

For now, the search process will be to reverse-engineer the discovery of those four daughters. Hopefully, their father left a will before his 1844 passing. If not, perhaps county marriage records will point out the nuptial arrangements for the Stevenson daughters. What is clear, though, is that flowery and kind-hearted obituaries of that era will do little to assist me in finding the names of those the dearly departed left behind.

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Racing Past Roadblocks


There are times when we run into roadblocks in our quest to document our family history. That is where I am stuck, as I begin the upcoming month's research plans to explore the family of Elizabeth Howard Ijams, my mother-in-law's fourth great-grandmother. As frustrating as those roadblocks may be—and the likely reason we often refer to them as "brick walls"—in this new age of genetic genealogy, we can find a way past those research impasses. But it's not just any DNA test which provides the key to unlock the hidden gate in that research roadblock; for this, we need a special kind of test.

While most companies selling direct-to-consumer DNA kits for genealogy provide what is called an autosomal test, there are two other types of tests which can boost our progress beyond those research roadblocks. One, the more familiar of the two tests, is known as the Y-DNA test. That test reveals what is called a man's patriline—his father's father's father's paternal ancestry. The other test, though not as widely utilized, is called the mitochondrial DNA test, or mtDNA for short.

As you may have guessed, the mtDNA test can reveal the test-taker's mother's mother's mother's maternal line. Unlike the Y-DNA test, which can only be taken by men, all of us inherit mtDNA from our mother's matriline (though only women pass this type of DNA along to their children).

What is most useful about the mtDNA test is the rate at which the mtDNA itself mutates, or changes over generations. Clue: molasses in January is the speed of light, compared to mtDNA mutations. Or, as the ISOGG wiki has noted, if two people who have taken the full mtDNA test (the most complete version) are an exact match, that means the most recent common ancestor they share could be as distant as twenty two generations, or up to 550 years ago. Even if you were descended from well-documented royalty, you'd likely be hard pressed to come up with a paper trail of your ancestors reaching back that far.

I had already used the mtDNA test on a puzzle in my own family tree, a second great-grandmother who was raised as an orphan. An exact match to my full-sequence mtDNA test revealed a most recent common ancestor we shared who was born in 1700. While that was not exactly 550 years ago, it was about as far as I could have stretched my paper trail—if I even knew which direction to take my research.

As it turns out, my research goal for this month—learning more about Elizabeth Howard, the mother of Sarah Howard Ijams—puts us squarely on the matriline for my mother-in-law. Elizabeth Howard would be her fourth great-grandmother, a real stretch if we had to rely on autosomal DNA matches to press forward another generation to Elizabeth's parents. But for mtDNA, even Elizabeth's likely birth in the 1750s might not cause us any problems.

The only problem we'd have would be if there were no exact matches for my mother-in-law's matriline. But even though my mother-in-law died a few years before I became involved in using genetic genealogy, fortunately all her children—both daughters and sons—would carry the same mtDNA, most likely unmutated.

One of her sons, my husband, did indeed take that test, and so far has four mtDNA matches, three of whom are exact matches. While none of those matches' names show up in her extensive family tree, a month of dedicated attention to this research question may provide us with some leads. We'll touch base with this supporting research question as we work our way through the upcoming month's research goal.

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

A Family History Roadblock


It was not unusual for American women to die young in previous centuries, so I suspect Sarah Howard Ijams, though mourned by her husband John Jackson, was merely among such an unfortunate number. Sarah had recently given birth to the fourth Jackson child, a son they named Robert, and perhaps complications from childbirth caused her demise. I may never know for sure, for there is little record of her 1829 passing in Perry County, Ohio, other than a brief mention as an unnamed sister of William, John and Joseph Ijams in a hundred forty year old history book.

I had puzzled over Sarah's origin in past years, even making her one of my Twelve Most Wanted two years ago. Still, no success in uncovering her roots, other than to toy with the brotherly connections referred to in old local history publications. She has become one of the roadblocks in my mother-in-law's family history. And yet, I do know a few details about her.

That Sarah and her brothers were sons of a woman whose maiden name was Howard was evident, for Sarah's middle name—Howard, an otherwise odd choice for a daughter—was shared with at least four of her Ijams brothers: John, William, Isaac, and Joseph.

I've actually found out more about Sarah's mother Elizabeth Howard from her later years than her younger years. I suspect the most sensible explanation of where Elizabeth came from, before settling on land which would eventually become part of the state of Ohio, would be that she lived originally in the same general area as the man who became her husband, William Ijams. To trace that history, we'd likely need to turn to records in Maryland predating the early 1800s.

My goal with this research project is to determine and document the origin of Sarah's parents, William Ijams and Elizabeth Howard. But I won't be stopping there. That is but the first step in this upcoming month when I pursue more information on Elizabeth Howard's own family.

Monday, March 27, 2023

More Month Than Material


Sometimes, a month like March can seem a very long period of time. When combined with a research plan like my one-topic-a-month Twelve Most Wanted, sometimes I find myself left with more month than material to talk about.

This month, the plan was to examine the Tilson family, among whose ancestors was a maternal line branching off to connect with the close descendants of John Alden and Priscilla Mullins of Mayflower fame. My goal, of course, is to assemble an appropriate paper trail to document the connection from my immediate family—several of whom really want to become members of the Mayflower Society—all the way to those very Mayflower passengers.

Depending on what I've found along the way this month, for my research goal, I either can piggy-back on the membership application of some specific distant cousins of mine—including their reliance on Mercer Vernon Tilson's book, The Tilson Genealogy—or come up with some impossible-to-find documents. All that's left to do is construct the tree plus verification on my side of the family and see what happens when I submit the application.

In the meantime, I've been working my way through The Tilson Genealogy for yet another reason: to see where my many Tilson DNA matches fit into the family tree. I've got that process nailed down to an exact system. Starting with the eldest sibling of my Tilson ancestor, I document what I can about that Tilson sibling's own identity, then move down that line step by step from his oldest child to youngest child, then down through the generations on that line until I reach current day relatives and hopefully identify each Tilson DNA match in that line. Then, it's on to the next sibling of the Tilson ancestor and a repeat process through the ages for that second collateral line.

Needless to say, such drudge work does not yield not good material for scintillating family history stories. As I did for my previous research goals—the Broyles and Taliaferro families—I will move this project from the month's featured effort to continue the work in the background.

In the meantime, though it's a week before schedule, we'll move on to tackle next month's research goal early. Tomorrow, we'll step from working on my mother's ancestors to begin research on three of my mother-in-law's ancestors from those early years of the 1800s.

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Off the Shelf: I Know Who You Are


Long before the book came out, I couldn't wait to read Barbara Rae-Venter's story of how she cracked the Golden State Killer case. Once it was finally released almost seven weeks ago, true to form, despite the desire to get my hands on the book, I couldn't carve out the time to read the thing. Now is finally my chance to learn the story from her point of view.

While Barbara Rae-Venter is certainly not the only genetic genealogist to resurrect cold cases with a hot new technology, hers was a technique deservedly gaining the spotlight as one of the first of its kind. Even her book's title, I Know Who You Are, introduces a bone-chilling aspect to the thought that what could never before have been deduced can now be laid out so clearly, thanks to the application of science. That science has forever swept away such secrets as those never before dreamed to be discovered.

While the book centers on the story of how she unmasked the anonymous so-called Golden State Killer, it also contains accounts of her involvement in solving other forensic puzzles through the use of DNA in genetic genealogy. I have heard her present on one of those other cases, a truly compelling story, and look forward to this recounting of her role in the Golden State Killer case.

Although the book's subtitle—"How an amateur DNA sleuth unmasked the Golden State Killer and changed crime fighting forever"—makes Rae-Venter's efforts seem no different than the routines any of us would practice while determining the place of our DNA cousins in our family tree, the author came at this challenge with ample qualifications. A retired patent attorney, Barbara Rae-Venter possesses a Ph.D. from the University of California at San Diego and a J.D. from University of Texas at Austin.   

For her efforts, Barbara Rae-Venter has received well-deserved recognition, including a place on the 2019 Time 100 list of most influential people, and made the "Ten People Who Matter" list in 2018 for the science journal Nature. With this year's release of I Know Who You Are, she has the chance to put the story in her own words.




Saturday, March 25, 2023

How Often Are Updates?


While busily adding names to the Tilson line of my family tree at, I got to wondering just how often Ancestry actually updates those helpful tools they've put at our disposal. After all, if I document the connection between my Tilson DNA matches and my own ancestors, will the new material I've added change any readout on Ancestry's ThruLines?

I took that question to my go-to search engine the other day to see what I could find. Short answer: not very much.

True, Ancestry's own support system provided an overall information page on using ThruLines. Scrolling down to the section labeled "Troubleshooting," I found a brief statement: "It may take up to 48 hours for your ThruLines to appear after you make changes." Given that statement followed sections on how to set up and explore ThruLines, I couldn't tell from the context whether the 48 hours applied to how long it takes for the initial appearance of ThruLines, once a subscriber linked DNA results to the right person in a tree, or to a situation like mine with ongoing updates.

What I am wondering is, for example, after adding an entire branch of a family—by, say, finding all the children's names listed in a census record—how long before Ancestry picks up on that fact and recalibrates their calculations to reflect on which DNA matches resonate with the additions I just made. After all, I'd like to think my work on my tree isn't only for benefit of my own family but that it could maybe help others find their way to their own Most Recent Common Ancestors.

Likewise, for those DNA matches showing in my ThruLines for whom I've realized the tree isn't entirely correct—maybe confusing one William Tilson for another, for instance—how quickly would Ancestry pick up on those flagged mistaken identities and revise their ThruLines readout?

Even beyond that: for more recent tools, such as the "By Parent" beta version, how often will Ancestry provide updates for those Unassigned matches? According to their Support page, Ancestry's last update to that tool was in April of 2022—almost one year ago. While that article mentioned a vague "you may see updates in the future," I'm hoping that future picture gets clearer, soon. These are the kind of updates I'd gladly welcome.

Friday, March 24, 2023

Tilson Surname Origin


While some people spring for a DNA test simply out of curiosity over what ethnicities might show up in their test results, that has never been my case. Yes, I already have a fairly clear idea of the places my ancestors left to migrate to North America. But when I remember that my Broyles family, for instance, came over from Germany in the early 1700s, I can hardly use that fact to think of myself as German-American. Three hundred years can do a lot to shift one's allegiances.

With that in mind, though I've spent the bulk of this month focusing on my Tilson roots, I hadn't given one thought to the origin of that surname—until, that is, I started working on my Tilson DNA matches. 

For each match showing on my ThruLines results at, I've constructed the line of descent from the most recent common ancestor we share, adding documentation to my database as I go. One particular DNA match led me on a different path. Unlike the many Tilsons I've already researched, all clustering in northeastern Tennessee, this particular family line left Tennessee to apply for a land grant in western Canada.

If you have ever researched Canadian ancestors, while we use many of the same documents for such a search, the contents of the records are sometimes different. For instance, the Canadian census records have included questions, for instance, on the family's religious preference, or on their ethnic identity.

In following this migrating Tilson line, it was their answers to the Canadian enumeration which surprised me, not so much because of the answers themselves, but because I had never given much thought as to what religion the Tilsons might have claimed, and even more so, with what ethnic origin they identified.

In this particular Tilson emigrant family's case, the answers indicated that the family considered themselves to be of Scottish origin, and thus it was no surprise to see them claim Presbyterian affiliation. How did I miss picking up these details in all my years of (figuratively) tromping through the wilderness of southwest Virginia, trying in vain to locate the Tilsons in local records?

I went exploring to see if there was any resonance in other resources. First to the Mercer Vernon Tilson book, I searched for the term Scotland, and found only the slightest reference: "The name 'Tilson' has long been known in England, Scotland and Ireland."

Not much help there. How about using a surname distribution map? Not better there: while the top eight countries for incidence of the Tilson surname are mostly England and its former colonies, while Wales and Northern Ireland were listed separately, there was no mention of Scotland.

I checked out's page for the Tilson surname. Scrolling down the page to the gray-scale map readout labeled, "Where is the Tilson family from?" I selected Scotland for the location and clicked through each decade on the timeline. Reading the legend told me that there were precious few Tilsons in Scotland at any time from the earliest date given—1841—through the readout's final decade in 1901.

It doesn't seem like there were many Tilsons from Scotland at all, judging from those sources. So where did this Tilson family, recently arrived in Canada, come up with the notion that their roots were from Scotland?

Thinking that question over leads me to realize a few things we need to keep in mind when we research our family's roots. First, the report in the Canadian census was based—at least, presumably—on answers provided by the family themselves. What if the specific reporting party was actually a Tilson in-law who was giving an answer from his or her own point of view? Sometimes family members in such situations don't really know the correct answer, especially for the other side of the family.

Even when details are recorded in government documents, the official could have heard the answer incorrectly, or the original document could have been transcribed incorrectly. I am wondering whether that is the case in another Tilson puzzle—Peter or Peleg in land transactions—and believe that to be a more common occurrence than we think.

But in some cases, perhaps the person giving the answer hadn't expected such a question to even be asked. How many times do we blurt out an answer because the question was one we didn't even expect? That immigrant family in Canada was probably accustomed to the types of questions posed in a United States enumeration and wouldn't have given a thought to their origin if not asked. After all, this Tilson line arrived in New England sometime before 1640. How would they see themselves, well over two hundred years later?

Unexpected realizations like this, springing up as we progress through our work, can remind us of the assumptions we carry with us on this research journey. Little surprises—and the self-reflections that come with them—can guide us in formulating further questions, and broadening our search.



Thursday, March 23, 2023

Remembering When I First Started


Sometimes, it is good to recall our motivations for starting a project in the first place. After working so long on something, we can lose sight of our original inspiration. I need to pay attention to that first glimmer when I discovered the 1911 Tilson Genealogy. I think I've lost it in all the wanderings among generations of repeated names.

It's been quite a long time since I first heard that this Tilson family might lead me back to Mayflower roots. Years after hearing that, I discovered Mercer Vernon Tilson's tome on that same family line. After finding my ancestors in its pages—even down to Thomas Davis, my second great-grandfather—I was fascinated to see how all these relatives fit into the same family.

By then, I had already become familiar with genealogy databases, both desktop-resident Family Tree Maker and online, so I knew I had the tools to check out the work done by Mercer Vernon Tilson over one hundred years earlier.

That is how I got started. I'd enter specific information from the Tilson book into my closely related lines, then turn to and to locate records to verify the author's assertions. Everything I checked back then seemed to be well verified—until I got farther back in time to those early Virginia settlers who crossed that 1763 line of demarcation. That's where I couldn't verify the book's claims without really digging in to some source documents. Those, unfortunately, were out of my reach at the time.

Now that I'm back, tackling the project after a long hiatus—hint: pre-pandemic—the fine-toothed comb method is picking up some glaring errors. Perhaps I wouldn't have realized that, if it weren't for the addition of another motivation to re-ignite my original spark of inspiration: DNA matches. As I work through my Tilson matches—remember, I have thirty eight of them to verify—I'm spotting those glaring discrepancies.

Granted, the other tool in hand besides the Tilson Genealogy is Ancestry's ThruLines, a mostly useful program which is limited only by the soundness of the family trees upon which it is partially based. After yesterday's mis-matched discovery, I examined two other Tilson DNA matches, and found either a disagreement with the Tilson book or with actual documentation.

What that means for my tree is simply that, as I proceed with the Tilson book, I need to confirm every step of the way with solid documentation. Perhaps, with the DNA matches, I can share my discoveries with my newfound DNA cousin, but I also have learned that not everyone appreciates a chirpy message about how wrong their tree is, even if the message is only to suggest that the wrong identity was assigned to another Tilson with the same given name.

Producing a published genealogy like the Tilson Genealogy must have been a monumental undertaking when it was first proposed in the early years of the last century. We are blessed with so many tools at our fingertips to speed up the process now. But back then, you could almost see the project run out of steam as it approached some of the more recent generations of the Tilson lines of descent.

When I first started exploring the Tilson Genealogy, my dream was to use the computer tools we now have at hand to verify the information stored in that 1911 edition. It is possible, although an exhausting process. I may never fully accomplish such an undertaking—and I have run across other researchers who seem to have the same type of goal—but the idea has been re-ignited in my mind. At least for my own lines of descent, and for those of my Tilson DNA cousins, I'd like to see that project reach completion. Who knows? Perhaps a family association has already taken on that same idea.

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. 

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