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

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Still Counting

Now that I'm deep in the midst of researching a line that reaches to Mayflower ancestry—who knew I'd ever be spouting lines like, "and he was my eighth great grandfather"—you'd think the count on my databases would rise astronomically. But it hasn't. It seems the farther back you reach in your research, the harder the going gets to slog through the supporting documentation.

Let's take a look at progress in the last two weeks, anyhow—mainly because I promised myself I would. Tracking progress comes in handy when discouragement sets in.

The tree that stands to increase the most would seem to be the one I'm focusing on for this Mayflower research. After all, families back then were larger. Of course, on the flip side, families also lost more children to the hazards of pioneer life—everything from unexpected injuries to sicknesses to premature death following childbirth.

As it stands, my mother's family tree saw an increase of 106 names in the last two weeks, putting the grand total at 11,076. Even though it's a modest gain, at least it's an increase.

On the other hand, as focused as I am right now on putting together an application to the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, I did carve out some research time for the other parts of our family. On my mother-in-law's tree, the total jumped 188 to reach 12,557. Not bad for being focused on an entirely different project. But also illustrating my point handily: much easier to locate descendants of founder families in the mid 1800s onward than in the mid 1600s.

If only that could extend to my father-in-law's database, where the total somehow managed to inch up by one solitary name, for a total of 1,262. Or my own dad's tree, where I scrounged up five souls to make 427 in total. Chalk that up to new hints appearing at, for the most part, since newly-added digitized records sure help me muddle my way onward.

Part of that increase comes from the motivation of finding new DNA matches at any of the three companies our family has already used: Family Tree DNA, AncestryDNA or 23andMe. Whenever there is the faintest possibility that a DNA match belongs to either of our fathers' lines, I am on it, best I can be, given the lack of information on those previous generations. (And here, when I say previous generations, it certainly isn't with the luxury of boasting about far-removed centuries; both of these lines arrived in the United States well into the 1800s.)

As far as DNA testing goes, I'm sure grateful that two of the companies have decided to offer another sale this summer. It's when the numbers go up in each company's database that the likelihood of finding a match—especially in my father's and father-in-law's lines—improves. News like Ancestry's recent announcement that their database has exceeded five million customers is good news for someone like me, struggling to overcome brick wall mysteries from lack of documentation.

Still, it is becoming obvious that some people find more fertile ground for DNA matches at one company, while others reap their benefits at an entirely different company. It's really hard to tell at the outset which company will lead to the match that opens up those brick wall mysteries. Just in the past two weeks, I currently have had an increase of forty five at Family Tree DNA, fifteen at Ancestry, and a net loss of two at 23andMe. That brought me new match totals of 2,306 at FTDNA, 685 at AncestryDNA, and 1,177 at 23andMe.

For my husband, the numbers were up twenty four for a total of 1,498 at FTDNA, up six for 325 at AncestryDNA, and down eight to 1,226 at 23andMe.

Granted, those numbers represent different measurements at each company. I trace all matches at FTDNA, only fourth cousin and above at AncestryDNA, and all cousins who haven't yet removed their name from public matching at 23andMe. Yet even in this small sampling, it's interesting to see that my husband fares better at gleaning matches at 23andMe than I do, despite my significantly larger set of matches at, say, FTDNA.

The bottom line is that you can never know where distant relatives might choose to test their DNA—if at any place at all—so if you are hoping that a match will provide you with the answer to all your genealogical mysteries, you may as well resign yourself to testing at all the major companies. And if you are hoping to see the explanation for how you match another customer, you may as well resign yourself to doing some random acts of genealogical kindness in building a shadow tree for your most likely matches, if their own research prowess isn't up to providing the answers you are seeking.

 Above: "August Afternoon, Appledore," 1900 oil on canvas by American Impressionist painter Frederick Childe Hassam; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Off the Shelf:
Tillie Lewis: The Tomato Queen

Every now and then, I have to deviate from my intentions to plow through my backlog of reading. This is one of those months. Rather than pull a book down from my own bookcases, I borrowed one from the library.

This month's selection is a book I've been meaning to read for quite some time. It is not, however, a book about genealogy, but a chance to learn something more about a giant in my own city's history.

Because it involves my city, not yours, you might not think this applicable to you. But don't give up so quickly with that assessment. It turns out Tillie Lewis built a business which introduced the Italian pomodoro tomato to the agriculture of our Central Valley region. In the face of steep tariffs making imports of the Italian tomato impractical, this eventually made our county the top tomato producing county in the United States by 1940.

Following that introduction of the pomodoro to the area's agriculture, this businesswoman coupled that endeavor with development of a cannery in the city. By 1950, Tillie Lewis had grown that company to be the fifth largest canning business in the United States. If your mother made you anything with canned tomato products back then, you may have eaten an Italian dish made from tomatoes grown in my county.

I can't tell you how many times, over the years, I've driven by the old cannery bearing the Tillie Lewis name, but I had never given any thought to the business savvy that went into building that tomato empire—not to mention, any thought to what it took for a woman to make those strides in a generation in which board rooms were solely the domain of gray-suited businessmen.

While I don't have any ancestors to research in the city or county in which I now live, it certainly helps to delve into the history surrounding the home of my local genealogical society. Not only that, but it's informative and inspiring to see how another woman tackled the business challenges of her day. Tillie Lewis: The Tomato Queen is definitely a read I've been looking forward to.

Friday, August 11, 2017

According to his Will

It is probably a good thing that the will of Benjamen Bartlett was drawn up in 1717, after his daughter Ruth had already married. One simple mention of that detail in his will allows us to connect the names of Ruth's parents with her married surname, Murdock. Thus, we are provided with the stepping stone to advance us to the next generation in this procession from Mayflower passengers John Alden and Priscilla Mullins through their daughter Elizabeth Alden Pabodie, their granddaughter Ruth Pabodie Bartlett, and now their great-granddaughter Ruth Bartlett Murdock.

From that point, it was a will which provided the next generational step, as well. When Ruth Bartlett Murdock's husband John drew up his will before his passing in 1756, he referred not only to his wife and children, but remembered one particular grandson—as the Elizabeth Alden genealogy put it, "grandson Tillson," the son of Stephen Tillson—to whom he gifted his farm.

That "Tillson," of course, handily directs us to the next generation in our journey from the Mayflower's landing to our times. John Murdock and his wife, the former Ruth Bartlett, had among their children one daughter who had married said Stephen Tilson. Her name has been referenced variously as Janet, Jennet, or Jeannette.

It was during this generation, incidentally, that though the property in Plympton, Massachusetts, was provided to him, Stephen Tilson's eldest son was soon found to be settled and raising his own family, not in Plympton—not even in Massachusetts—but far to the west in Virginia.

Of course, that brings up the question: what happened? Why, if provided for with this bequest of property, did he marry in Plympton, yet move so far away to settle and raise his own family? To answer that, we need to shift from the resources provided in the Alden genealogy to a separate recounting of the family history of the Tilson line. And even there, we'll need to read between the lines, for the legal records only document the basic outline of the story.

Above: "Embarkation of the Pilgrims," 1857 oil on canvas by American artist Robert Walter Weir; courtesy Google Art Project via Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Googling for Colonial Significance

It is certainly a different world, plying my genealogical research craft to the world of colonial ancestors instead of scouring passenger lists for American immigrants of the late 1800s. Still, that doesn't necessarily mean I must resign myself solely to dusty archives or crumbling documents. As I traced one of my lines to the granddaughter of Mayflower passengers John and Priscilla Alden, I couldn't help but notice how many results came up when I took those colonial names and plugged them into the search bar at Google. Old World meets New.

It seems incredible that names like Richard Warren (Mayflower passenger) or Love Brewster (son of William Brewster) would be on the tip of the tongue of twenty first century Americans. And, in case you missed my tongue firmly planted in cheek, those names aren't. Yet, a quick search revealed that each of them has a Wikipedia entry. Somebody knew about them. And thought somebody else might be interested.

Perhaps arrival on the Mayflower conferred a sort of "street cred" among colonials. Names of those early arrivals were noted by someone, obviously, but I wondered how my luck would hold out if I tried searching for the next generation.

Using the 1897 publication by Mrs. Charles L. Alden, Elizabeth (Alden) Pabodie and Descendants, as our unofficial guide (for my final bid to become a member of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, of course I'll need to align with what has been verified in the "Silver Books"), we left off yesterday with John and Priscilla's granddaughter, Ruth Pabodie Bartlett.

She and her husband, Benjamin Bartlett, likely had nine children. This, though, may be difficult to verify as a complete list, for apparently there have been issues in which listings of Benjamin Bartlett's children may have been confused with those of Samuel Bartlett. The Elizabeth Pabodie author limits her list to those children gleaned solely from mention in Benjamin's will.

In particular, for our purposes, we are interested in Ruth and Benjamin's daughter Ruth. Born in Duxbury, Massachusetts, where the Alden and associated families moved after adhering to their seven-year obligation to the Plymouth colony, the younger Ruth eventually married John Murdock, son of the elder John Murdock and his wife Lydia Young.

While the earlier Mayflower generations provided me with names easily found on sites like Wikipedia, subsequent generations didn't carry as much historical gravitas, apparently, for while I can locate several ancestral names from this portion of my lineage, they are more likely to be found on genealogy websites than general interest pages.

Still, I can find information, thanks to Google—requiring further independent verification, of course—everywhere from the "Memories" section of to the online database listing the descendants of John and Priscilla Alden, provided by the Alden Kindred of America. That organization, interestingly enough, claims as one of its founding members—and treasurer—a gentleman by the name of Charles L. Alden, a name which we've seen affixed to a particular genealogy book of Alden descendants.

None of this I would have known if I hadn't decided to try my hand at Googling some of my ancestors' names. Granted, if there wasn't the cachet of being people associated—even several generations removed—with the landing of the Mayflower, perhaps these names wouldn't have been as ardently sought after. It's the demand that created the supply in this case. But I'm glad for access to that supply thanks to Google, nonetheless.

Above: The Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor, by British-born American marine painter William Formby Halsall in 1882; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Where There's One, There Will be More

Much as I learned when I researched the family line entitling me to membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution, the likelihood of being related to more than one individual bestowing membership privileges in a lineage society is quite possible. And now, just as I learned back then in my DAR application, the same may apply to membership in the General Society of Mayflower Descendants.

Yesterday, I mentioned descending from Elizabeth, the oldest child of John and Priscilla Alden. As the oldest child of one of the first Mayflower couples married in the New World, Elizabeth also achieved the status of being the first white woman born in the New England colony.

From the time of Elizabeth's 1623 birth until the time of her 1644 marriage, there had been other ships arriving in the New England area including, presumably, the one upon which her future husband William Pabodie arrived. William was noted as being from the colony of Duxbury, a locale near Plymouth colony incorporated in 1637 after the original Mayflower settlers were released from their contractual obligation to remain in a tight-knit community for the first seven years after their landing. Eventually, as the colonists spread out to establish farms in the area, the Alden family also had moved to Duxbury.

One genealogy of Elizabeth's descendants, drawn up over one hundred years ago, provides details of the thirteen children born to Elizabeth and her husband, William Pabodie. For our purposes, the one we are interested in following next is their eighth child, Ruth.

Ruth, born to Elizabeth and William in 1658, married at a young age in 1673 a man by the name of Benjamin Bartlett. Here we see one Mayflower descendant marrying another Mayflower descendant—not a surprising occurrence, considering we are by this point barely over fifty years out since the landing of the Mayflower. The matter of the close-knit community compounds the possibility.

As the 1897 Elizabeth Alden genealogy put it, Ruth's intended was son and namesake of Benjamin Bartlett and Sarah Brewster Bartlett. Looking even further into Benjamin's own genealogy, now we begin to see more names we recognize from that list of the original Mayflower passengers:
He was grandson of Robert Bartlett who...married Mary, daughter of Richard Warren, a "Mayflower" pilgrim. He was also grandson of Love and Sarah (Collier) Brewster, and great-grandson of Elder William and Mary (  ) Brewster, who also came in the "Mayflower."

So technically, by virtue of this marriage of John and Priscilla Alden's granddaughter (and one of my ancestors) Ruth to Benjamin Bartlett, I can also say I am a descendant of Mayflower passenger Richard Warren, plus William Brewster and his wife, as well.

Above: Drawing, 1904, by Alfred Stevens Burbank, representing Elder William Brewster, published in 1911 in A. C. Addison's The Romantic Story of the Mayflower Pilgrims and Its Place in the Life of Today; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.   

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

What the Silver Books Tell Me

It all comes down to what is in the Silver Books. If you want to start on the journey to discover whether you descend from any of the passengers on the Mayflower, you have to start by demonstrating a direct line connection to one of the people listed in those books.

That's what the two members manning the GSMD exhibit at a recent genealogical conference assured me: it all has to check out with the Silver Books. And, of course, you have to present a credible paper trail between your line and those documented in the Mayflower Society's Silver Books.

Since my alleged Mayflower ancestors were supposed to be John Alden and Priscilla Mullins, I thought it would be a wise step to see where I could access those Silver Books. While I certainly am eager to attain membership status in the Society, I'm not sure I'm as eager to part with my hard-earned money in springing for purchase of those books. In my mind, they are hardcover tomes exacting a respectable purchase price.

My go-to response: look it up online. Yes, I know I can drive ninety miles to the Oakland office of the California Mayflower Society—and I will likely do that, before this project is over. But I could just as easily check it out by searching through the main website of the General Society.

When I did, though, it was cause for a slight adrenaline rush: many of the volumes were listed as "out of stock"—whether "temporarily" or "indefinitely" or, more ominously, "out of stock" with no qualifying explanation whatsoever. What was that supposed to mean?

Fortunately, my search style involves clicking on links and wandering around until I find an answer I like. Somehow, I found my way to a file entitled "Guide to the Multi-Part Volumes of the GSMD Silver Book Series." There, thankfully starting alphabetically with the very entry I was seeking, was an explanation of the five part series devoted specifically—and solely—to the descendants of John and Priscilla Alden.

Part One, itself, covered the first four generations. Considering John and Priscilla had nine children who had descendants, there was a lot of material to cover, and the continuation of that file outlined which volumes covered which descendants' lines. I've already seen, from other genealogies, that my line descended from John and Priscilla's daughter Elizabeth, so I already know I would also need to see Part Two of the Alden set.

Of course, there are other resources detailing the generations following John and Priscilla Alden.  For instance, the Wikipedia entry for Priscilla Alden includes a listing of their children. The Wikipedia article also links to an article about their daughter Elizabeth, where a footnote mentions the 1897 volume by Mrs. Charles L. Alden, Elizabeth (Alden) Pabodie and Descendants.

The question, though, is whether they are as "impeccably" reliable as the Silver Books are said to be. For now, I'm happy to use the less-than-perfect as my thumbnail sketch of Elizabeth Alden's descendants on the route to Mayflower Society membership. In good time, those researchers' work will be tested by the genealogists who thoroughly examine such claims in membership applications to their Society.

Above: "The Bridal Procession" of John Alden and Priscilla Mullins, illustration from the 1886 publication of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem, The Courtship of Miles Standish; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Monday, August 7, 2017

"Why Don't You Speak for Yourself?"

Almost anyone familiar with the saga of the Mayflower's landing in the New World will recall the names of passengers John Alden and Priscilla Mullins, and her retort to his proposal, immortalized in the account by poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: "Why don't you speak for yourself, John?"

When I first discovered my eligibility to join the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, I learned it was through this couple's line that I gain my link.

Of course, I haven't done all the hard work to trace that lineage back to the 1600s. I've been advised, thanks to some well-documented genealogies of past eras. In fact, the key to the discovery came when I was researching my maternal grandfather's descent from the Tilson line, thanks to the genealogy published in 1911 by Mercer V. Tilson.

Granted, that book was published more than one hundred years ago. A lot has changed in the research world since then. We have such ease of access, compared to prior centuries, and can pull up records to verify assertions which an author of that time period would be hard pressed to obtain quickly. Yet, genealogies of that era are held in such high regard that we tend to forget that, just as we can do now, those researchers of prior time periods could easily have made mistakes in their research.

That's why I like to take those old genealogies and run their assertions through the mill, testing each step of the lineage against digitized records to see what can be supported by documentation. I'm still in that process, but you can be assured my speed will be supercharged with this new goal of applying for Mayflower Society membership.

Even though I haven't yet proved the line for myself, I have one more resource encouraging me. A supplement to the original Tilson genealogy, published sixty seven years after the original Tilson genealogy, asserted that the connection between the first five generations—documented in the Society's "Silver books"—and my Tilson line was reliably recorded.

I'll outline the generations for you, beginning tomorrow. But for now, suffice it to say the task ahead of me will involve three parts.

The first, of course, is to insure (at least for my own peace of mind) that the span of the already-documented five generations from John Alden and Priscilla Mullins does indeed reach to the woman linking to my Tilson line: Janet Murdock. This can be accomplished, once I see those Silver books with my own, inquiring eyes.

The next step is to follow the Tilson line, as shown in The Tilson Genealogy, through as far as my particular line is included in the book, and insure that I have documentation for each generation's details as given in the genealogy—or, if incorrect, obtain the proper information.

From that point onward, I'm on my own. That is the point where my earliest Davis forebears arrive in Virginia, and then northeastern Tennessee, by the early 1800s. A small part of that segment is already documented, thanks to my application for membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution. But that's only a small part of the big picture. Where my DAR application branches to the maternal side of my grandparents' lines, the Mayflower project will take me to the paternal side of that couple.

That third part is where I'll begin the journey in piecing together my argument, for in all genealogical projects, we need to start from what we know, and work our way back in time from that vantage point. So, once again, I face another challenge to document the story of a couple who, for whatever reason, decided to change their names without any legal authorization. Only last time, the burden of proof was eased by virtue of a family whose letter-writing propensities awarded me the benefit of the doubt. This time, thanks to the nature of life in the rural communities of the Tennessee hills, there won't be as many written traces of proof to support my contention.

Above: Postcard, circulated from about 1930 through 1945, representing Priscilla and John Alden, from the Tichnor Brothers Postcard Collection at Boston Public Library via Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

DNA Maze

It's been only a few days since FamilyTreeDNA launched their summer sale, and sure enough, here comes a matching offer from AncestryDNA. Perhaps the other companies will follow suit soon.

With the Ancestry offer running through August 15, and the FTDNA sale holding firm through the end of the month, the results are sure to pump up the matches for many. Me included, hopefully.

In the meantime, getting DNA matches is only the first step. Then, you have to analyze them, often involving contact with the other person (or that person's kit administrator) to compare notes. Family trees, if accessible at all, often seem to include mistaken entries or poorly documented assertions, requiring the most intense of us to furtively construct phantom trees on our matches' behalf.

But none of this follow-through can happen without actually, you know, contacting the other person. And, ahem, I've been rather remiss in that follow-through.

So this weekend was the time to make amends for my lack of contact. I've actually had several promising prospects, both for my own kit and that of my husband. Of course, almost all of those matches lead to family connections belonging to our well-documented maternal lines—can you sense my disappointment here?—but even then, a few surprises pop up. Let's just say the process provides a chance to fill in some of those empty branches on ye olde family tree.

That may sound like a simple process: meet up with a DNA match, explore each other's tree, and—whammo!—find the missing link, and a whole line of ancestors fall into place in the pedigree. But the process really is more convoluted than that. I spent, for instance, half a day yesterday, just preparing to send four simple email inquiries to our family's matches.

Of course, it didn't help that our new kitten decided one of those messages needed to be sent prematurely. Time for a rewrite. My senior editor has competition.

Between all the family members whose tests I administer at the various testing companies, I'm literally dealing with thousands of potential relatives through all these DNA matches. You'd think that would make a genealogist happy. But no; the majority of them are matches with the slightest dribble of chromosomal material in common. Fourth to sixth cousin—or farther removed—is not the kind of incoming report I consider good news.

Perhaps that's why we all yearn for more matches: not that we will actually be doing the work of diligently contacting each one of them, but that we are all gamblers at heart, hoping for that one big win which will bring the missing link straight to our genealogical door, courtesy of the wizardry of science.

If I could order up the exact match I'd like, it would be a second cousin on my "orphaned" paternal grandfather's line. Looking at the reality of numbers as they stand now, that is quite unlikely, given there is less than ten percent of my matches that even belongs anywhere on my father's side (including those I've actively recruited to take a DNA test). But we can't just demand such stuff. Random chance doesn't take well to being ordered around.

And so, we spend our weeks hoping for that golden match, despite knowing that the more matches we receive, the more work that piles up on our research plates. Looking for the needle in the haystack doesn't seem to get any easier, the more hay we pile on the stack. It just makes us feel better that the odds are now with us more than they were before.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Now Indexing:
Some Really Old Handwriting

I'm back at my monthly attempt to pay back the genealogical world for all the good it has done me over these decades of researching. The simplest yet most meaningful way I can show my appreciation for all those years of help freely given is to spend some time indexing more of those digitized records at That way, maybe what I've helped get online will become the key to unlock a family history mystery for someone else.

I've been focusing on records from places where my family once lived. Selfish, I know, but I'd really like to find some more records about, say, our Tullys' immigration from Canada to Chicago. Lately, I've been indexing immigration and naturalization records for the state of Illinois. Who knows? Maybe one day, I'll index a record for one of our own ancestors.

This week's record batch was both easy and frustrating, all in one brief encounter. That the batch took such a short time to index would be reason enough not to complain—after all, I think it took first place for brevity. But it also had its down side: a pre-printed form for which only a few lines needed handwritten completion. The trouble was that whoever completed those few lines did so in an abysmal hand.

Perhaps it's not the clerk's fault entirely. This batch of records which was served up to me from the category, "U.S. Illinois Naturalization Records" just happened to be dated 1860. Being over one hundred and fifty years since the document was drawn up, some things have changed in the interim. Like handwriting styles.

Things to learn when tackling documents from other centuries (or other countries, as well): letters like m or n, for instance, look like u. Both d and b end in an upward flourish atop the stem. One thing that never seems to go out of style, though: some people have sloppy handwriting—was that an a or an o? And terrible spelling, which seems to vary with the mood, often on the very same page as yet another version.

Since the process for indexing is automated, by necessity the elements have to be formatted to include every possibility of field entries that might have been used over the years. Thus, for those relatively simple forms of the 1860s, there were only about three fields for which I could enter any information: basically the name and the year the document was processed. Depending on the instructions, for the other fields I had merely to keep track of the requirement to either hit tab to advance, or control-B.

At the close of the ten-item batch, I began feeling somewhat guilty for having blipped through my monthly obligations so easily. To make amends, I resolved to do another batch from the same record collection.

I jumped back in, right away. My thinking was, if I could get another set of these easy records, I could slam dunk three or four of the like in about the same time it usually takes me to struggle over the more representative collections. No such luck, though, for the next set—still, unfortunately, written in a near-illegible hand—was dated from 1910 through 1914.

What I loved about this set of naturalization records was that as devoid of information as the previous set was, this one provided information overload. Those forms that furnished the answer to how many children were included in the family gave details of names and dates of birth which, unfortunately, weren't captured in the indexing process in any way whatsoever. This is one reason, during the classes I teach, that I urge students to always look at the document itself, and not just rely on a transcription. What precious details might go missing, simply for want of the patience to take a look at the form itself.

All told, this batch took much longer than I had anticipated, but it was handily balanced out by the relative speed at which I was able to tackle the original batch. You never know what will be served up during an indexing session, even after having selected the collection you prefer. Things have changed so much over the years in standardized governmental records.

And even in handwriting styles. 

Friday, August 4, 2017

"Just" a Two-Step Process

Think you have roots reaching back to the passengers who landed the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock four hundred years ago? If so, you are in for some good news. According to the website of the California Mayflower Society, application to join is only a two step process.

Of course, those two steps require giant strides.

All you need do to start is download and print the Society's Preliminary Review Form. Oh, and follow the instructions on the form. All of them. Plus, be sure to send a self-addressed envelope. But no proof. No documentation. Not even any filing fee. Not yet. They will get back to you.

Step two is what you do after you hear back from the Society. If the Society finds the information you sent to outline a credible claim of descent from one or more of the fifty one Mayflower passengers on their list, their office will send you a "Preliminary Application for Membership." You complete this application, send it in with the required fee, and you get yet more instructions on how to document all the stuff you just submitted to the office.

The process may be heralded as a "two step" process, but every step of the way has a multi-part set of instructions.

See? Easy.

In my case, I'll be preparing the application to submit to the California Mayflower Society, simply by virtue of the fact that I reside in California. Despite my long-standing "genealogy guinea pig" status, if you have relied on A Family Tapestry as the example showcase of "do as I do" and you live in, say, North Carolina or South Dakota—or even Canada or somewhere else in the world—you won't want to copy this step. The California office only accepts California residents' applications. Everyone else needs to consult this list for where to send that application.

Of course, the trick to getting started with all this is to have a fairly credible notion of just which Mayflower passenger you might have descended from. Thanks to a fellow genealogical researcher who alerted me to the fact during the Thanksgiving weekend of 2013, I know who I will be targeting. I'll share more of that next week.

Above: "Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor," 1882 painting by British-born American artist William Formby Halsall; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Seeing 2020

In three short years, it will be the four hundredth anniversary of the landing of the Mayflower in the harbor at Cape Cod in what is now the state of Massachusetts.

For those wishing to adorn their significance with timely documentation, an application for membership in the Mayflower Society dated in that very same anniversary year might be the perfect touch. After all, some of us sealed our acceptance into the Daughters of the American Revolution on its one hundred twenty fifth anniversary. Why not top that one with membership in this soon-to-be four hundred year old lineage society?

The main reason not to: I can't wait that long. I've been thinking about this genealogical research challenge for years now—blogged about it when I first discovered I have a connection, back in 2013—and it's about time I did something.

Another encouragement: I recently discovered that a state genealogical society I belong to is right across the hallway from the California offices of the Mayflower Society. Complete with a library of their own, this headquarters is a simple ninety minute commute from my home. I could use spending some time with the Society's "Silver books," which detail the first five generations of descendants from that original band of settlers.

Of course, it may take me up until 2020 to complete thorough documentation of my connection, just to reach back to generation number five. After all, my link to that fifth generation was a woman who died in 1759. There's a lot of life that happened between then and now.

Above: "The Mayflower Compact 1620," 1932 photomechanical print of original oil on canvas by American artist Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863 - 1930); courtesy United States Library of Congress via Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Just What I've Been Waiting For

It was only a few days ago when I was noticing how those DNA test matches don't always come in as frequently as right after a big sale. I remembered the last sale was around Father's Day, and it seemed like it would be a long time until the next sale most companies hold (during the winter holidays). Looked like a long dry summer stretched out between now and then...

Fortunately, just as I was considering that thought, someone must have read my mind, for a sale is in the offing! I received the advanced notice two days ago, thanks to having volunteered to be a project manager for Family Tree DNA. A summer sale is coming, said the email. And sure enough, here it is—a sale through the end of the month.

At least at Family Tree DNA, there will be discounts of up to twenty percent on their product line, including pricing for bundles of tests. Since FTDNA offers three different types of DNA test—autosomal, Y-DNA and mitochondrial DNA—depending on a researcher's goals, pricing may make it beneficial to spring for combinations of tests during the sale. In addition, there will be sale pricing for "upgrade" options for those wishing to test for more markers on an already-taken Y-DNA test or advance to full sequence for their partial mtDNA test.

Bottom line for those wishing to start at the lowest priced test—the autosomal or "Family Finder" test, which provides matches with relatives up to the distance of about sixth cousin—the ask is now $69.

Since so often, a sale price at one company prompts the other companies to follow suit, I took a look around at FTDNA's competitors. However, I didn't see any announcement—yet—for AncestryDNA or 23andMe. Hopefully, these companies also will consider lowering their prices soon.

Of course, I have my selfish reasons for wanting sales like this: the more people who test, the more likely it is that I will find matches for the tests already taken by members of my family. You know how it is: we are holding out for that dream of finding just the person who will not only match our data, but have the missing link to the rest of the story about that one brick wall ancestor.

Disclaimer: while I do serve as a volunteer project administrator for one of the group projects hosted on the Family Tree DNA website, I have not received any remuneration for mentioning any of the DNA testing companies listed in this post. This post is based solely upon my own unsolicited opinion.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

A Postscript on Orphans

After having wrapped up my series on the quest to identify my orphaned second great grandmother's roots, a comment on last Friday's post prompted me to provide this brief addendum. Janet had mentioned that she also had a second great grandmother who was adopted. If Janet's research has also run into the same roadblock that mine has, you can be sure there are many others stymied with that same scenario in their own roots.

Now that I've run across research issues involving parentage puzzles, the further I delve into seeking explanations, the more I realize we, as researchers, may have arrived at some assumptions which, in deconstructing the scenario, may not prove as challenging as we first thought.

While I'm still in process on making my mind up about tackling unknown parentage issues, I want to take the time to note a few observations.

First among those thoughts is the observation that we need to be careful to delineate the difference between adoptees and orphans. Not all orphans become adopted—which, in essence, means not all orphans will have the kind of paper trail attached to an adoption. On the other hand, not all paper trails are equally accessible, which means that it sometimes is easier to uncover records indicating the parents of an orphan than of an adoptee.

Digging further into this topic, it is important to realize that adoption, twentieth century style, is not at all the same as adoptions from prior centuries. The closed adoptions legally arranged in the 1900s often barred the general public—and even the most vitally vested individuals—from knowing the truth about a child's birth parents. On the other hand, it is only a matter of time, moving back through the decades, to find an orphaned child's parents, if the orphan himself or herself can be located in records.

It is so important to learn the assumptions of the era in which we are seeking our ancestors. That is the context in which our ancestors lived their lives. The customs for dealing with orphaned children were vastly different in the 1800s or 1700s than they are in our current times. We can't make the mistake of assuming our mindset and attitudes apply to previous time periods in quite the same way as they do to our own.

Besides the experience I had while muddling through my orphaned second great grandmother's situation, from time to time I've encountered indications that surprise me about how such situations have been handled, regarding children bereft of their parents.

For instance, once while researching my mother-in-law's Ohio family, I was reading articles in local newspapers when my eye strayed to a legal notice about a couple in the process of adopting a child. The article named the child, provided the name of his parents—both natural and adoptive—and the reason for the change. (If I remember correctly, the birth mother had died, the father had to attend to business obligations barring him from caring for the young child, and a neighboring family was willing to take the child and raise him as their own.) In addition, the legal report also gave the birth name of the child, as well as the name change for which the adoptive parents were petitioning the court—providing a perfectly delineated trail for any interested genealogical researcher inquiring about that person now.

Newspapers of past decades sometimes named the parties involved in guardianship issues (not to mention, the court records themselves would provide this information), named specific children as the adopted children of a specific couple, or otherwise identified the parties involved in this change of parentage. In some instances in which we would afford more of a cover of privacy in our own times, previous eras might have been much more transparent.

In short, upon discovering an ancestor was not raised by his or her birth parents, assuming that we could never identify who the true parents were may be a misleading conclusion. There may well be a way to discover that truth, just by means of the appropriately named exhaustive search we have learned to do as genealogists. 
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