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

Friday, March 15, 2024

Elizabeth's Early Years


More than Thomas and his Gilmer family line, it was his wife Elizabeth about whose early years I was most curious. Elizabeth, my fifth great-grandmother, was also significantly placed in my family tree as someone belonging on my matriline—that DNA-significant line reaching far back into the deep ancestral story of one's mother's mother's mother. Since the mitochondrial DNA test I took revealed somewhat of Elizabeth's matrilineal ancestry buried deep within mine, I wanted to trace that line on paper as far back as I could.

Though I'm thankful for the trailblazers who had published pertinent family histories on lines such as the ones we've examined this year, I was not surprised to see the cursory review provided in George Rockingham Gilmer's 1855 book, despite Elizabeth being his own mother. In Sketches of Some of the First Settlers of Upper Georgia, he devoted all the space of two paragraphs to her story.

What I've learned so far: Elizabeth married Thomas Gilmer at a rather young age, somewhere in Virginia where their respective families had lived. Oh, and before the young couple left for Georgia to raise their rather robust family, she had lived with her parents, Thomas Lewis and Jane Strother. Of her siblings—especially the oldest three brothers, whose military service was noted—the author spent a few more words of description.

In his younger years, Elizabeth's father Thomas Lewis had been plagued with poor eyesight and thus could not follow the calling of his brothers into military service. He instead resorted to the study of law, and learned the surveyor's skills. Apparently, he played a role in early Virginia political matters as well, as I am learning through the discovery of other resources, including another book published in the early 1900s specifically on this same Lewis family. Of course, the main question is whether the assertions in that Lewis genealogy can be verified through documentation, a question I ask myself with each genealogy book I find on the lines in my family's ancestry.

Next week, we'll take a closer look at that book, and learn how far back we can trace that Lewis family in colonial Virginia and beyond. After that, it will be to my matriline and Jane Strother that we will turn our attention.

Thursday, March 14, 2024

A "Rosetta Stone" of Family Relationships


I don't know how I could accurately piece together any family tree without learning as much as possible about the entire family constellation. Sisters, brothers, in-laws, grandchildren: these all paint a clear picture enabling me to increase my certainty that I am pursuing the right family line. That dependence on collateral lines certainly spared me from tossing out a research hit which turned out to become the "Rosetta Stone" of my Gilmer family's many relationships. At first glance, I thought it didn't fit my family.

It all started when I couldn't find any will to link my fourth great-grandmother Mary with her father, Thomas Meriwether Gilmer. Though I had the anecdotal accounts of her family, thanks to the 1855 book, Sketches of Some of the First Settlers of Upper Georgia, despite its author being her brother, George Rockingham Gilmer, we all know how family legends and outright bragging can get out of hand. If nothing else, such works may serve as trailblazers, but certainly not as replacement for documentation.

Since FamilySearch Labs had recently announced their Full Text search tool, I grabbed the tutorial written by longstanding genealogy writer Kimberly Powell and jumped on the trail. I was looking for anything that could lead me to Thomas Meriwether Gilmer's will. Since I have noticed some men using initials or nicknames rather than full names in documents—not to mention the compounding problem of liberal license to "creatively" spell names—I thought I'd begin with simply searching for the surname. However, since Gilmer produced too many search results, I narrowed the spectrum to a reasonable time period, as well. I wasn't willing to specify one state, though, seeing how Mary's own family had moved from state to state.

It was a good idea to leave that search range as broad as possible, but it did yield too many hits for someone as impatient as me. Back to the drawing board I went to reformulate my search terms. This time, I came up with the brainy idea to use Mary's brother's name as an additional keyword, simply because it was such an unusual name. In the extended Gilmer family, there were several namesakes for Thomas' father, whose given name was a family name passed through generations: Peachy. Searching for Peachy, I reasoned, should cut short my overabundance of search possibilities to a manageable level.

Right away, a result rose to the top of the list, but the location took me by surprise: Arkansas. That certainly wasn't on my radar—yet. And though FamilySearch Labs limits the collections they are currently testing to two record sets—Mexico Notary Records and U.S. Land and Probate Records—the court procedure which introduced the records with that singular Gilmer name, Peachy, didn't seem quite right to me.

The record appeared to be part of a series of appearances in court, with one document leading to a separate one, then another, then more. Adding to the confusion, though the record was indicated to have been filed in Hempstead County, Arkansas, the document was a petition being addressed to the judge of probate in Chambers County, Alabama. 

The petition was being made by someone named William M. Marks, not a name I was familiar with—my first inkling that perhaps FamilySearch Labs' experiment had gone awry. The petition was concerning one recently deceased man by the name of William B. S. Gilmer—inducing a sigh of relief once I spotted a familiar surname in this unusual record.

The petition went on and on. Despite the faint handwriting and the fact that the FamilySearch Labs project not only is testing their Full Text search but their AI capabilities at transcribing handwritten documents, I chose the route of reading the handwritten version to better glean the context. The several pages contained name after name of Gilmer family relatives. The more I read, the more I realized the knowledge I already had of the collateral lines in my Mary's generation were coming in handy, even if they were derived solely from the good governor's snarky text.

In the end—several pages later—I realized the gist of the tale was that the court seemed to require contact of all living relatives of this William Gilmer to attend to the reading of his will. As I read through the pages—thankfully—I had pen and paper in hand to jot down the name and relationship of each Gilmer relative mentioned in the series of documents.

There were plenty of names to write. Niece after niece, nephew after nephew, the list went on. Thankfully, many of the names were followed by the identification of each person by their spouse or parent, as well as the location where each one was currently living. For those who were still minors, they were mentioned within age groupings.

As I considered the long list I was assembling, I did spot names which seemed to belong to Mary's family. Once I spotted the date at which the will was drawn up—in June of 1863—and then discovered the February 1865 date at which the validity of the will was tried, that provided the final orienting point for me.

The will represented the final wishes of William Benjamin Strother Gilmer, who was indeed a brother of my fourth great-grandmother, Mary Meriwether Gilmer. William's wife, incidentally, was the former Elizabeth Marks, providing us a clue as to why someone named William Marks had presented the petition which started me on this exploration. Though I have yet to confirm this, William Marks was likely a brother of William Gilmer's wife.

I certainly couldn't have hoped for a better outline of the extended Gilmer family of Georgia and Alabama—and I certainly couldn't have predicted that it would come from an entry in the court records of Hempstead County, Arkansas. This discovery will certainly guide me for several more days in putting each name in proper place in the extended family tree of Mary, her siblings, and all their descendants.  

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

To Again Move a Great Distance


Early in her married life, my fifth great-grandmother Elizabeth Lewis may have followed her husband from Virginia to Georgia, but in her later years and widowhood, it was her children who induced her to once again move a great distance to settle in a new home.

For the mother of at least eleven children, making a choice like that might have been difficult. After all, her most well-known son, George Rockingham Gilmer, served twice as governor of Georgia, and was certainly not going to move from the home state which he had represented in Congress. Besides that, her eldest daughter—my fourth great-grandmother, the twice widowed Mary Meriwether Gilmer Taliaferro Powers—also remained in Georgia.

However, by the time of the 1850 census, the first United States enumeration to include the names of each person resident in a household, Elizabeth's name showed up in the household of one "Benaga" S. Bibb in Montgomery County, Alabama. The reason? He was apparently her son-in-law. Along with Elizabeth's daughter Sophia, Benajah Bibb's wife, several others of Elizabeth's now-adult children had also moved to Montgomery County—or, if not, had taken up land in nearby Mississippi, or even moved to Texas. 

Finding her most recent residence so far from the place where she had raised her family back in Georgia was—to me at least—helpful, because that is what leads us to her will, and a listing of some members of her extended family. With that document, once again, we see another example of a product of her era, for some of the "property" which she bequeathed to her granddaughters named enslaved persons at the time of her residence in Alabama leading up to her 1855 death, opening our eyes as researchers to the up-close details of what life was like in that time period.

A brief entry in the local newspaper in September of that year gave Elizabeth's age as ninety two. The obituary also provided the names of several of her surviving children, as well as notice of the loss of her son Charles. Apparently, her son George must have recently published Sketches of Some of the First Settlers of Upper Georgia, for Elizabeth's obituary quoted a passage from the former governor's book.

While George Gilmer's book certainly wouldn't serve as genealogical documentation, per se, the names listed in his mother's will certainly helped place several of her children in her family tree, and inform us as to the descendants of those children—in particular, those of her married daughters. That becomes useful to me in trying to place my DNA cousins in their correct place in our family tree. 

Beyond the help gleaned from Elizabeth's own will, my latest discovery—thanks to the FamilySearch "labs" whole-text project—unearthed another family will which is now taking its place as my "Rosetta Stone" of Gilmer family relations.

And to think that, at first, I assumed it wasn't even what I was searching for.... 

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

"Ceaseless Industry and Untiring Care"


While the above words may seem suited to the description of a saint, it was actually in honor of his own mother that George Rockingham Gilmer wrote those words in his 1855 book, Sketches of Some of the First Settlers of Upper Georgia. I, for one, am glad he went beyond platitudes to describe this woman further.

Elizabeth Lewis, of whom the author had remarked regarding her "ceaseless industry and untiring care," was a young bride of Thomas Meriwether Gilmer, who was himself not quite twenty one when the couple married. Within the year, the newlyweds moved from their home in Virginia to a new settlement on the Broad River in Georgia.

Fortunately for my research purposes this month, the Gilmer book provides details on Elizabeth's own family. This helps move me one step further in tracing my own matriline, for that is the part of my genealogy where Elizabeth Lewis stands. According to the author, Elizabeth was daughter of Thomas Lewis and his wife, Jane Strother. This couple both belonged to Virginia families whose surnames I had spotted while researching my Carter and Chew lines in the past two months, so I'm eager to step backwards another generation and explore what can be found there.

Though the Gilmer book included even more accolades for Elizabeth Lewis, there were at least a few details which I can use as springboards to launch into researching this next generation on my matriline. For one, the author mentioned that, as of his writing, she had turned eighty nine—and had been a widow for thirty five years. Following the mention of her many qualities, the book did go on to describe each of her children and their families, which makes for a helpful guide as I build this branch in my family tree.

As for Elizabeth Lewis, though, I'd like to learn far more than how her "pleasant relish" for the good things of life illustrated her lifestyle, or her "unfailing patience" balanced that good life with a note of the challenges of pioneer settlement. I'm curious to push further back in time and see what can be discovered about her native Virginia and the family which first claimed her as their daughter. But first, as far as documentation goes, thanks to her long life, there are records we can pull up to paint a clearer picture of her last days. 

Monday, March 11, 2024

Sketches of the Family


Mary Meriwether Gilmer, my fourth great-grandmother, was someone whose family came alive to me thanks to the biographical sketches drawn up by her brother, George Rockingham Gilmer. It was the 1855 Gilmer book, Sketches of Some of the First Settlers of Upper Georgia, in which we first learned to appreciate the plainspoken writing style of the former Georgia governor. Right away, in finding her brother's description of Mary, we had gleaned the author's opinion about her two husbands.

In those same pages, we can read the author's personal opinion about each of his siblings, as well as his description of their parents. There, the author paints quite the picture of his father, Thomas Meriwether Gilmer. "His frame of body was small, and his limbs of proper proportions and much muscular strength," the author starts out, innocently enough, but then can't seem to keep his blunt self from making additional comments.

Despite small hands and feet, "regular" features—even noting "his teeth good"—the author divulged that his dad had been "very fat from childhood." As a student in Virginia, Thomas Gilmer discovered he could float on water "without any effort" and made his preferred route home from school the nearby Shenandoah River, upon which current he found he could "easily outstrip the usual speed of his school companions."

As amusing (and yet enlightening) as those vignettes about family quirks and personalities might have been, George Gilmer folded in a few family legends which didn't quite seem to hold water. One was the author's comment that his father, in his younger days, had served "a tour of militia duty under the Marquis La Fayette." However, if that military service had been performed at all, it couldn't have been during the American Revolutionary War. For one, Thomas Gilmer's date of birth would have made him too young to participate at the beginning of that struggle. In addition, as the records of the Daughters of the American Revolution now indicate, there is "no service found in any acceptable sources."

Sometimes, family stories can be enlightening, even entertaining. At other times, perhaps they are just...stories.

Sunday, March 10, 2024

Solving for the Unknown


Genealogy, as I've always seen it, can be quite like an algebra equation: you need to separate the known values to one side of the equation to solve for the unknown entity isolated on the other side. 

Right now, I've been grappling with an unknown: the names and identities of the children of my fourth great-grandmother Mary Meriwether Gilmer and her second husband, Nicholas Powers.

Unfortunately, Nicholas Powers did not leave a will—at least, not one I could find anywhere in the state of Georgia, the Powers family's residence, during the mid 1800s when he most likely died. However, I was able to find a court document indicating that someone named Nicholas F. Powers had been appointed administrator over the estate of "Nicholas Powers late of Oglethorpe County." The catch? The document only identified three children: Nicholas, Sarah, and Thomas.

It occurred to me that I did have a way to isolate the unknown entity in this genealogical equation to learn more about the family of Mary and Nicholas: DNA testing. While the relationship would be distant, it was still within reach. I decided to take a look.

Since my ancestor Mary Meriwether Gilmer had been previously married to a man who was my own direct line ancestor, Warren Taliaferro, I first looked up how many matches I shared with people who descended from Warren. According to's ThruLines tool, I currently have sixty four DNA matches who share a genetic connection to Warren. 

Normally, you'd expect about the same number of matches to also connect with Warren's wife, Mary. But in this case, because the young widow had married Nicholas after Warren's death, descendants of those Powers children—however many there actually were—increased Mary's match count to seventy seven.

Sure enough, when I clicked through to see who made up the difference in the two counts, there were descendants of three Powers children in the mix. However, don't count on that easily solving my genealogical algebra problem. The three Powers ancestors were listed by these DNA matches as George, Mary Caroline, and Thomas. 

Well, Thomas I've already found in documentation, but Mary Caroline? And George is on the borderline, as I haven't found him in any records so far, either, though links to his Find A Grave memorial display family names which sound like Powers and Gilmer namesakes to me. 

I've begun checking each of the seven DNA matches descending from Thomas Powers, as at least I have documentation confirming his descent from my fourth great-grandmother. Surprisingly, the closest match shares twenty six centiMorgans with me, all in one segment, when it could have been quite possible that we would share absolutely no genetic material at all. The paper trail confirmed the connection, encouraging me to review the rest of the list, too. As for George and Mary Caroline, though there is a slight smidgeon of DNA that could tie us to the same ancestor, it is a very weak link. Better to look first for positive signs in the paper trail, before trying to solve for that unknown.

Saturday, March 9, 2024

Getting to Know the Neighbors


There is a concept in genealogical research known by its snappy moniker, the F.A.N. Club. Depending on whom you ask, that acronym could stand for "Family, Associates, and Neighbors" or "Friends, Associates, and Neighbors." In my ancestor's case—Mary Meriwether Gilmer and her brothers in early 1800s Georgia—apparently, that F.A.N. Club could signify both at the same time.

Yesterday, while trying to discover whatever happened to Mary's second husband, Nicholas Powers, I ran across a census record for 1840. When I saw that hint posted to Nicholas Powers' profile page on my tree at, I was pretty sure that was my ancestor's family. However, I wasn't in much of a rush to view the document, because I already knew my fourth great-grandmother's name would not appear in that listing. For that enumeration, only heads of household were listed by name. Besides that, Mary's husband Nicholas was not one of my direct ancestors; it was her first husband Warren Taliaferro who claimed that designation.

Still, I had to take a peek at that 1840 census page. Though my main purpose in looking it up was to narrow the possible date range for when Nicholas actually died, I was curious to see who else was living in the neighborhood. I guess you could say I was looking for the "N" in the F.A.N. Club for Mary and Nicholas.

Almost immediately, I spotted another name I recognized from my family tree: Hay T. Landrum. Hay's name was listed right above Nicholas Powers' entry. Not only were they neighbors in Oglethorpe County, Georgia, but they were—at least, according to my calculations—family in the same neighborhood. Hay's wife Sarah was daughter of Nicholas' wife Mary. In fact, since Nicholas was likely the only father Sarah really knew—he stepped in as step-dad only a few years after she was born—it is not surprising to discover that she and Hay named one of their sons after her step-father Nicholas Powers.

It is when I cannot find any documentation for the key points in an ancestor's life that I begin resorting to that F.A.N. Club again. In hopes that some familiar names would be repeated enough times in my ancestor's life story to lead me to the details I am missing, I trace every possible clue. There is certainly an abundance of those F.A.N. Club clues in Nicholas Powers' case, even if I haven't been able to find a will for him.

Friday, March 8, 2024

The Other Husband


If George Gilmer had disparaging remarks to make about his sister's husband, Warren Taliaferro, with that commentary he was only warming up. When it came to the other husband, George's sister Mary's second marriage, he likely had far more reason to be critical. While Warren Taliaferro at least had a will, second husband Nicholas Powers apparently did not.

I found that detail—or rather, noticed its absence—when repeating yesterday's search routine using the FamilySearch Labs Full Text search feature. This time, I was on a mission to find the will of Nicholas Powers. There were two reasons I wanted to find this. First, of course, was to confirm the approximate date at which he had passed. The second reason was to get a more accurate listing of Nicholas' children, since I was concerned the count for the Powers children was not correct in George Gilmer's book.

Despite my success yesterday with the search for Warren Taliaferro's will, no will came up for second husband Nicholas Powers. Instead, there were multiple entries for deeds which included the Powers name. To narrow the search, I added his wife Mary's name, which helped reveal part of the story.

From that attempt, I have been able to glean a few indications. The first was that someone named Nicholas F. Powers served as administrator for "Nicholas Powers late of Oglethorpe County" in a document dated May 3, 1853. An earlier indenture, drawn up in April of the same year, identified Mary M. Powers as wife of Nicholas Powers, and listed their children as Nicholas, Sarah, and Thomas—three children hardly being the "six from her last" husband that her brother had reported in his book.

The third discovery I found was somewhat curious. Entered toward the end of a deed recorded in Oglethorpe County, a specific parcel of land was sold "excepting forty feet square in the North west corner of my Garden where my Eldest Child and Nicholas Powers deceased is buried." The document was signed by a W. T. Williams on August 31, 1849.

Our Mary's Nicholas? Hard to say, though in a county of twelve thousand residents, it might have been doubtful that there were two couples by the same names. Without a will, the only way to determine the names of all their children would be to search through the many other deeds listing Nicholas' name in hopes there were further provisions for the fatherless children. As for Mary, herself, we may learn more by focusing on her own siblings—especially the brothers who had been named as executors in her first husband's will.   

Thursday, March 7, 2024

What Others Were Saying


If it seems odd to us to find a centuries-old document dating the marriage of a teenager as young as Mary Elizabeth Taliaferro, I wonder what the people of that fourteen-year-old's community might have thought at the time. Apparently, we don't need to wonder for long what others were saying, for one local man was quite willing to make public his take on Mary Elizabeth Taliaferro's father—and step-father.

That man was George Rockingham Gilmer, maternal uncle to my third great-grandmother Mary Elizabeth Taliaferro. After serving two terms as governor of the state of Georgia, as well as several terms in the United States House of Representatives, George Gilmer settled down to write his recollections of several Georgia pioneers he knew personally. He published that collection in 1855 in a book he called, in typical run-on fashion of the era, Sketches of Some of the First Settlers of Upper Georgia, of the Cherokees, and the Author.

Of his sister, Mary Meriwether Gilmer, he styled her as "a woman of good capacity," but of her choices of spouses, he was less approving: "She married successively two very indolent, inefficient men, whom by her industry she saved from poverty."

The first of those two men, as we've already surmised, was Warren Taliaferro (alternately recorded in some editions of the book—as well as in other records—as Warner). Mary's second husband, according to George Gilmer, was the Reverend Nicholas Powers, "a handsome Irishman." 

While that might have seemed a curious observation—and one so public, as well—it was the author's next comment which was more to the point of my pursuit. What about their children? 

Unfortunately, Tell-All Gilmer did not provide names, though he did say that his sister had ten children, "four by her first husband, and six by her last." As to any further details, we will have to resort to the usual means to detect the specifics. With that, I resort to another report that everyone's been talking about—though it is buzz generated by a far more modern crowd.

After RootsTech, I noticed several blog posts detailing a document search development powered by AI. A "game changer," as it has been acclaimed by one blogger, Judy Russell. Longtime genealogy writer Kimberly Powell detailed the step-by-step process to use the experimental full-text search feature being tested at FamilySearch. I paid close attention, and then popped over to Randy Seaver's blog to read about his experience putting the feature through its paces.

I wanted to test this tool for myself, and looking for Warren Taliaferro's will seemed the perfect starting point. For one, despite his given name being so variable—Warren in some cases, Warner in others—I wasn't sure what result I'd find. I knew that Taliaferro was a surname unusual enough to keep me from facing the wearying possibility of multiple false leads.

Fortunately, when I tried using the FamilySearch Labs tool, I didn't limit the search to one location, for Warren Taliaferro's will was not where I expected it to be filed. Though the family lived in Georgia when I found them, Warren also had another residence in South Carolina. Now that I think it over, that makes great sense, as he was brother to another direct-line ancestor of mine, Zachariah Taliaferro, who I knew also lived in South Carolina.

The FamilySearch Labs experimental Full Text search brought me to two different copies of Warren Taliaferro's will—one handwritten, the other a later, typewritten version. Each of the wills was transcribed and that transcription appeared in a sidebar alongside the digitized image of the document itself. I chose to examine each one and compare it with its displayed original, as it seemed from the results that the AI either stuttered or had a slight case of dyslexia at times.

If I had wondered yesterday whether my Mary Elizabeth Taliaferro was really part of Warren's family, the will laid those concerns to rest. If we can believe what George Gilmer said about his sister and brother-in-law, the couple did indeed have four children—or, at least, those were all who were named in the document. Warren identified his two sons, Zacharias and Charles, as well as two daughters. Along with mention of Lucy "Gilmore" Taliaferro, we can all be relieved that the other daughter's name was listed as Mary Elizabeth Taliaferro. So she was part of this family, after all.

That, however, calls into question the Oglethorpe County, Georgia, guardianship bond we reviewed yesterday, naming all the "orphans and minors" of Warren Taliaferro, a list which went on far longer than the four named in Warren's October 1815 will in Pendleton District, South Carolina. It is observations like this which make me want to take far more literally comments in wills such as Warren's directive to divide his property "into as many equal parts as I shall have children alive at that time" of his death.

George Gilmer, incidentally, was one of two brothers of Warren's wife Mary whom Warren had appointed as executors of his will. Perhaps George wryly spoke from personal experience.

Wednesday, March 6, 2024

A Package Deal?


To figure out just how it was that Mary Elizabeth Taliaferro ended up named in a marriage license dated the same day as that of her widowed mother would take some searching for old, old documents. On the face of it, the situation gave the appearance of a package deal: I marry you, if I can also marry off your daughter.

The only problem with that hypothesis was that Mary Elizabeth was not the youngest of her parents' children. That might have been the case for her own future daughter, my second great-grandmother, the orphaned Mary Elizabeth Warren Taliaferro Rainey. But we now have found indications that the mother, Mary Elizabeth, was likely a daughter of Mary Meriwether Gilmer and Warren—or Warner, as he was alternately called—Taliaferro. Thus, the reason why the baby of the Rainey family ended up bearing the name of her older—and tragically deceased—brother, who had been named after his maternal grandfather.

Looking through court records to find any explanation for what happened leading up to her mother's second marriage—and her surprisingly early marriage as well—didn't seem to produce any satisfactory explanation, but I did learn more about the entire family in the process.

In the court proceedings in Oglethorpe County, Georgia, one transaction recorded September 24, 1818, served the purpose of posting bond as security for the appointment of one Peachy R. Gilmer as guardian of the children of the deceased Warren Taliaferro. The Taliaferro children named in the document were Lucy G., Zachariah T., Sarah H., Charles, and Sophie, identified specifically as "orphans and minors of Warran [sic] Taliaferro, deceased."

Note the absence of any mention of older daughter Mary Elizabeth. There is a clear reason for that: Mary Elizabeth had already gotten married to Thomas Rainey in June of that same year.

Or was that the reason? After all, in looking at that document designating the guardian of Warren Taliaferro's orphaned children, another possible reason Mary Elizabeth's name wasn't mentioned could have been that this was not even her family. We need more information to confirm that assumption.

To find any further details regarding the deceased Warren Taliaferro, I wanted first to look for his will. And that became my perfect excuse to try out a new search tool which, it seems, everyone is talking about. We'll check out that new way to see what we can find, tomorrow.   

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