Sunday, April 14, 2024

Sometimes Fast Means Slow


No matter how fast we can now read our way through the unindexed wills at FamilySearch, thanks to the AI assist at FamilySearch Labs latest Full Text search project, that faster approach can still slow things down. In other words, "fast" can sometimes mean "slow" when it comes to research progress.

Since today marks my biweekly progress report, I thought the count wouldn't look so inspiring. After all, the Full Text search capability means we can find potential documents more quickly, but that doesn't take into account the reading of the documents after they are found. Nor does it account for the fact checking I do via supporting documents for each will I've discovered through the Labs. In other words, it's been slow going, even after finding wills and deeds speedily.

Still, in the past two weeks, I've documented 132 individuals in my mother-in-law's matriline. In pursuit of just how those mitochondrial DNA matches connect to my in-laws' tree, it now includes records for 34,318 relatives. I guess that isn't too bad, considering I discovered an incorrect marriage reported in two genealogy books, and had to revise some entries—not to mention backpedaling on the next generation in that matriline. I'm now stumped as to who might have been my mother-in-law's sixth great-grandmother, back in colonial Maryland, since William Ridgely's wife Elizabeth was evidently not the daughter of Lewis Duvall.

I guess the Full Text search at FamilySearch Labs helps discover those errors faster, too. 

Saturday, April 13, 2024

The Power of Speed


Real value is no longer created by traditional measures of productivity. It's created by personal interactions, innovation, creative solutions, resilience, and the power of speed.
~Seth Godin
The Song of Significance

Finally getting down to reading a recent acquisition in my anti-library, I felt a quote literally leap off the pages of entrepreneur Seth Godin's latest, The Song of Significance. It was that phrase, "the power of speed," which resonated. After all, if it hadn't been for FamilySearch's latest development in speed-researching (otherwise known as Full Text search at FamilySearch Labs), I couldn't have gone speed-sliding down my mother-in-law's matriline quite so deftly.

Think of it:, by virtue of having accessed a faster way to page through endless legal documents, has created real value for those who need such creative solutions. The mind-numbing guesswork of paging through unindexed files, reading—no, oops, not the right page once again—line after line of indecipherable handwriting has finally come to its end. If, of course, the Labs Full Text test turns out to be a keeper.

The FamilySearch Labs example gets me thinking in broader application categories. What, for instance, if we applied that Seth Godin maxim to our current situation with waning member participation in local genealogical societies? Could the thought of personal interactions, innovation, or creative solutions speak to our dilemma there? I know that once Covid forced us to couple our traditional meeting format with the newer tech of online connectivity, we gained some benefits—but lost some personal interactions and resilience. Does this mean we face a zero sum game?

I tend to take that call to create "real value" as a call to return to personal connections. When our local genealogical society, after wandering the desert of online-only meetings for three years, decided to create a new, in-person get-together event just because, the energy level in the room was palpable. That buzz told me people really need this connection—even if it hasn't been the "way we always do things." All we added was personal interactions—but that is exactly the element we were sorely needing.

Maybe it only takes just one change to resurrect a wilting organization. We'll try others too, of course, but it is reassuring to see what a big response can come from such a simple change. After all, as Seth Godin likes to point out, real change can trigger a network effect of its own—which amplifies the signal we want to send even farther and faster.  

Friday, April 12, 2024

Duly Documented


Admittedly, there is nothing to compare with looking at an age-old document and realizing the signature at the bottom of the page—or even the "X" in its place—belonged to one's own ancestor. Conversely, there is nothing quite like the frustration of reading a digitized copy of an 1804 document and getting to that final line, only to realize the surname of that ancestor didn't quite make it into the picture.

So...was it her? Or was that just wishful thinking?

Despite that being the case in the record of Walter Teal's marriage to Mary Ijams, I didn't have to wait long to find my answer. Thankfully, Mary was one of the unnamed daughters in William Ijams' 1815 will who, after awaiting the slow-moving process of probate to duly run its course, had to sign to acknowledge receipt of her inheritance. Better yet, the probate documents identified her not only as the wife of Walter Teal, but listed her specifically as "formerly Mary Ijams."

I had first made that discovery last year, while researching my mother-in-law's matriline for mtDNA purposes. From that point, though, I've yet to discover what became of Mary and her husband, Walter Teal. Granted, their season of raising a family—if that was part of their life's story—would have fallen to the years before census records named each member of a household. The only information those early enumerations provided would be age ranges and genders. Whether those household teenagers called Mary "mom," I'd have no way of knowing.

Still, without exploring the possible lead, I'd have nothing on this other daughter of my mother-in-law's fourth great-grandmother. Considering that, I think it's time to play genealogy guinea pig again, and test possible leads for Walter and Mary Teal.

Fortunately for us, there was an 1830 census record for a man by that same name—Walter Teal—in the same Ohio county where he had married Mary: Fairfield County. Listed in that household was one man between the ages of forty and forty nine, along with one woman in that same age bracket. In addition, the household included two males between the ages of ten and fourteen, plus another one in his twenties. Of particular interest to me, searching for other descendants from the same matriline, was the entry for one young girl between five and nine years of age, plus two others in their later teen years.

Was this the household of our Walter and Mary? Hard to say, not knowing the date at which Mary might have been born. An 1804 wedding might imply Mary was about eighteen to twenty years of age by that point which, extrapolated out to that 1830 census, would make sense to see her fall within the forty to forty nine year bracket. And the couple certainly had remained in the same county where Mary's parents had settled. But we can never just assume—even in a rural county during its early years of settlement—that there wouldn't be more than one man by the same name. And it's the man's name we would have to rely on during a time period like that. Pick the wrong name twin and we'd be led to mistaken conclusions.

Next week, we'll see whether we can follow Walter Teal through the next decade of his life to learn more about this family, especially to see whether we are chasing the right couple.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Didn't "Daughter Out"


It was years ago when I first ran into the phrase, "daughtered out." Perhaps it was during a time when Y-DNA was the preferred—or perhaps only—DNA test used for purposes of genealogy. Following the patriline for Y-DNA meant, of course, that one was following a male line of descent which featured one detail in common for each match: sharing the same surname. The difficulty with trying to piece together a genealogy based on that surname was that, in any given generation, it was possible for a man in that line to not have any sons who could thus pass along the surname. In other words, that man would have "daughtered out."

In my current case, using the mitochondrial DNA test to help in researching the matriline of my mother-in-law, I would have loved it if her ancestors had "daughtered out." However, with aggravating frequency, those women belonging to her matriline often did the opposite: if they had any children at all, the offspring was comprised solely of sons. Very rarely did I see any daughters.

I'm not done yet with my travels through my mother-in-law's matriline. While in the background—where I'm stuck on a dispute over whether her sixth great-grandmother was daughter of Lewis Duvall of colonial Maryland—I'm seeking documents to resolve the genealogical impasse, for purposes of daily posts from this genealogical guinea pig, I've taken to seeking any and all female descendants. And finding very little at all for her mtDNA results.

In many cases, more sons were born to these ancestors than daughters. For those few families which included female descendants, quite a few of those daughters either never married, or had childless marriages. In other cases, a female descendant who married might have had several children, all of whom would be sons. Where were those "daughtered out" families when I needed them?!

I am working my way down the lines of descent for the daughters of Elizabeth Howard, my mother-in-law's fourth great-grandmother. The reasons for this choice of starting point take in the difficulty of locating descendants for Elizabeth's two sisters, Rachel and Sarah. There is more work to do on those searches, but while that is ongoing in the background, following Elizabeth's own daughters seems easier. And easy progress would be encouraging right now.

Elizabeth and her husband, William Ijams, chose to move from the area in Maryland where their ancestors had settled for generations. Their new home was in Fairfield County, Ohio, where William died in the early years of the 1800s. Because their daughter Sarah was in my mother-in-law's direct line, that was one line which I've already checked quite thoroughly. It is Sarah's sisters—Rebecca, Comfort, Rachel, and Mary—whose descendants I need to pursue.

I have yet to find any descendants at all for Rebecca. Comfort, while having four daughters herself, seemed to be blessed with many grandsons, at least for those daughters who married at all. On the other hand, Rachel and Mary, while marrying in the early years of the 1800s in Fairfield County, seem to have disappeared off the face of the earth. For Mary, though, there may be a slight sign of just where she went after disappearing from her home in Ohio—but I can't yet be sure.

You know what that means: I'll have to once again play the genealogical guinea pig and test a hypothesis. For this, we'll need a few days to pursue Mary and her likely husband, Walter Teal, after the date of their 1804 wedding in Fairfield County, Ohio. We'll begin tackling that question tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Getting Un-Stuck


Getting stuck in the big middle of a family history mystery can be no fun. When the momentum drags to a halt, the first—and only—thing on my mind is how to get unstuck. While I'm not sure I'll soon see that shift in perspective, here is where I've ground to an abrupt stop.

I had been merrily chugging along on my mother-in-law's matriline, that generation-to-generation line of mothers only. From her third great-grandmother Sarah Ijams, I had slipped from central Ohio back to Maryland, home of Sarah's mother Elizabeth Howard. Then, thanks to mentions in family wills, it was an easy move to her mother, Rachel Ridgely, and then up another generation to her father William Ridgely, the one who died in 1755, mentioning in his will his wife Elizabeth.

Elizabeth, as I had discovered in last year's exploration of old genealogy books, was said to have been born into the Duvall family of colonial Maryland. According to those books, that Elizabeth was daughter of Lewis Duvall and his wife Martha, another Ridgely. 

When I followed that line from those old genealogy books and then tried to verify them with documentation, finding Lewis Duvall's will became my genealogical crash pad. Lewis Duvall had a wife named Martha, alright, but none of his four daughters was named Elizabeth. Where did Elizabeth come from?

The first reasonable guess would be that there was more than one Lewis Duvall in Anne Arundel County,  Maryland. There, we run into the other assertion found in some books: that when Elizabeth Duvall married William Ridgely, she was marrying her cousin. Where did that notion come from? Another genealogy book? I still can't find any details on that.

To complicate, there was indeed another Lewis Duvall in the area. He had a wife by another name, of course, and it would be worth our while to check out who this man was, and whether there was any mention of his descendants in his own will. In particular, did he happen to have a daughter named Elizabeth?

No matter who Elizabeth, wife of William Ridgely, turns out to be, that will provide the next stepping stone in our leap to the distant past through the cousin matches linked to my husband's mitochondrial DNA test results. Warning, though: this will not be easy.

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Research Roadblock


Sometimes, even a full day of searching can yield no results. That's the research roadblock I'm facing in this current project. Pushing back a few generations on my mother-in-law's matriline seemed to be a promising prospect—as long as I was making progress. Once I hit that warning sign that one woman's parents might not have been the ones others were thinking of, I couldn't find documentation to point me in one direction or the other.

Stuck, I tried to wiggle my way out of the impasse. Since the whole goal of this month's Twelve Most Wanted goal was to push as far back in time as possible on my mother-in-law's matriline for DNA purposes, an alternate step might be to at least reverse course and conduct descendancy research on the women I had identified as likely collateral lines.

Even there, though, I'm running into roadblocks. Remember, these are women born in colonial Maryland—a time period when little is mentioned about women, other than to see them married, or, for the fortunate few, to see them properly endowed with the legacy due them from their well-to-do father.

Silence on the paper trail does not necessarily mean those women were never married. Nor does it imply they didn't descend from families bestowing legacies. This simply could mean that the documents I'm seeking did not endure the test of time, or were destroyed in subsequent upheavals of later ages.

Or perhaps the document is still out there, but misfiled due to clerical error, or even illegible handwriting or impossible spelling. Try, for instance, a surname like McElfresh, which I've already seem spelled several different—admittedly creative—ways. How to search for possibilities like that? Wildcards are nice in theory, but when the results yield options numbering upwards of a thousand, the idea of "exhaustive search" takes on a dimension I'm not willing to pursue.

I'll still poke around, looking for signs of those daughters of the most recent common ancestor on my mother-in-law's matriline, but I guarantee it won't make for scintillating reports. We'll have to change our approach slightly, to see if there is another route to lead us to our end goal. 

Monday, April 8, 2024

Not the Only One in Town

If William Ridgely, my mother-in-law's sixth great-grandfather, needed to mention his father's name in his 1755 will to differentiate himself from others in town with that same name, we'll likely have to do the same with his wife Elizabeth. Though I consider it fortunate that we are dealing with residents in a rather small colonial province—Maryland—it still appears that there may be some disputes as to the true identity of William's wife Elizabeth. She, too, may not have been the only one in town with that name.

Using old genealogy books covering the legal documents of that era, I've run across claims that Elizabeth was daughter of Lewis Duvall and his wife, Martha Ridgely. I've also found statements in such books that when Elizabeth married William, she was marrying her cousin. However, when I look to the will of her supposed father Lewis, I find mention of three daughters: Martha, Susanna, and Anne

Notice: no mention of anyone named Elizabeth.

True, Lewis Duvall's 1724 testament also lacked mention of any wife. Perhaps, in addition to his wife predeceasing him, we could assume any daughter named Elizabeth might have done likewise. But when we realize William Ridgely's will indicated his wife Elizabeth was still very much alive in 1755, we realize the futility of trying to make that theory stick.

So who did Elizabeth, William Ridgely's wife, really belong to? 

Sunday, April 7, 2024



We've just come to the end of a long but pleasant week in our region's corner of the genealogical world: our regional council just hosted a week-long Family History Week, with the culminating day's sessions held at our state archives up at the capital. Driving home after the last session, satisfied with the outcome but still exhausted, it occurred to me it might be nice to just do some light family history research to round out the evening—and today's post.

With that, I turned to's ThruLines tool to see what DNA matches my husband might have to Elizabeth Howard, my mother-in-law's fourth great-grandmother. Even though Elizabeth is on my mother-in-law's matriline—and my husband stands in for her on that mitochondrial DNA test—any of her descendants in this generation could still be matchable using the regular autosomal DNA test as well. She's still within reach based on that more widely-used test.

While it is unfortunate that we never had the opportunity to capture a snapshot of my mother-in-law's DNA—she passed about five years before I started testing family member—Elizabeth Howard is still my husband's fifth great-grandmother. And that is certainly reachable.

Turning to ThruLines, I noticed that Ancestry identified fifty eight of their customers who seem to be descendants of Elizabeth Howard and match my husband's DNA results. That's a promising number, considering that he is just at the outside reaches of possible autosomal matches. But when I look closer at those fifty eight matches, I notice one thing: most of the names proposed seem to descend from supposed children of Elizabeth whose names I never found in documentation. In fact, I noticed a few of those "matches" did have familiar surnames in their tree—from an entirely different family line.

While it is incredible to think that I can find current-day descendants of this woman born in the mid-1700s who still share genetic material with my husband, I am not so awed by the thought as to lose my sensibilities about double-checking the rudimentary tools we use to determine just how we relate to another person. ThruLines is so helpful, agreed, but it warrants a thorough fact-checking every time we put it through its paces.

The bigger challenge, of course, will be to push my mother-in-law's matriline back far enough to then switch direction and conduct descendancy research on the collateral lines of that earliest mother on the matriline. That will come soon enough.

Saturday, April 6, 2024

Meanwhile, Back on the Matriline


It's interesting how one successful find in our deep ancestry creates a desire to find more of the same. Finding Joseph Howard's wife not only in his will, but in her own will dated several years later, following  a second marriage, has been encouraging. Discovering that she made mention of a sister's married name helped cement the connection to the sisters' father, William Ridgely. But I can't forget that my goal is to once more push back through the generations on one specific line: my mother-in-law's matriline. After all, I have her descendant's mitochondrial DNA test to lead me to the ancestry of any exact matches to that specific DNA test. I just need to push back far enough in those never ending generations to make sense of how the matches actually connect.

Right now, that mother's mother's mother's line has led me to Rachel, my mother-in-law's fifth great-grandmother. I have the potential to push back three more generations—but that is only thanks to reliance on reports from century-old genealogy books I had found when I worked on this same research path a year ago. Now, I need to find documentation to confirm what those writers of the past century had claimed. Thankfully, the FamilySearch Lab's new Full Text search capabilities are helping expedite that process—but it is still a slow process.

In the midst of all that bleary-eyed reading of handwritten wills recorded in colonial Maryland, I received a reminder of why genealogy blogging has not outlived its purpose. Yes, so many people complain that blogging is now so passe, but I haven't yet yielded to pressure to join that bandwagon. And with what happened this past week, I think it might be worth it to remember one other reason for blogging about genealogical discoveries: our blogs are cousin bait!

Was it simply coincidence that this week brought me messages that someone out there was also researching this same line of my mother-in-law? And is quite willing to discuss discoveries in current research on our mutual lines? I'm delighted that someone decided to reach out and connect—after all, so many times we do send messages to fellow researchers and in return get...nothing. In this case, however, we've exchanged some notes on our recent discoveries and found out each one's work can bolster the progress of the other.

Research tools are useful—and sometimes fun to use, too!—but nothing else comes quite so close to top billing in my book as finding a distant cousin who enjoys family history as much as I do.

Friday, April 5, 2024

A Will to be Remembered


Finding a sister's married name in a will may seem a handy way to pinpoint the right family—until making the discovery that the surnames in question are more common than I thought in that ancestral hometown. Still, the will of the likely father of Joseph Howard's wife Rachel seemed to be a document drawn up by someone intent on being individually remembered, no matter how many people shared the same name.

Rachel Howard—by the time of her 1807 will, known as Rachel Beall—had mentioned her sister specifically as Deborah Dorsey. I had a hunch that, at the end of her life, Rachel was noting her sister's married name, not a maiden name. But, as it turns out, Dorsey was a fairly common name around Anne Arundel County, Maryland, which Rachel and her siblings had called their childhood home. Finding the right Deborah Dorsey would have been challenging.

Fortunately, Rachel's father had outlined in his will not only the names of his four married daughters, but paired them up with their spouses, as if for our benefit. Thus, Rachel's sister Martha was noted to be the wife of Henry Gaither. Her sister Margaret was wife of Samuel Farmer. Younger sister Elizabeth was wife of Aquila Duvall. Thankfully, yes, there was also a sister named Deborah—and her husband was a Dorsey. Better yet, Deborah's husband sported a given name not likely to be confused with any others: Lancelot.

In addition, William Ridgely identifed three specific sons—Samuel, William, and Charles—then added another note about "my nine children," names which could barely be read from the fading text of that 1755 document, but which thankfully included the name Rachel. Rounding out the naming of family members, William added a brief mention concerning his wife, Elizabeth.

As if to ensure that this document was not to be confused with that of any other by the same name, William closed the document with his signature as "William Ridgely, son of Charles."

Apparently, this William was not the only Ridgely by that name in town.

Thursday, April 4, 2024

Moving Step by Step


If, in genealogical pursuits, we start at the end and move step by step backwards into our family's history, how are we to know the next steps to take for our female ancestors? After all, theirs was an experience involving name changes throughout life. It almost seems as if pursuing our male ancestors would be the far easier course to take. 

Fortunately, now that genealogy resources are developing "full text" search capabilities, searching for a mother under her married name could still feasibly lead us to her maiden name. In the case of my mother-in-law's fourth great-grandmother Elizabeth, that is indeed one helpful tactic.

Elizabeth, whom our family had recorded by her married name, Elizabeth Ijams, had name changes on either end of her life. After her husband, William Ijams, died about 1816, she remarried and ended life under the name Elizabeth Whistler. Though I have yet to find any documentation of either of Elizabeth's marriages, thanks to full text searches, I know that her maiden name was Howard.

Elizabeth's father, Joseph Howard, was a lifelong resident of colonial Maryland who died in 1777. From his will, we learn that he lived in Queen Caroline parish in Anne Arundel County. His will was presented in court that year by his brother Brice Howard on March 25. Among the children named in his last testament—along with his wife Rachel and her namesake daughter, plus sons Cornelius, William, and Joseph—was "my beloved Daughter Elizabeth Ijams."

Just as it would be challenging to find records of Elizabeth in her later years due to her second marriage, we face the same issue in looking for Elizabeth's mother. However—though unusual for that time period—we are fortunate that her mother possessed property which needed to be properly passed to her heirs. Once again, thanks to a full text search, Elizabeth Ijams' name appears in the 1806 will of someone named Rachel Beall.

Rachel's will, proved in court in Frederick County, Maryland, on January 26, 1807, provided a double-check of the names from her former husband's will thirty years earlier. Missing were the names of sons William and Cornelius Howard, who had predeceased her, though children Joseph, Rachel, and "my Daughter Elizabeth Ijams" were clearly mentioned. Along with that entry was one for an additional daughter, Sarah—likely the unnamed daughter referred to in Joseph Howard's will when he made provision for his as-yet-unborn child.

In addition, Rachel Beall's will included an item naming Deborah Dorsey, specifically explaining that she was "my sister." This almost allows us another point of reference for moving backwards in time to the next generation in my mother-in-law's matriline—with one complication. Finding the name Dorsey in 1700s Maryland means first being able to identify the right Dorsey family among many.  

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Begin at the End


Usually, genealogy's tale is told from the end to the beginning. We begin by documenting those events at the close of life, then move cautiously backwards in time, collecting records of key life events until we reach the point of our ancestor's birth. Thus, when we consider a woman's life history, we confront our first problem early on: how are we to learn anything from her most recent life documents if we don't know the name she claimed as she exited life's stage?

Fortunately, in the case of my mother-in-law's fourth great-grandmother Elizabeth, I already have found that final married name—though I have yet to produce any written sign of the marriage ceremony that sanctified it. Elizabeth, widow of William Ijams of Maryland, had settled with their family in central Ohio. She and William lived in Fairfield County until her husband's death early in 1816. After that—at some unknown date—Elizabeth married John Whistler somewhere in Missouri.

There are signs of this second marriage, of course. Especially considering how well known Major John Whistler was, it was no surprise to see reports of his second wife's death in far-ranging locations—like the Boston, Massachusetts, May 10, 1826, edition of the Columbian Centinel.

In Missouri, at Cantonement Belle Fontaine, Mrs. Whistler, consort of Maj. John W. U.S. Military store keeper.

Closer to home—at least the place Elizabeth's children still called home—there were legal signs of her updated name, as well. In deeds recorded in Fairfield County, Ohio, "J. & Elizabeth Whistler" were listed as grantors of property acquired by Edward Stephenson in 1820. The relationship? Edward was husband of Elizabeth and William Ijams' daughter Comfort.

But what about Elizabeth's earlier years? Again, I have yet to find an actual document confirming Elizabeth's first marriage. I did, however, locate mention of her in two other significant documents. One was the will of her father, Joseph Howard, presented in court in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, in March of 1777. The other will, also mentioning her specifically as Elizabeth Ijams, followed in 1807. Both documents, which we'll look at more closely tomorrow, will allow us to piece together the story of Elizabeth's earlier years—and reveal the name used by Elizabeth's mother at the close of her own life as well.

Image above: Excerpt from the May 10, 1826, edition of the Columbian Centinel, published in Boston, Massachusetts; image courtesy of GenealogyBank

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Start With What You Know


Perhaps you've already heard that sound genealogical advice: start with what you know, and move step by step, backwards in time from that point. Granted, I've long since started outlining my mother-in-law's tree. Plodding along, one generation at a time, I'm finally approaching the level of her fourth great-grandparents.

This month, we'll be spending some serious research time with one such woman, someone who was born in the mid-1700s in colonial Maryland. This woman married a fellow Marylander around the time of the birth of our nation, then made the pioneering move west with him to raise at least ten children in the years just preceding Ohio statehood. But that was not all. After her husband's death, this same woman accompanied one of her youngest daughters even further westward to a fort on the frontier where her son had been stationed—only to see her daughter married off to a soldier there, and herself becoming the second wife of Major John Whistler.

Not bad for a life story, eh? That, at least, was what I was able to find on Elizabeth Howard, my mother-in-law's fourth great-grandmother, the last time we had studied her life. There is far more yet to discover, however, and that is our task for this month's focus from our Twelve Most Wanted for 2024. After all, the point of starting research with what we know is gaining a firm footing to enable us to make that leap into the unknown—the next generation.

As with many of our elusive ancestors, Elizabeth Howard's story leaves many gaps. Documentation, for one, is difficult to find. Living on the edges of civilization didn't help her case. Her supposed destination, as widow of William Ijams, had been to Jefferson Barracks, a military post on the Mississippi River just south of what is now Saint Louis—yet record of her marriage, or that of her daughter, is lacking.

With her many children, surely some of them may include documented connections to Elizabeth and her first husband—but that is what we need to find this month. With the improved search capabilities at—I'm thinking primarily of the Full Text search at FamilySearch Labs—we'll be putting that tool through its paces as we look for wills which include Elizabeth's name among the documents her family members left behind.

Of course, the hope is to extend that search capability beyond Elizabeth's own lifespan to that of her parents and siblings. While there are many details already discovered about Elizabeth, those early years of the family need to be put in clearer focus in the way that only documentation can.

Monday, April 1, 2024

Revisiting Elizabeth


With each new month comes a new research goal. As we move into April, though, not only is it time to introduce a new ancestor from my Twelve Most Wanted, but this month marks a shift from researching my mother's ancestors to a focus on those of my mother-in-law. This month, we'll be revisiting an ancestor we've met before, my mother-in-law's fourth great-grandmother Elizabeth Howard.

With the start of this April's project, we'll see those numbers I track in my biweekly counts shift, as well. For the past three months, I've made a lot of progress on my own mother's tree—adding 110 documented names to her tree in the last two weeks alone. But unless some unexpected discovery comes our way before next year, that tree will stand where I left it at the end of March: with 38,306 names of ancestors and their collateral lines and descendants.

That tree of my in-laws, which has remained stagnant at 34,186 names for almost half a year, will finally gain a few new additions. Granted, it was be more challenging to make progress at this point, for Elizabeth Howard was born in the mid-1700s—not a time particularly helpful for those of us looking for information on our female ancestors. Hers was a family living in colonial Maryland, and other than finding notes on the Howard family in various genealogical books of the past century, I have not found actual documents to allow much research progress.

Of course, that was last year. Now we have the FamilySearch Labs' new Full Text search capabilities, which I'm eager to put through its paces on behalf of the Howard family. That will help us move backwards in time, hopefully. As for the later years of Elizabeth's life, we had already gleaned a basic idea—but before we get started on this month's project, it might be helpful to review what we've already discovered from that work last year. We'll re-introduce Elizabeth tomorrow.

Sunday, March 31, 2024

A Day of Reflection


If for you, as for me, today is a day of reflection, I invite you to take a bold if momentary hiatus from the tyranny of the daily schedule. Sometimes, we need that break. Like taking in a deep breath, then allowing oneself the luxury of a long, peaceful release of all that's been held inside...

Whether in celebration of Resurrection Day or in contemplation of nature's beauty in spring, I wish you that restorative break. Tomorrow, we'll get back to the routine. For now, enjoy the therapy of the pause.

Above: Petworth Park with Tillington Church in the background, oil on canvas circa 1830 by English Romantic painter, Joseph Mallord William Turner; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Saturday, March 30, 2024

While We're in the
(Matrilineal) Neighborhood


While we're still in the matrilineal neighborhood—that is, that point of discussion more akin to an ancestor's "F.A.N. Club" than actual pedigree chart—I couldn't just move on simply because it is the end of one month's research project. Having just spent a month following the trail of my matrilineal ancestors—especially the one who, as her husband's executor, sold their home to the father of George Washington—I was primed to fall for a social media post yesterday.

Actually a reposting of a tweet, um, announcement on, well, you know where, the indefatigable researcher Debbie Kennett shone the light on some archaeological and DNA work being done on the unmarked burial ground of some of the president's close relatives. I had to do a double-take on the originating source's post, though, for the actual announcement began, "DNA study IDs descendants of George Washington from unmarked remains...."

Um...George Washington did not have any descendants—at least not any I know of. Perhaps DNA will once again turn out to spotlight genealogical surprises.

Looking into the article itself clears up the details. According to Family Tree DNA, which was involved in the project, the study actually focused on some descendants of George Washington's younger brothers, Samuel and John Augustine Washington. The study involved a collaboration between FTDNA and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory to help identify the remains in unidentified graves at Harewood, Samuel Washington's home in Charles Town, now in West Virginia.

One unique aspect of the study was its use of three different types of DNA testing to compare the genetic details of the unidentified, centuries-old burials with a known living descendant of the two younger Washington brothers. Of course, Y-DNA was used, thus allowing scientists to determine the haplogroup of that patriline, and thus infer the paternal haplogroup of George Washington, as well. The mitochondrial DNA test was used, allowing differentiation between each subject's maternal line, as sons would, of course, have different mothers than their father's mother. And finally, the more familiar autosomal DNA test was used, as well. (For those science geeks who prefer to dig into the details, the official report is online here.)

Though I am certainly not a Washington descendant, perhaps it was my near-brush with presidential proximity when I learned that my widowed seventh great-grandmother sold George Washington's father his childhood home that prompted me to notice that social media post shared by Debbie Kennett.

No matter what really caught my eye, this study reminds me that more and more historical and genealogical questions will be answered through genetic testing. I'm reminded of my realization last month of the quandary some Carter researchers face with the discovery of another wife of John Carter not mentioned in genealogical books of past centuries, thus leading researchers astray; now, we can find answers to those unresolved questions. I'm looking forward to seeing more such discoveries announced in the future. Their discovery and publication will certainly broaden our knowledge and, yes, simultaneously debunk some fondly-held family myths. 

Friday, March 29, 2024

From Third to Eighth


Well, it might not seem as impressive as going from zero to sixty in less than five, but I did make it from third to eighth (great-grandmothers) in less than five—weeks, that is. And that was my research goal for this month. You can tell I'm satisfied, I'm sure.

The idea, at the beginning of this month, was to pursue documentation while piecing together the lineup on my matriline—that line of generations from mother to maternal grandmother to her mother and onward to each subsequent generation's mother. Thus I moved from third great-grandmother Mary Taliaferro to fourth great-grandmother Mary Gilmer, then to her mother Elizabeth Lewis, and her mother Jane Strother, followed by Margaret Watts. And then, onward once again to the woman I so far only know as Mary, wife of Richard Watts.

I had even noted, in my post starting this month, that we "may even land as far back as the beginning of the eighteenth century in colonial Virginia." We did a bit better than that: my newfound eighth great-grandmother, whom I so far only know by her given name Mary, was a woman whose daughter was born in 1700.

The real game changer for me was the FamilySearch Labs development of their Full Text search capability. That made working my way through those colonial wills with their fancy handwriting and extra curlicues less burdensome on my eyes—to say nothing of my patience. I can't help but think of all the other lines in my mother's tree which could benefit from such a review in upcoming months.

In addition, I was able to solidly confirm one of my mtDNA matches, based on what I was able to add to my records with the help of those newly-found wills and deeds. The other three of my "exact matches" are still a mystery, but a task to save for another day.

There are some months, as I work on my Twelve Most Wanted ancestors for each year, when the month closes without much of a sense of satisfaction. There is always work to go back to, the next time I pass that way in the family tree. The same can be said for this month's project. If eighth great-grandmother Mary was born in Virginia, there is certainly a good chance that I'll be able to identify her maiden name—perhaps, even, the name of her mother, as well. But I'll save that for another year's goals.

Somehow, in the cracks between the progress I'll be making on next month's Twelve Most Wanted research goal, I'll be able to squeeze in visits to the FamilySearch Labs site again to confirm more members of this extended family tree through wills and other legal documents stashed away in colonial court records. While research sometimes seems like progress moving ahead in mere inches at a time, it's the conscious, continuous addition of small victories that add up.

With the beginning of the next month—and next week—we'll turn from working on my mother's ancestry to spending three months working on my mother-in-law's tree. And that means, instead of wandering through the handwritten court records of colonial Virginia, in April we'll pick up on a research project from last year to review the family records of neighboring colony Maryland.  

Thursday, March 28, 2024

More About Mary


Finding a maiden name for an umpteenth great-grandmother can be challenging, especially if her given name was Mary. All I really knew about that Mary was that she was wife of my eighth great-grandfather, Richard Watts—not that she was actually mother of his children. Worse, even though I've already discovered Mary lost her husband at a relatively young age and likely could have remarried, I didn't have a clue what that subsequent married name might have been.  Still, given FamilySearch Labs' new Full Text search capability, I decided to give it a try and look for more about this Mary in colonial Virginia documents.

Knowing that Mary at least lived longer than her husband Richard—who died in 1716—I had a lot of searching ahead of me. Gambling on a safe bet that she still lived in Virginia after his death, I used the FamilySearch Labs' Full Text search to look for someone named, simply, Mary, which I entered as my keyword. I left the location wide open for the entire colony, as well, having no idea whether the family remained in—or removed from—Westmoreland County, where Richard's will had been recorded.

I didn't leave that simple keyword standing alone, though. I took a risk and guessed that perhaps the oldest Watts daughter would have been married by then—whenever "then" might have been. Thus, for the name of ancestor being searched, I actually loaded in Richard Watts' daughter's married name, Margaret Strother.

Admittedly, with such a wide open search request, I was prepared to see a large number of hits, but 1,703 results still seemed unwieldy. However, looking at the first result, I recognized it as a document I had already reviewed—the 1737 guardianship record in King George County naming Anthony Strother—thus being a record involving Margaret Watts Strother's daughter Margaret, not our Margaret herself.

The very next document in the search results was a will, which was encouraging, but it included names which I didn't recognize as part of the family. It was the last testament of someone named Mary, alright, but her last name was Chilton. Reading further in the document, I spotted two familiar names: John Watts and Richard Watts. However, embedded in the record were other unfamiliar names, including mention of some granddaughters and someone this Mary called "my son James Bowcock."

Remembering, too, that Margaret Watts' father Richard, in his own will, had only identified his two sons—thankfully, also named John and Richard in that earlier document—but had left his three daughters unnamed. I had no way to affirm that the named women in Mary Chilton's will, Jane Monroe and Mary Blackburn, were children of Richard Watts. However, remember that "Margaret Strother" was one of my search terms, and that was indeed the name of the third unnamed Watts daughter.

With that discovery of the will of Mary Chilton, I received confirmation that she was not only Richard Watts' wife, but mother of at least his sons John and Richard. The will also showed me that Mary had been married again, since she named in her will another son named James Bowcock. And though she was married to someone named Chilton, the way in which she made provision in her will for "Captain Thomas Chilton and Jemima his wife" indicated that whoever her final husband might have been—as he was not named in her will—that son of his was not hers as well.

Mary appointed her sons John and Richard Watts, as well as someone named Andrew Monroe, as her executors. They presented her will in court in Westmoreland County on April 26, 1737.

While I still don't know what Mary's maiden name might have been, I can safely place her in my matriline as my eighth great-grandmother, and also begin to examine her other daughters' line of descent for any potential matches to my mtDNA test. While I don't know much yet about Mary, I now know her  mitochondrial DNA still speaks through mine.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Just One More


This quest for who comes next in the lineup of mother's mother's mothers is becoming addictive—especially now that search innovations are opening up ways to delve into the deep middle of those wordy legal documents. Thus, with that "just one more" siren call still shrill in my ears, I press on one more generation.

In following my matriline—in hopes of lessening my puzzlement at those mtDNA match results—we've gone from locating my third great-grandmother Mary Elizabeth Taliaferro in records at the beginning of this month to finding mention of my seventh great-grandmother Margaret Watts, wife of William Strother, in legal documents in colonial Virginia. Surely, we can fit in just one more generation before the end of this month.

Once again, an old genealogy book helps point us in the right direction to fill in some blanks. In a 1915 book called The Hard Family of Virginia, mention of an auxiliary line reviewed the family of one John Grant. This John Grant, you may remember, was the second husband of Margaret Watts after the death of first husband William Strother. The book also explained that Margaret was second wife of John Grant, and went on to explain that she was daughter of Richard Watts. Conveniently, author Arnold Harris Hord added in the comment that Richard Watts' will was "proved October 13, 1716."

Well, that wasn't entirely correct. But it was close enough to lead me to the record.

As it turns out, in that colonial era, women sometimes found themselves widowed and remarried—several times. While Margaret Watts, born about 1700, at least had a father who lived long enough for her to remember him—unlike her youngest daughter, my ancestor Jane Strother—Margaret was in her mid-teens when Richard Watts drew up his will in 1715. His wife, named as his sole executrix, presented the document in court in Westmoreland County on October 31, 1716.

With the discovery of that document, if we can presume that Richard's wife was also Margaret's mother, we learn that the next generation's position in my matriline was filled by this woman, Richard's executrix, named Mary. But that only brings me halfway to my latest benchmark of eighth great-grandmother.

So I fill in the blank in the pedigree with a tentative Mary—but, Mary what? Once again—assuming that if Richard died young, his widow must have been young as well—that empty surname entry surely means another search for a next marriage for our unknown Mary.

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Piecing Together the Paper Trail


If it were not for court records, mainly involving those last wills and testaments of our colonial ancestors, I'd be hard pressed to move any farther back in time on my matriline. Even so, finding any more information on my seventh great-grandmother Margaret Watts has been challenging.

That "game changer," FamilySearch Labs' Full Text search innovation, has been helpful, but it still isn't fast enough for me. With less than a week until the close of this month, I still have unanswered questions. Most immediately, I want to know if there were any children from Margaret's subsequent marriage to John Grant after her first husband William Strother's passing—once again looking for potential daughters whose female descendants could be an mtDNA match with me. And, of course, I also want to see if I can push back another generation—you know there is always one more—to discover the identity of Margaret's own mother.

In the meantime, bit by bit, I'm finding support for assertions I had already found in books and journal articles concerning Margaret's family. Though my attempt at finding a will for Margaret's second husband has so far failed, I did locate the very document disputing that "thirteen blooming daughters" legend, as was mentioned in a 1918 article published by The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society. That document, a court proceeding naming the guardian for five of Margaret's daughters after the death of her first husband William Strother, was drawn up in King George County in April of 1738.

There are, however, plenty of other documents which contain William Strother's name. Most all of them are deeds from that same colonial Virginia county. Despite the promise of a "full text" search, that does not necessarily mean researchers get a pass from ever having to engage in a reasonably exhaustive search again. I foresee, in the closing days of this month, a race to find anything else of significance concerning Margaret and her family. 

Monday, March 25, 2024

The Farm That Margaret Sold


The pursuit of family history can lead us on a chase past both verifiable details and enigmatic situations which seem more fiction than fact. We've all run across unlikely tales which began, "there were three brothers," or talked to great-aunts who insisted on our descent from famous leaders or the proverbial "Indian princess."

In our current project, however, we can't lose too much time puzzling over the possible legend of the "thirteen blooming daughters" birthed by Margaret Watts, my seventh great-grandmother, or we will pass right over the making of another family legend—this one of presidential proportions. It may just be that the cherry tree which young George Washington supposedly chopped down was planted by Margaret Watts' first husband, William Strother. Before we consider that, though, we first need to learn something about the colonial Virginia farm that Margaret Watts Strother sold in 1738.

Actually, I stumbled upon that detail by accident. I was looking for the will of William Strother, father of my sixth great-grandmother Jane Strother, who eventually became wife of Thomas Lewis. I wanted some form of documentation linking the father with his daughter, and during those colonial times, my best hope of finding Jane's name was to look for her father William's will.

The year Jane was born—about 1732—was close enough to the year in which her father died that I wasn't sure whether he had died unexpectedly before even drawing up such a document. I thought my best chance at finding such a record would be to put the Full Text search at FamilySearch Labs through its paces.

I didn't want to use too many filters—thus wiping out any possibility of finding the will by guessing the wrong details about, for instance, the location of his death. So I simply entered William's first and last name in quotes, added a keyword "Margaret" for his wife, set the location simply as Virginia, and limited the time frame to the 1730s. 

And pressed the "search" button.

With a search as wide open as that, I wasn't surprised the result yielded 310 possibilities. I'm still scrolling my way down that very long list. Right at the top, though, was an entry which caught my eye. It was a deed dated 1738, and it was a document filed in court in King George County, not one of the counties I had seen mentioned in my research yet.

Without even asking for the help yet, this proposed document provided me with the answer to my next question: after William Strother's death, who did Margaret marry? The deed clearly laid out the facts: that William had appointed Margaret as his sole executrix in his will dated November 20, 1732, and that Margaret had subsequently married someone named John Grant.

The terms of William Strother's will included a stipulation that two of his properties were to be sold to the highest bidder. One of those properties was located in King George County, and Margaret had found a willing purchaser there: a gentleman by the name of Augustine Washington.

Once the purchase was made, Augustine moved his family to the property by the end of that year. Unfortunately, Augustine died only a few years later—in 1743—leaving the property to the eldest son of his second marriage, who was only eleven years of age at the time. Thus, George Washington's mother Mary managed the property until George became of legal age to assume ownership of the property where he had lived since he was six years old.

Whether the Strother family had planted any cherry trees on their property before George Washington's father acquired that 150 acre site in 1738, I can't say. Nor can I say whether the future president's father had ever gifted him with a hatchet—or lived to rue the day he had misused it. The general consensus now, at least among those historians who have studied such matters, is that the never-tell-a-lie son of Augustine Washington became the subject of a myth perpetuated long after his own passing.

That Margaret Watts Strother Grant sold the Strother family farm to the Washingtons, however, is certainly not a legend. Though the name of the property has changed—it became known as the Ferry Farm—it is still upkept by The George Washington Foundation. Should I ever get curious enough to wonder what the farm of my ancestors looked like, I can still go visit the property, even get a guided tour if I'd like. More than that, I could take a look at the on-site archaeology lab which has reportedly found "thousands of artifacts" on the property—some, perhaps, dating back to the farm's previous owners, as well. 

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Exploring That Genetic Heritage


The other day, I was reading an article on using DNA for genealogy when a term the author used stopped me in my tracks. The term referred to a "genetic heir" being each of us who receives a portion of our ancestors' genetic makeup. That genetic inheritance could be quite tiny, but it is that same pattern, replicated with others of our distant cousins, which allows us to consider ourselves mutual "matches" through that heritage.

While on face value, yeah, I suppose that explains what we are doing when we use DNA to help build out our family tree—especially the parts where we have doubts or untold stories or other unexplained puzzles. It's just that calling it a genetic heritage sounds so much more poetic.

Now that I'm pushing back to the farthest reaches of autosomal testing—looking at my fifth great-grandparents, Elizabeth Lewis and Thomas Meriwether Gilmer—the expectation that I'd see any smattering of a genetic inheritance from them is rather slim. Actually, there's a small chance it could be as good as zero.

However, taking a look at my ThruLines reading for Thomas and Elizabeth, I currently show fifty nine DNA matches through Elizabeth and sixty two leading back to Thomas. Whether those are all correct is a different matter. I'm far from being done with the process of going over each DNA match to verify the connection—and some I've seen already do look tenuous. But for those who check out by paper trail as well as genetics, I still stand in awe of the thought: I've inherited something passed down to me from 1765.

Granted, what Thomas and Elizabeth received at their birth in 1765 had to come from somewhere. Some of their forebears became the lucky ones to have that genetic expression passed down through Thomas and Elizabeth. And what has made it to this current generation so obviously varies: I've seen Gilmer matches who share one single segment of DNA measuring twenty five centiMorgans, while other matches barely squeak by with ten—or less. That may not be much of a heritage, but the fact that any of it is there to measure at all still impresses me.

I'll continue pursuing this tedious task of inspecting each of these distant DNA cousins through the rest of the month. All the while, I'll be pondering the incredible: how that one tiny strand of DNA we share connects us back to a couple whose lives began during our country's colonial days. 

Saturday, March 23, 2024

Genealogy Ennui


Today was one of those days, the type when nothing seems to turn out right. A weekend should hardly begin that way, but perhaps I can just blame it on genealogy ennui.

For my weekend research tasks, I like to tackle something light, often veering from my weekday research path. I started out at my computer, seated in front of a window filled with signs of spring in ample sunlight—and ended in threatening cloudiness. What had happened?

My thought had been to put the FamilySearch Labs latest promising project—the Full Text search—through its paces on another research puzzle I've been tackling off and on for a year. Truth be told, it was just last month after I reported my King Carter discovery in answer to my sister's question that she promptly followed up with another question: "And what about our Mayflower connection?"

Rather demanding of her, I grumbled to myself, but had to admit those elusive documents on that Tilson case were, um, still elusive.

But now, there's FamilySearch Labs, right? And now, we can find anything. Right?

Maybe not. We can find a U.S. Land and Probate record if it was digitized and added to the enormous collection. Oh, and if it hadn't been lost in a courthouse fire, or a flood, or an act of war. But not—surely—if it hadn't been drawn up at all. Right now, I'm beginning to wonder if that last possibility might have been the true case.

See, all I needed was a handy-dandy digitized copy of the will of my fifth great-grandfather William Tilson, showing his acknowledgement of his son named Peleg. Easy, right? But looking for any such document in the nebulous place where William had settled in southwest Virginia—the county lines kept shifting—brought no shouts of victory. Nor did a similar search in the Tennessee wilderness where he had settled bring even a sigh of relief.

To the credit of the FamilySearch Labs' Full Text search, it did lead me to a document in Washington County, Tennessee, showing an inventory of the estate of one William Tilson, deceased. Whether that was my William Tilson, I can't yet say, but someone named Peleg Tilson certainly went shopping for some tools when that inventory was made public early in the year 1825.

Since there wasn't a will—William S. Erwin was noted as administrator, but I haven't yet found any document appointing him to that position—not only do I lack a record to tie my Peleg to his father, but I have no way to know whether this William Tilson was one and the same as my fifth great-grandfather. Without that, I lack the connection between my paper trail to Peleg and William's paper trail to the original passengers on the Mayflower.

However, what I found does bring up a problem. I've long known that a Find A Grave memorial exists back in Virginia for William Tilson. The date of death given on that memorial is 1833. If you look closer at the memorial, though, the Find A Grave volunteer noted that the headstone, by now, is illegible. There is no way to read the name on the headstone, let alone the date of death. The volunteer reported that, according to the historian for the cemetery, that is "most likely" the grave of William Tilson.

Where did the date 1833 come from? Noticing that the comment on Find A Grave indicated William's service in the Revolutionary War, I cross-checked his information at D.A.R. There, for Patriot William "Tillson," the date of death aligned more closely with the estate inventory I had found in Tennessee: 1825.

At this point, feeling about as unsettled as the weather swirling around outside my window, I wasn't sure which direction to take next. For all I know, there could have been one William in Tennessee and another across the border in southwest Virginia. Or this could have been a case of both identities being one and the same person, owning property in Tennessee, but dying unexpectedly after traveling home to visit his daughter in Virginia. Until I found a document to say so, I can't really know for sure. And there's the rub: what if there is no document to check?

Friday, March 22, 2024

About Jane


While it is a snap to realize not much can be learned about a woman of colonial Virginia by Googling her surname, we have a lot we can infer from the resources which discussed the men in her life. Such is the case of learning about Jane Strother, my sixth great-grandmother.

Turning to the memories of one of her grandsons, collected and published in 1855 as Sketches of Some of the First Settlers of Upper Georgia, we learn that Jane was said to be the oldest of thirteen children—all daughters—of William Strother "of Stafford" and his wife, Margaret Watts. What George Rockingham Gilmer, the book's author, learned about his grandparents' ancestry was likely gleaned by listening to family stories. Those stories held that the Strothers had emigrated from England to Virginia in the earliest days of the colony.

However long the Strother family had to make a new life for themselves in North America, by the time of Jane's marriage to Thomas Lewis in 1749, it was said that she came from an "established family." When she and Thomas married, likely in Stafford County, they moved north of Thomas' father's home in Augusta County to an area close to current-day Port Republic, Virginia. There, they settled near the Shenandoah River, calling their new home "Lynnwood."

Barring the discovery of any church records about her life, the only other token of Jane's existence was in her name etched into an imposing monument in the Lewis Family Cemetery. While the Find A Grave memorial indicates Jane's dates as 1732 through 1820, the stone's etching itself gives only her name.

Those dates, however, call into question some details from the Gilmer book. If Jane was born in 1732, once we look to the Find A Grave memorial for her father, William Strother, and see his year of death—that same 1732 as the year of her birth—it becomes a problem when we realize that Jane was said to be the oldest of his thirteen daughters.

While granted, there are no supporting documents provided for the dates added to Find A Grave memorials for these two ancestors, the discrepancy may be a case of far more than over-zealous volunteers. In a volume of genealogies gleaned from The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, one author noted his doubt of the oft-repeated "thirteen blooming daughters." Turning to court records following the death of William Strother to support his contention, the author observed details which seem to indicate there were six daughters, not thirteen. Yes, it is possible that some may have predeceased their father, but the more likely story—if, that is, there were more daughters—is that Jane's mother remarried and had children by her second husband.

If Jane's mother did indeed have children from that subsequent marriage, they would have been half-siblings to Jane. Still, I'd be interested to discover their identity as well, for one reason. While Jane's mother Margaret Watts, as my seventh great-grandmother, would be an ancestor beyond the likely detection of autosomal DNA testing, because she is on my matriline, all her female descendants could be on the matriline of my mtDNA matches. Besides Jane Strother and her known Strother sisters—if only five others rather than the fabled thirteen—any of her possible half-sisters from her mother's subsequent marriage will need to be on my radar, too.

With that, as we move on to Jane's mother, we'll need to learn more about this second husband. 

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Googling Surnames


While it was tempting to follow the family trail of my fifth great-grandmother Elizabeth's father, Thomas Lewis, to the hardly believable story of his father John Lewis, we need to reel back the family fishing line to Elizabeth's mother's side of the story. My goal this month, after all, is to keep pursuing my matriline, so that is the direction we need to take for the remainder of this month.

To tell the truth, at this juncture, it seemed challenging to pursue that task, given that the next surname we will be examining is one I considered to be rather unusual: Strother. To disabuse myself of that intimidating notion, I decided to dive in to an introductory tour of surname possibilities: I Googled the surname "Strother."

I was surprised to see how many results turned up. From, I learned that the Strother surname could be found not only in the United States, but in Canada, as well as England and Scotland. It likely originated as a habitational name, though the precise location of that suspected "wooded marshland" from which the Strother surname was supposedly derived has yet to be discovered. More to our purposes, the article noted that by 1840, there were forty two Strother families living in Virginia, exactly where my sixth great-grandmother Jane Strother had been born about 1732.

Fortunately for me, the Strother family apparently was keenly interested in their own family history. I found several published records online, everything from a thirteen-page typewritten article from the collection of the Orange County California Genealogical Society to a September 1903 journal article in the Register of Kentucky State Historical Society. Better than that were the discoveries of specific Strother descendants' papers, including their own genealogical pursuits, archived in the holdings of the Atlanta History Center, the University of North Carolina, and the Digital Library of Georgia.

More interesting than that, at least to me, was stumbling upon the online existence of The William Strother Society, Inc.

Granted, all these discoveries are premature, given the fact that all I know, so far, is the least smattering of details about one member of the Strother family in colonial Virginia. And that is this: that Thomas Lewis, son of "Irish John" Lewis, married someone named Jane Strother, said to be daughter of William Strother and Margaret Watts.

And all I thought would happen with this project, given how searches for women in colonial Virginia can go, would be to run into a brick wall.

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Irish John


It was likely in the early years of Augusta County, Virginia, when my seventh great-grandfather John Lewis acquired the nickname, Irish John Lewis. According to his headstone, he did claim to have been born in Ireland—County Donegal, specifically—but with a name like Lewis, it could easily have been assumed he was more Welsh than Irish. According to family reports, though, his roots may actually have been French.

It was what prompted John Lewis' arrival in colonial Virginia about which I am more curious, however. Explaining the setting of the Lewis family's arrival, one genealogy paints his newly-adopted home as "a dense and unexplored forest" which only years later became Virginia's Augusta County. Upon his arrival there, John Lewis became one of its pioneers.

There was a reason why John Lewis left his comfortable home in Ireland. The 1906 Genealogies of the Lewis and Kindred Families gave hints about the episode which ousted him from his Irish home. Lewis was apparently "compelled to flee the country" on account of "having to slay his Irish landlord." Author John Meriwether McAllister speculated that in the far western reaches of the Virginia colony, the Lewis family would be "too far removed from royalty to be any longer the victim of tyranny."

While that may sound like rhetoric fitting for a colonial settler leading up to the American Revolution, John Lewis supposedly arrived in Virginia much earlier than that—in 1732. Of course, I wanted to learn more about that story. Through some stroke of serendipity, I discovered there actually is a Wikipedia entry on John Lewis, which provided a succinct recap of Lewis' escape from Ireland. Better than that, the article also included footnotes, leading me to further sources.

One such account of the event—though painted in the prose of a much earlier era—was the 1845 book by Henry Howe, Historical Collections of Virginia. Howe's painting of the encounter which prompted Lewis' decision to emigrate was as "the result of one of those bloody affrays" in which "a nobleman of profligate habits and ungovernable passions" had decided to repossess the Lewis property under "an alleged breach of condition." The nobleman with his posse surrounded the Lewis home, made his demands—which were rebuffed by Lewis—and fired a shot into the house. This killed Lewis' brother and injured his wife, enraging Lewis, who then rushed out to fight his assailant. In the end, Lewis had killed both the nobleman and one of his assistants, prompting those witnesses and Lewis sympathizers to advise him to "fly the country."

Whether that incident actually happened as the 1845 account painted it will be hard to determine. The Wikipedia article on John Lewis noted that two of three historical writers disputed the narrative. Indeed, a supposed diary of John Lewis' wife Margaret which provided a recounting of the incident, first appearing in a magazine version in 1869, was only in 1976 revealed to actually be a hoax

With such a rocky road leading to Lewis reality, how is one to determine the truth of the matter? It hardly seems likely that I'd find a contemporaneous newspaper account of the crime from one of the least-populated counties in Ireland.

What I can do, however, is look for documentation of what became of Irish John Lewis, once he arrived in Virginia, through to his death near Staunton in 1762. And, having achieved such a goal, I'll be satisfied with my progress.

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

What's in a Story?


As I work my way back through the generations on my by-now colonial Virginia Lewis family, I encounter few verifying documents but, out of the blue, stumble upon a remarkable story. When family stories come to us from the early 1700s—or even earlier than that—how do we go about verifying the tale? More to the point, what, exactly, goes into the making of a family story? How does one's history turn into family legend?

I'm not sure I'll ever find the answer to such a question, but I have found one such story. Before we dive into the story, though, I need to set the stage with some genealogical orientation.

Right now, I'm edging my way backwards in time from the generation of my fifth great-grandmother, Elizabeth Lewis, wife of Thomas Meriwether Gilmer, to her parents. Fortunately, one of Elizabeth's sons wrote a book in 1855 sharing stories he recalled from his family's ancestry. It was there in George Gilmer's  Sketches of Some of the First Settlers of Upper Georgia that we learned the names of Elizabeth's parents: Thomas Lewis and Jane Strother.

It wasn't long until I found another book specifically on the Lewis family and zeroed in on Elizabeth's father Thomas Lewis. There in John Meriwether McAllister's 1906 book, Genealogies of the Lewis and Kindred Families, the author identifies Thomas Lewis as the second son of John Lewis and Margaret Lynn.

The book goes on to list each of Thomas' thirteen children, including the names of their spouses. However, not long after that discovery, I learned that the author had gotten one of those spouses' names wrong—at least, according to the files of the Daughters of the American Revolution. For the record, D.A.R. had flagged the entry for Patriot Thomas Lewis, noting that "problems have been discovered with at least one previously verified paper." Checking the notes on their website, it appears that the problem involves that very spouse—Thomas McClanahan—who had apparently married a different Margaret than the same-named sister of our Thomas Lewis

Taking that discovery as a token of the fallibility of genealogy books, no matter how well-intentioned the author, you can be sure I now proceed with due caution. Still, my curiosity was captured by the mention in more than one place about the circumstances behind the arrival in America of Thomas and his immigrant parents. In almost understated tones, the Lewis book explained that "after the departure of John Lewis from Ireland, on account of having slain his Irish landlord," he arrived in the colony of Virginia in 1732.

Say what?! Now, that's got to be a story. A family story, undoubtedly, but did it really happen? If so, how am I to document an event like that? And if it didn't really happen, how do I go about deciphering the truth of the matter to get the slightest inkling of what might really have happened?

Whether I can find the answer to any of those questions, at least I have two written versions of the event, albeit contained in those unsourced hundred year old genealogy books. For the sake of the story itself—whether it turns out to be true or not—tomorrow, let's take a look at what the Lewis family said had happened to bring them to America.

Monday, March 18, 2024

Genealogy by Wikipedia, Part II


Whenever I stumble upon a promising old genealogy book on one of my family lines, I already know to contain my exuberance until I've verified the key assertions by documentation. Still, finding yet another old family history tome, this time on my Lewis line, I couldn't help but feel cheery about it. Despite the rather pedestrian title, Genealogies of the Lewis and Kindred Families, the book's author claimed a name which I could relate to: John Meriwether McAllister. This line has some of those Meriwethers, too.

However, finding the 1906 near-posthumous publication was eclipsed by another discovery. Forget dusty old books on library shelves—or even in digitized collections. It turns out I can now actually research my old family lines by simply looking up their names on Wikipedia. Yes, genealogy by Wikipedia—a concept I never expected to consider, at least until my ancestral early arrivals in North America had roots digging deep enough into colonial business.

It was back in the pages of George R. Gilmer's 1855 Sketches book that I discovered the names of my fifth great-grandmother's parents: Thomas Lewis and Jane Strother. Because Elizabeth Lewis was born to them in the 1760s, I was fairly sure the only document which I could turn to for verification would be her father's will, so I was quite fortunate to have the guidance of these tentative names.

It didn't take long to discover that Elizabeth's father Thomas had had a hand in politics in his colonial Virginia home. I'm not even sure what prompted me to try my hand at finding his name listed in Wikipedia, but there it was: a brief entry on Thomas Lewis, billed as a Virginia politician. Like all Wikipedia posts, the article included several references which I'll be checking out. Better yet, the Wikipedia article on Thomas included mention of his father, John Lewis—imagine searching for a name as common as that—and led to a separate Wikipedia entry on the patriarch and apparent founding immigrant in that Lewis line. You can be sure I'll be harvesting that entry for reference leads, as well.

With even more names to search for in those old Virginia wills, I consider it fortunate that FamilySearch Labs has recently come out with their Full Text search. I will certainly be putting that innovation through its paces as I work to confirm the entries in this newly-discovered old Lewis genealogy book this week.

Sunday, March 17, 2024

From a Mother of Mothers


This month, I've been taking my research cue from a mother of mothers—my fifth great-grandmother on my matriline, that is. Elizabeth Lewis, wife of Thomas Meriwether Gilmer, has been my focus mainly in the hope of pushing back through the generations even further to determine just how I match four "exact matches" on my mitochondrial DNA test.

The mtDNA test, you may recall, is the specialized DNA test which can confirm deeper ancestral roots than can the commonly-taken autosomal DNA test. Not only can it reveal our ancestors' geographic wanderings and ethnic heritage of that one specific branch of our family tree, but it can also tie us together with other matches reaching far back in time. The reason? The slower mutation rate for mitochondrial DNA allows us to "see" farther back in time.

Still, taking the mtDNA test does not mean we are handed answers to our genealogical questions on the proverbial silver platter. In my case, I have only four matches who are considered "exact matches"—in other words, there is no mutation evident in comparing our tests. While that may sound precise, an exact match can mean I share a common ancestor on my matriline with my match which might reach back two hundred years—or even farther back in time.

Of my four matches, only one had posted a tree which reached back to our ancestral nexus. That shared ancestor was born about 1700, not a bad stretch for a DNA test. As for the other matches, our mutual connection might be years beyond that three hundred year mark.

Still, I keep pushing back on the matriline—as well as mapping out all descendant lines connected to each mother of mothers. Now that I'm up to my matrilineal fifth great-grandmother, and since that can still be a genetically reachable ancestor for the autosomal test, I've also been keeping an eye on my ThruLines matches linked to Elizabeth Lewis, as well as her husband, Thomas Gilmer. Right now, that readout shows sixty two autosomal DNA matches with other descendants of Thomas Gilmer, and fifty nine matches linked to Elizabeth herself.

As I work my way through those ThruLines matches, confirming connections for each entry, adding those matches to my tree becomes another way that family tree keeps growing. Right now, I have 38,196 people in my family tree. With an increase of 169 over the past two weeks, the rate of increase has slowed from previous biweekly advances. However, I can safely say the reduced research speed can be attributed to having to resort to records of the 1700s and early 1800s to confirm family connections. And reading those handwritten documents can certainly put the brakes on research speed—even with the help of AI innovations at

As I continue my biweekly progress checks, the route I am now taking becomes more challenging. My next step will be to move to Elizabeth's own parents, focusing especially on her mother. From there, I'll repeat that same process for another generation—and keep going, as long as I can find supporting documentation available.

Incredibly, at this point, that document source is still housed in North America, though by this point, we will begin edging into the British colonial era. Fortunately for my purposes, Virginia—both state and colony—serves as a fascinating repository of historical documents, which may allow us to push further back in time than we could otherwise have hoped.

Saturday, March 16, 2024

Off the Shelf:
They Were Her Property


As I explore farther into my family's past, especially as I follow my matriline deeper into the South and eventually into its colonial era, it is an inescapable fact that the details I am pulling up in wills include an ever-increasing involvement with the American—and British-American—convention of slavery. At such a juncture, I thought this might be a fitting time to pull a book off my library shelf which addresses the issue I am witnessing: Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers' They Were Her Property.

Because pre-1850 family history research must rely on different record sets than what we'd normally pursue for later years in the United States, I've been reading many wills. The main reason for that choice of document was to find a father's inclusion of each child by name—including married names for daughters—to verify I was following the right family.

In that line of pursuit, it became quite obvious that, while the sons might inherit land and farming equipment or become the new recipient of bonds or other financial instruments due the estate, daughters were sometimes bequeathed with a different kind of "property"—the enslaved people whose work sustained the land's production.

That became crystal clear, for instance, when I found Elizabeth Lewis Gilmer's own will far from the state where she raised her family. Dying in 1855 in Alabama at the home of her son-in-law, Elizabeth's recorded last wishes made clear one detail: there were many names to be found in that document, and not all of them were names of her family members. 

Seeing mention of phrases like "a negro boy named Bryant" or "a negro girl named Louisa, daughter of my negro woman Nancy," I realize I am witnessing an example of what author Stephanie Jones-Rogers is referring to in her book. Part of me wants simply to volunteer to add this multitude of other names I'm finding to the website project, Beyond Kin, but another part of me wants to let someone else do the heavy research lifting and spell out for me this phenomenon of women inheriting other people and passing them along to grandchildren at their "owner's" death.

Granted, I realize while this text will not be riveting reading, it will indeed be eye-opening. Other than portraying slavery as the awful institution we now realize it was, our typical history reviews seldom delve very deeply into the day-to-day unfolding of its impact. At this juncture in my family history research, I need to open this book's pages and let them inform me of details omitted by a cursory high school—or college—lecture on the subject.

On the other hand, this book's focus on the complicity of women in continuance of the institution of slavery may be a bit overreaching, as a very few readers had brought up in one bookseller's website. To single out white women as if they were the sole driving force behind the perpetuation, one reader observed, was to be "disingenuous." Another critiques the writer who "judges history by the sensitivities of our own time."

These thoughts become the two pillars through which I pass as I consider this author's thesis. But to read the book—to have the experience of living through its pages—is one task which needs to be faced.

As for the other—transcribing the names of the unfortunate strangers captured and enmeshed in a life not of their choosing (nor even of their immigrant ancestor's choosing)—I hope to contribute my part in gleaning these names so that those researching their own family's roots can find the answers they are seeking, as well.

Above: Cover art for the 2019 book by Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South; image courtesy

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