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.



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