Sunday, August 20, 2017

Already Back to "Back to School"

Some of the school districts in my city begin school tomorrow. Some have already been in session for a week. Others won't start for a while longer. It's interesting to search for the reasons for the switch—and, by extension, the reason for much of what's happened in public education in the past centuries since we've become a country instead of a British colony.

Since it's my habit to wonder about the history in which my ancestors' lives were steeped, of course I'd be curious as to when school started for my great-grandparents. Or if my third great-grandparents even went to school—and if so, what it was like back then.

While some of us who grew up in the northeastern part of the United States may remember the official start of school never came before Labor Day, lately things have been different. For a long time. For the vast majority of parents in this country now, school starts long before Labor Day.

Interestingly, the start of school hasn't always been that engraved-in-stone post-Labor Day date. It's been an education of its own to peruse some writings on the evolution of when we start the school year and why.

Apparently, the line-drawn-in-the-sand Labor Day start hasn't always been so. The debate over start date, even now, is a "complicated, insidious struggle" between educators, commercial interests, governmental dictates, and financial analysts. And that line about starting school in September so the kids could help out on the farm? Myth, according to one article.

So, what was the norm when your ancestors started school? It largely depended on the era in which those ancestors were of school age, and where they grew up. City schools were vastly different than country schools in many requirements, among them number of days students attended school.

While I'll leave the bickering over start dates to others, the disagreement opens up the possibility for discovering more about our own ancestors' lives—and for making those discoveries relevant to our own families, especially the young ones still in our charge.

In fact, the many activities of daily life experienced by specific ancestors may reveal much about their whereabouts and their origins—clues we would miss if not willing to ask ourselves such questions. What, indeed, did our relatives of past centuries do about the myriad activities that become invisible to us because we take them for granted? Answers to such questions may awaken us to the texture of the fabric of life lived by the very people we're trying to research.

At the very least, it makes me wonder what, exactly, was the impetus for making the Wednesday after Labor Day my hometown school district's start date for my entire public school experience. Since I grew up near the beach, could it have been the vested interests of shopkeepers at the beach, wanting to keep their part-time help until the end of the season—or the whole tourism industry in general, wishing to support a healthy profit margin for the season? Could it have been owing to union organizers, intent on maintaining respect for the Labor Day designation?

There could have been many reasons. And different reasons, depending on which location became home for your ancestors.

Take this as an invitation to peruse the complex history of public education in the places where your ancestors once called home. Back in the day for your ancestors, school may not have started after Labor Day, either.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

What Heritage
for the Heritage Hunters?

I noticed something as our family spent this past week at a certain "kingdom" of the NGO variety. The place where everyone—human included—is happy to don mouse ears for a day of frivolity happens to be the same place where our hotel remembered to include a token of its heritage.

It wasn't until the last day, while I was packing our suitcases to head home, when I looked up at the enormous picture hanging on the wall and realized: this wasn't just a photo of a man walking in a special place. This was a photo of a man who did something significant over sixty years ago.

And that photo—of a much younger Walt Disney walking through the castle entrance to a brand new world of his creation—was hanging on my hotel room wall all this week. In fact, an exact copy likely was hung in each room in the same hotel complex. Why? Because someone thought it important to remember where it all started.

When we think of history, we think of things that happened hundreds of years ago. Even family history doesn't seem to count until those relatives take on the title of "ancestors." We hunt for our heritage, but we want that heritage to be captured from a long, long time ago.

Perhaps we should take a hint from the people running the place I visited last week: even stuff that isn't really all that old—certainly not yet old enough to be considered antique—should be recalled to mind and preserved so we can share it in the future.

I think in particular about the very organizations we form to help us as genealogists—the societies we create to encourage genealogical research and continuing education. When were those groups formed? Some were likely not even thought of, sixty years back. And yet, each society has its own track record, moments to celebrate—as well as moments to learn from.

Self-awareness, whether as individuals or organizations, is a sign of coming of age, of realizing the part we play in our world means something. And yet, while we as society members bend over backwards to help a fellow researcher find the tiniest tidbit of his or her family history, how many times do our societies take time to say "this is who we are, and this is how far we've come since we started"?

If for nothing else, let's take the time to preserve that narrative of who we are as an organization so that someday, someone who wants to know can find that answer. After all, not only do families have a heritage. So do the genealogy societies which help locate those personal stories.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Figuring out that "Washington District"

It has not been lost on me, tracing my Mayflower ancestors through that northeastern corner of Tennessee where they settled by the early 1800s, that some records report that family births occurred in Washington County, Tennessee, while others were said to have happened in Washington County, North Carolina.

It was once explained to me that the Tennessee version of that Washington County used to be the same place, only claimed by North Carolina. However, when I hauled my naive self over to resources to look up said Washington County, North Carolina, it appeared to be far removed from its namesake in Tennessee. In fact, it was distressingly far-removed from any part of Tennessee, being much closer to the coast than to the mountains.

While I understood the history of North Carolina's previous land-grabbing tendencies during colonial times, this still was quite a stretch, and I dismissed that verbal explanation from my scope of possibilities.

That decision may have axed any chances of pursuing the possibility of becoming First Families of Tennessee material, when in fact—at least if those two Washington Counties were one and the same—my ancestors may indeed have been in the state before the requisite cutoff for that designation.

Of course, I wandered onto that possibility while pondering just where my Tilson and Davis ancestors might have been when their children were said to have been born in Washington County.

That sparked a search for the details about Washington County—in Tennessee, the county from which my family's homes in Erwin of Unicoi County were originally carved. I decided to revisit all those websites genealogy researchers used to use before the advent of mega-sites for subscribers. Launching my search at Cyndi's List, I touched base at the Tennessee section of U.S. GenWeb, looking up any resources for Washington County.

The Washington County, Tennessee, GenWeb had a helpful page explaining that the place eventually designated as the Washington District was a settlement from the 1770s extending from "south of the Holston River, on the Watauga and Nolichucky Rivers, within the boundaries of the North Carolina colony." By 1777, the North Carolina legislature changed the place's designation to name it Washington County, North Carolina.

When North Carolina ceded the western reaches of their state to the federal government in 1790, and then six years later saw that land transformed into a portion of the new state dubbed Tennessee, the part which had once been called the Washington District now belonged to the newly-formed state. The name stuck: they were still called Washington County, but in the new state of Tennessee.

Thankfully, in a question and answer format on their website, the Washington County TNGenWeb explained that the former Washington County, North Carolina, was not the same as the current Washington County, North Carolina—thus allaying my concerns. The old North Carolina county was now the one belonging to Tennessee. So when I see my ancestors' children showing as born in Washington County, North Carolina, and dying in Washington County, Tennessee, I can rest assured they basically spent their entire life in the very same place. The turf was the same. It's just the boundaries that shifted.

As for my Tilson and Davis ancestors who were part of the Mayflower line I'm tracking—those difficult ancestors opting for the pioneer's life far from any signs of civilization (and their concomitant paper trails)—I did find a few shreds of evidence, though only in secondary sources.

For one, a transcription of the 1897 Goodspeed's History of Unicoi County mentioned, "The first settlers of this county located in Greasy Cove not long after the first settlement was made on the Nolichucky." The article mentioned several names of those first settlers, then continued, "and a little later came Baxter Davis, Enoch Job(e), Jesse Brown, Pheleg and William Tilson."

"Pheleg," most likely, was my fourth great grandfather, Peleg Tilson. The one accompanying him, William Tilson, might have been either Peleg's older brother or his father, both of whom were named William, and both of whom were said to have been in that very area.

What's tantalizing about that list of names is that it includes a Davis. And not just any Davis, but one named Baxter Davis. While not the James C. Davis who married Peleg's daughter Rachel—I have yet to discover the name of James Davis' father—it is interesting to note that the firstborn son of James and Rachel was given that very same, unusual, first name: Baxter.

Perhaps this detour to learn more about the area of my ancestors' pioneer settlement, the Washington District—and, specifically, the place known as Greasy Cove—has become a more beneficial divertissement than I anticipated. After all, not only did I find assurance that Washington County in North Carolina and Tennessee were one and the same location, but I found confirmation that their original settlement in Greasy Cove grew into the town that was later known as Unicoi


Thursday, August 17, 2017

Last of my Tilson Line

Daughters are always the genealogical challenge to tie in correctly into the family tree. We have daughters for whom we know the married name, but not the maiden name. And then we have some for whom the maiden name obviously gave way to a new surname, yet we can't seem to uncover just what it might have been.

And then we have daughters with fairly easily traced surnames that marry into family names that are so prevalent as to render them nearly invisible.

Not that the last of my Tilson line disappeared into the midst of a family of Smiths, but becoming a Davis was almost as difficult a research proposition. After all, once we crossed over from that fifth generation of Mayflower descendants as the last Alden descendant in my line (Janet Murdock) married a Tilson, we were fortunate to have a fairly reliable guide through the Tilson generations in the form of the 1911 publication, The Tilson Genealogy.

Now, however, Rachel Tilson, daughter of Peleg Tilson—William's son and Stephen's grandson—has gone and married a man first identified in The Tilson Genealogy only by his initials: J. C. Davis.

Fortunately, the generational litany continues on the next page with an entry for Rachel, herself, which completes the picture by offering her husband's name more fully: James C. Davis "of Erwin, Tennessee."

Keeping in mind that these two, the next link between me and membership in the Mayflower Society, predate the official 1876 designation of Erwin as a town in Tennessee, we at least have provision of a few dates for them—as well as a listing of their children's names. Rachel Tilson Davis, said to have been born June 12, 1801, in Saint Clair, Virginia, lived until October 25, 1851. Her husband, James Davis, was born January 15, 1795—though no indication was provided for location of that birth—and died October 24, 1855, presumably in Tennessee. But not yet—at least not officially—in Erwin, Tennessee.

It is at this point that I wish for an equivalent guide through the Davis generations as I had in The Tilson Genealogy. Searching for such a book with a name as commonplace as Davis, though, would be a tiresome effort, with so many unrelated Davis lines in existence in this country. Unfortunately, while I've found some Davis details on my own, after years of pursuing this line, I've yet to find answers to questions as basic as who James Davis' father was, or where he came from.

Still, I have the next step that I need laid out nicely for me in The Tilson Genealogy, where it reveals the names of eight of Rachel Tilson Davis' children: Ruth, Baxter, Thomas, Lucretia, Jane, Robert, William and James.

For our purposes, the next step in tracing the route between Mayflower descendancy and my own family involves taking a closer look at just one of these Davis children: James and Rachel Davis' second-born son, Thomas D. Davis, who arrived at the Davis home—wherever it was in Tennessee—on December 5, 1828.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Somewhere Between Two Rivers

When I began this quest to document my line back to the passengers who arrived in the New World on the Mayflower in 1620, I mentioned the effort would likely occur in three parts. The first involves work that has already been done by others—the lists ascertained by the General Society of Mayflower Descendants to be the confirmed lines of descent from each of the documented passengers who had surviving children upon landing at Plymouth.

Thankfully, at the end of that first part, the fifth generation of Alden descendants handily bridges the gap from the Society's Silver Books to a marriage into the Tilson line, another family whose descendants have been thoroughly documented. Thus we have confirmed documentation for the first part of the search, and an honored guide to bring us through the next three generations, from fifth generation Mayflower descendant and Alden descendant Janet Murdock Tilson, through her son William Tilson, to her grandson Peleg Tilson and her great-granddaughter Rachel Tilson.

When we arrive at the time period of those Tilson generations, though, we are also faced with a wandering family. William, having served in the French War, also apparently was said to have served in the American Revolution, according to some records held by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Yet, by the 1763 birth date of his eldest child, he was apparently far removed from his home in Massachusetts, living in a place called Saint Clair in Virginia.

And there's the quandary: where is Saint Clair? If we are researching an era devoid of such documents relied upon in genealogical research of more modern times—birth and death certificates—just how am I to locate the court records verifying the assertions made about these more recent iterations of the Tilson line?

From The Tilson Genealogy itself, I can glean geographic descriptions to gain some assistance in locating where the Tilsons settled in Virginia. For instance, Peleg, son of William, was supposed to have married his wife, Rachel (or, in other records, Rebeccah) Dungan "of Saint Clair, Virginia." But when? And where are the court records?

Peleg's first few children were born in Saint Clair, supposedly, in the 1790s. One gets the feeling this may have occurred in a place so remote that it might not have had the wherewithal to produce governmental documentation.

However, thankfully, his children born toward the end of that decade of the 1790s are reported to have been born in the northeast section of Tennessee.

Yet even that creates a problem. Just where in Tennessee would they have been born? The Tilson genealogy gives the location as "Erwin, Tennessee," yet Erwin was not established as a location until 1876.

Relying on geographic descriptions to determine location proves frustrating, as well. The Tilson Genealogy describes the Saint Clair location where William Tilson settled as in "the west part of Virginia...on the south branch of the Holstein River."

Looking up the "Holstein River" is a less than satisfying experience. There is no Holstein River. There is, however, a Holston River, which meanders for quite some way through southwestern Virginia before getting caught up in the water management system in northeastern Tennessee which has created quite a sizeable lake in the region, courtesy now of a modern system of dams. Likely not the same scenery encountered by William Tilson and family when they settled in the area in the 1790s.

Could the Holston River be the Holstein River described in the Tilson Genealogy? This is a question that could best be served by obtaining and examining old maps of the region. That in itself would have taken time. Fortunately, I happened to notice a comment in the Wikipedia entry for the Holston River, which informed me that earlier French maps had identified the same river as the Cherokee River, and that it was "later named after Stephen Holstein, a European-American settler who built a cabin in 1746 on the upper reaches of the river."

So Holston River was once called Holstein River. I headed over to the Find A Grave entry for some of my Tilson family's burials in a cemetery behind a pre-Revolutionary era church called, encouragingly, Saint Clair's Bottom Primitive Baptist Church. Clicking on the Find A Grave tab for the map to the cemetery, I enlarged the image until I spotted a squiggly blue line, signifying some sort of river or creek near the cemetery. I painstakingly followed that blue squiggle until it came to the place where the thing was actually given a name.

You guessed it: the name of that blue squiggle was indeed "South Fork Holston River." Now discovering that, it appears, then, that the location of the Saint Clair Bottom Primitive Baptist Church where my Tilson ancestors were buried was close to what is now Chilhowie, in Smyth County, Virginia.

Thus was my faith in The Tilson Genealogy restored. But that was only one of two river dilemmas. The Holston River was the one the Tilsons left behind when they moved to their new digs in Tennessee. The other river dilemma involved the river which the Tilsons lived near, once they settled in what was not quite yet the Erwin location mentioned in the Tilson book.

According to The Tilson Genealogy, William's son Peleg moved from Virginia to settle
on the west side of Nola Chucky River, one mile from the mouth of Indian Creek, and south of the Iron Bridge, about three miles from Erwin.

We've already dismissed the possibility of Peleg Tilson settling three miles from Erwin. Whatever he settled near, it wasn't yet a town called Erwin. Nor was there likely, at the turn of the century in 1800, to have been any bridge in the vicinity, let alone an iron bridge. Add to that the difficulty of there being not one but two creeks called Indian Creek (South Indian Creek and North Indian Creek), and it is pretty clear the best way to ascertain just where Peleg Tilson settled would be to find some old plat maps—if, of course, there was a government there to organize that sort of property records.

But where, again, was the river? If you are envisioning a woman by the name of Nola whose memory was perpetuated by its use to designate a river, think again. There is no Nola Chucky, person or river. However, there is the similarly-named Nolichucky River, running right through the very area which later boasted the town of Erwin among its geographic labels.

One wonders, in discovering these two small difficulties, how often other names were misrepresented in what otherwise would have been considered a reliable genealogy. Wonders, too, how often place names and geographic descriptors may have changed, over the years. The Tilson Genealogy, after all, was published in 1911. We have to have the grace to allow for things to have changed.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

And That Makes Five

Stretching from Mayflower passengers John Alden and Priscilla Mullins through the surnames I've covered—Pabodie, Bartlett, Murdock, and Tilson—we've made the stretch through the first five generations, precisely the number of generations confirmed in the Mayflower Society's "Silver Books."

From this point on, we're untethered from the assurance that we are on the right genealogical path. To join the ranks of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, I'll have to snap to and assure the accuracy of each documented step along the generational way. Though I'm fairly certain of my research accuracy, this is still a terrifying moment. Like Wile E. Coyote gone over the edge of the cliff.

The difficulty with researching William Tilson—that grandson who so fortunately inherited his grandfather John Murdock's farm in Massachusetts, but then abruptly moved to the far reaches of Virginia—is that this was not the only time this William made such a radical move. According to The Tilson Genealogy, the Massachusetts native spent his earlier years ranging as far as Nova Scotia as well as southwest Virginia.

William Tilson apparently served during the "French War," but presumably returned home to Plympton after discharge from service in December, 1761. It was in Plympton, after all, that he married Mary Ransom just a few months later in April of the next year.

Apparently, when William entered the service in March of 1759, he was barely eighteen years of age. Considering he inherited the farm when his grandfather died in the fall of 1756, that would have placed William then at fifteen—not a bad set up for a young man of that age. Perhaps that explains the note I found in The Tilson Genealogy mentioning a legal action taken in October of the same year in which John Murdock passed: William granted his father, Stephen Tilson, as "guardian" of the property he had inherited from his grandfather.

On the other hand, perhaps that detail only plants another question in my mind: what did happen to that farm after it was handed down to the fifteen year old grandson of John Murdock? And was it something that served to drive the younger Tilson away from his community?

At any rate, the next step in my attempt to document my connection with Mayflower passengers takes us far from that Massachusetts colony of the Pilgrims' landing—much farther than the minor move from Plymouth to Plympton. The next location to seek records needs to be the Virginia settlement known as Saint Clair, a place not found on the map today, and variously identified as part of more than one county in current-day Virginia.

Not only does the next generation take us far afield from Massachusetts, it also removes us from the tidily-ascertained five verified generations since the pilgrims landed at Plymouth in 1620.  

Above: "Landing of the Puritans in America," 1883 oil on canvas by Spanish artist Antonio Gisbert PĂ©rez; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Monday, August 14, 2017

To Him, His Heirs and Assigns Forever

Sometimes, in taking in the fine print in a family's legal proceedings, it's tempting to read between the lines. In examining the family which leads me back to ancestral ties with Mayflower passengers, we've been looking at the final wishes of my seventh great grandfather, John Murdock. In his will, drawn up in 1756, he gave the whole of his property in Plympton, Massachusetts, to his grandson, William Tilson.

What's strange about this arrangement is that John and Ruth Bartlett Murdock had four children of their own: Jeannette (variously listed as Janet or Jennet, who married Stephen Tilson), Ruth, James and Bartlett. I have not found it unusual, in the case of a married daughter, to see a father of that time period bequeath a token inheritance—if any at all—to such a daughter. In this case, daughter Ruth, having already married John Wall, saw her husband—not herself—receive forty pounds.

While John Murdock named his son-in-law rather than his second-born daughter, in the case of his eldest daughter, Jennet, while not naming her at all, he was rather generous in his dealing with her oldest son.

I give and bequeath to my grandson William Tillson (the son of Stephen Tillson) the whole Farm with the Dwelling House and all the other buildings thereon Standing is Situate in the Township of Plimton in the county aforesaid, and is the same now in the Improvement of Noah Pratt be the same more or less—to Him his Heirs and assigns forever.

One would presume this was the favorite grandson, seeing his generosity.

But what about taking care of his widowed wife after his departure? John Murdock saw to that, as well.

Item - I give and bequeath unto my loving wife Ruth the Improvement of all and Singular the Remaining part of My Estate both Real and personall, be the same or less however or wheresoever lying and Being, that is During her naturall life, and after that it is my Will the same Decend in equall halves unto my two sons James Murdock and Bartlett Murdock To them their Heirs and assigns forever.

Wait! Did John Murdock have more than one farm? Or was he speaking of the same property which he gave to his grandson, but let his wife have it while she was still living?

While it might seem I'll have to delve into property records of colonial times, subsequent events reveal this might have been a moot point. Apparently, that very same "fortunate" grandson, William Tilson, married Mary Ransom in Plympton in 1762, and was, by 1763, a proud father in his own right.

The difficulty with that scenario is that William's oldest son—also named William—was not born anywhere near that farm bequeathed to him in Massachusetts, but in a remote spot on the far side of Virginia in a settlement called Saint Clair. This was not a momentary visit to the far side of colonial civilization; all the rest of William's children were also born in the vicinity—and some subsequently moved to northeastern Tennessee.

One clue to the abrupt change in address for that grandson who got the farm in that 1756 will: his grandmother, John Murdock's wife Ruth, may have passed away within a few years of her husband's death. At least, an entry at Find a Grave indicates she may have died in 1761.

Once gone, which part of the property remained William Tilson's? And which part was divided between William's two uncles, sons of his so-generous yet departed grandfather? One can't help but wonder whether there was some family feuding over the rights to that piece of property. Perhaps William saw it best to move on to a future of his own making.

Above: The two excerpts from the will of John Murdock, dated 1756, courtesy the Massachusetts Wills and Probate Records collection at
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