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.  

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