DNA Disappointment: The “Real” Thurbers

I was very disappointed when I found out via a Y-DNA test that my Dad was not a “real” Thurber, that we were not descended from the 17th century Massachusetts immigrant John Thurber.  My discovery pales in comparison to the experience of people like Bill Griffeth, who found out via a similar test that his father was not his biological father.   Griffeth’s book, The Stranger in My Genes, chronicles his struggle to understand and deal with these results.

Today many people take DNA tests and find that their probable ethnicities conflict with their constructed identities, or that they have relatives they didn’t know about, or that that they are not biologically connected to people they have always known as family.  For this reason the government of France has banned all recreational DNA testing–for “the preservation of peace within French families” they have chosen to let sleeping dogs lie, and not to invade the privacy of their ancestors.  In the U.S. we have done no such thing.

I started the Thurber Y-DNA project in 2005 in order to solve a problem that I now know is not even my genealogical problem.  I and a few other researchers had paper trails back to a Benjamin Thurber born about 1720 in Rhode Island whose parents were a mystery.  Because Y-DNA is passed from father to son unchanged except for occasional mutations, it typically follows a surname unless there is a “non-paternity event.”  Non-paternity can result from the mother’s infidelity, an adoption, or in more recent times the use of donated sperm.

We wanted to establish the Y-DNA signature or haplotype of the immigrant John Thurber, and then see if descendants of Benjamin had the same haplotype, which would mean that Benjamin was very probably a direct descendant of John in the agnate or paternal line.  We did establish John’s haplotype and prove that Benjamin was likely a direct agnate descendant of John Thurber, but we also proved that my Dad was not.

Not only did my Dad not match any of the other Thurbers who tested, he matched absolutely no man who ever tested his Y-DNA with FamilyTreeDNA until very recently.  His Y-DNA falls under the most common subgroup of the most common haplogroup in Western Europe, now called R-M269, but his exact constellation of marker values seems to be fairly rare.

Among those who had fairly similar haplotypes were many Scotsmen, which I thought was interesting considering how many Scots settled in the Eastern Townships of Quebec where “his” branch of the Thurbers had lived since 1798.  Finally in 2016 he had a very close match with a gentleman surnamed Robertson.  Both my Dad and this gentleman took the 67 marker test, and they matched exactly on 66 of those markers. According to FamilyTreeDNA there is about a 90% probability that they share a common paternal ancestor within 4 generations, and a 99% probability within 8 generations.

I worked this gentleman’s tree back to find he has a solid paper trail to Leonard Robertson, who was born in 1790 in Collace, Perthshire Scotland, who served nine years in the Royal Sappers and Miners during the Peninsular Wars against Napoleon, and then immigrated to Quebec.  Scotland is full of Robertsons, and there were several Scottish Robertson families who arrived in Quebec in the early to mid-19th century, some of whom may have shared a common paternal ancestor quite a few generations back.  But it is very interesting to me that three siblings of my Dad’s great grandmother Cordelia (Terry) Thurber married children of this same Leonard Robertson.  Both families lived in the village of Tingwick and were obviously close.


By Image extracted from page 337 of volume 2 of The History of the Corps of Royal Sappers and Miners …, by CONNOLLY, Thomas William John. Original held and digitised by the British Library. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32975142


I am currently trying to use my Dad’s AncestryDNA autosomal results to solve the mystery.  They prove that I am in fact my father’s daughter, and even that he is in fact the grandson of both his paternal grandparents, James Milford Thurber and Mary Ann Elizabeth Norton.  I can also tell that he is related to and probably descended from his paternal great grandmother, Cordelia (Terry) Thurber, but so far I don’t see any matches that confirm his descent from her husband, Robert Thurber.  And he does match some Robertson descendants.

David Hamlin (1774-1833): From Brick Wall to Mayflower Descendant

My Ancestor Catherine Livingston Hamlin (1807-1852) married physician John Kipp Vermilyea 20 Nov 1832 at St. John’s Reformed Church in Red Hook, Dutchess County, New York.  None of our family papers gave the names of her parents.  At first I thought she must be related to the prominent Livingston family, but Frank J. Doherty, author of Settlers of the Beekman Patent, told me that many unrelated Dutchess County girls were named after major area landowner Catherine Livingston.

Fortunately John Kipp Vermilyea was a graduate of Yale Medical School, and the Obituary Record of Graduates of Yale University says that his wife Catherine was the daughter of “David Hamlin, who was captain of a line of packet sloops plying between Red Hook Landing (now Tivoli) and New York City.”  I soon found David and his wife Louise listed in Old Gravestones of Dutchess County, New York, among those buried in the town of Red Hook at the Dutch Church at Madalin, which is also known as the Old Red Church.

Dutch Church at Madalin

The Dutch Church at Madalin, which was undergoing restoration when I visited.

I obtained David’s will dated 16 Oct 1833, which mentions “my daughter Catherine L. the wife of John Vermilyea.”  It also mentions his daughter Frances Harriet (Hamlin) Flagler, to whom he left “the likeness of myself and her mother.”  Googling “portrait of David Hamlin” in 2009 brought up a pair of paintings that had recently come up for auction “thought to be David Hamlin and Lois Davis Hamlin” and attributed to the noted itinerant portrait painter Ammi Phillips.

At first I wondered if Lois Davis was a different person from the Louise in the graveyard,  but records for her and her children seem to use either of these names, and I have since found other women in my family who went by both of these names, so I don’t think that is a problem.

In 2011 I found a daguerreotype of the painting of David at my mother’s house.  I recognized it instantly but if I had not already seen the original I would never have known who it was.

Hamlin, David

Daguerreotype I found at my Mom’s house, taken of a portrait of David Hamlin which has been attributed to Ammi Phillips.  This image is in reverse.

David lived in the town of Rhinebeck by 1800, when he appears in the census with a female 16-25 (presumably Lois / Louise) and two boys under 10.  (The part of Rhinebeck in which he lived was set off as the town of Red Hook in 1812.) He is described as an inn holder in the 1801 deed to property at Red Hook Landing that he purchased from Peter Cantine. David’s packet sloops transported “country produce” including salted meat, apples, potatoes, grain and butter to the city, and also ferried passengers up and down the Hudson.


Sloop on the Hudson

But where was David before he showed up in Red Hook, and who were his parents?  I gradually eliminated other contemporary David Hamlins except one who was the closest fit in age, born 7 Aug 1774 in Salisbury, Litchfield County, Connecticut to a David and Silence Hamlin.  This date was only one month off from the age given on his gravestone according to Old Gravestones:  59 years 3 months.  When we were able to visit the Old Red Church I was really happy to see that the marker actually says 59 years and 4 months, which aligns perfectly with the Salisbury birth.

Hamlin, David 1833

Another interesting thing at the cemetery is a stone in the middle of all the Hamlin family markers carved only with the letters D. and S.  David and Silence Hamlin moved to Great Barrington, Mass. about 1806, and are buried at the Mahaiwe Cemetery there, but perhaps David Junior erected this simple monument to his parents.   David Hamlin Sr. is a proven descendant of Mayflower passenger John Howland.

Hamlin, D. S.

When I determined that Lois / Louise Davis was the daughter of Jacobus Davis and Eunice Bunce of Salisbury, Conn. I became fairly certain that David of Red Hook was the son of David and Silence of Salisbury.  Jacobus was originally from Ulster County, New York and the Bunces are an old Connecticut family.  Lois was baptized 1777 at the Old Dutch Church in Kingston, Ulster County, N.Y., the daughter of “Jacobus Davids” and “Junus Bons” with sponsors “Hansje Ostronder and his wife Maria” as well as her aunt “Lois Bons.”

Jacobus and Eunice had moved to Litchfield County, Conn. by 1787 and are buried at Salisbury Center Cemetery.  I have not been able to find David and Lois’s marriage record, but I believe they must have known each other in Salisbury and probably married there about 1795, then moved about 31 miles to the west to take advantage of the opportunities on the Hudson River.

The clincher is that “David Hamlin of Red Hook” / “David Hamlin Jr.” was a co-administrator of the estate of Barnabus Hamlin of Greene County, N.Y. in 1813–if David was the son of David and Silence, Barnabus would be his younger brother born in Salisbury in 1780.

On top of all this circumstantial evidence, my mother and my aunt are showing up as 4th to 6th and 5th to 8th cousin AncestryDNA matches with other descendants of Eleazer Hamlin and Sarah Sears, the parents of David Hamlin, Sr.  My main genealogical goals this year were to start this blog and to complete my Mayflower Society application and I think I am ready to finish it.  If my application is accepted, I will be the first person to join based on David and Silence Hamlin.

Sheffield Steel: Robert Marsden (1755-1834)

Once I realized that the Alice Marsden baptized in 1789 at Queen Street Independent Chapel in Sheffield, Yorkshire was the same Alice Marsden who married Wakefield wine merchant Robert Whitworth in 1815, I had to wonder who were her parents, Robert and Hannah Marsden?  As a secondary resource I had the book Genealogical Memoirs of the Family of Marsden, which is reliable on later 19th century branches of the family but which has proven to have mixed up Robert and Hannah’s children, and admits uncertainty about Hannah’s surname with a question mark.  It may be right about Robert and his parents but it may very well not be.

This book says that Robert was “bapt. at Baslow 8 Oct 1749 (3rd. son of Robt. and Elizth. of Oxclose) went to Sheffield and learned the business of a cutler and merchant…Although brought up a churchman he became a Congregationalist, and in 1794 was elected one of the first four deacons of Queen St. Chapel, Sheffield.  He married Hannah (or Johannah) Smith (?), by whom he had issue, 2 sons and 3 daughters.  He died on the 12 Aug 1834, aged 84 years, and she died 10 Jul 1827, aged 76.  Both he and his wife were buried in the graveyard attached to Queen St. Chapel Sheffield.”

I was hoping to find informative gravestones for Robert and Hannah, but a representative of the Sheffield Local Studies Library told me that all of the gravestones from Queen Street Chapel were removed in 1970 and used for rubble, which was a little upsetting.  At least the ones that were legible at that time were transcribed, but none of the legible stones were for anyone with the surname Marsden.  The formerly very polluted air in Sheffield may have caused gravestones to deteriorate rapidly.

Robert’s death notice in the Sheffield Independent 16 Aug 1834 confirms the death date given in the Memoirs and his position as deacon though not his age:  “At Pitsmoor, on Tuesday last, in the 80th year of his age [age 79], Mr. Rt. Marsden, razor smith.  Mr. Marsden was the last survivor of the first deacons chosen by the independent church assembling in Queen-street chapel.”  If his death notice is correct, Robert was born about 1755, not 1749.  There was a Robert Marsden baptized 8 Oct 1749 at Baslow in Derbyshire to parents Robert and Elizabeth, but he may have been born 6 years too early.

Both Robert and Hannah’s deaths are confirmed in the records of Queen Street Chapel, which I viewed on microfilm at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, though Hannah’s record lists her as “Joanna” and says only “July 1827”.  Another membership record lists her as Hannah and she seems to have used both names.


Marsden, Robert and Joanna 1562804 Deaths 2

Robert and Hannah/Joanna Marsden on the list of members of Queen Street Chapel with their death dates, from microfilm 1562804 at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.

Unless he learned his trade at home Robert must have been apprenticed to a master cutler and/or razor smith, probably in greater Sheffield, an area otherwise known as Hallamshire.  The most typical age for a boy to be apprenticed would be about 14.  Seven or so years later he would be finished, age 21, and able to earn a living.


Greater Sheffield in 1832.  By Robert Dawson – Originally from “Plans of the Cities and Boroughs of England and Wales”, published for the Boundaries Act of 1832. Scanned by uploader (JeremyA)., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=494811

There are only two apprentices named Robert Marsden listed in the History of the Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire who would have been about the right age, born between say 1745 and 1760.  One was apprenticed in 1861 and could be the boy baptized in Baslow, who would have been about 12.  This boy’s father was a deceased husbandman also named Robert, and an adult Robert Marsden was buried at Baslow 1 Jan 1758.  No address is given for this apprentice which means he was probably then living in Sheffield proper, not in Baslow, but he could have moved.

The other Robert was apprenticed 1769, his father being William Marsden, a tilter (meaning a tilt hammer operator, probably forging scythe blades) living at Owlerton.  He is almost certainly the Robert Marsden baptized 16 Mar 1755 at Bradfield St. Nicholas, son of William Marsden who resides at “Upper-tilt,” in which case his master Sleigh Rowland would have been his older sister’s husband.  This Robert’s age is a match with the obituary above, and he would have finished his apprenticeship in 1776, just in time to marry and have a daughter Mary in 1777 who would grow up to marry the Protestant Dissenting Minister Benjamin Rayson, who would be a witness at my ancestor Alice Marsden’s wedding.


18th century tilt hammer at Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet in Sheffield.  The original uploader was Wikityke at English Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 I don’t have enough evidence to prove that cutler and razor maker Robert Marsden was the son of tilter William Marsden, but I’m currently leaning toward this theory.

Calvin Luther Norton (1844-1888): My White Whale

Calvin Luther Norton sits at the end of the stubbiest branch of our family tree and is only my 2nd great grandfather.  He should appear as a child in the 1850 U.S. Census, ideally with his parents, but I have never been able to find him.  His Civil War pension file is one inch thick but not very helpful.  Every so often I find a tantalizing clue (or a red herring), so that I feel I am always circling him but never getting much closer.

Other descendants have recently taken the AncestryDNA test, and I think the problem might soon be solved that way, though I haven’t been able to get very far with it yet.  A genealogist once suggested that I research all Norton families in the area where Calvin was born, and I did so even though there were quite a few, but I could never place him in a family.  I should ask male descendants with the Norton surname if they would take a Y-DNA test to at least narrow down which Norton family, if any, is the right one.  

According to the records of the Vermont Soldiers Home in Bennington where he died 21 Feb 1888, Calvin was born 23 Aug 1844 in Keeseville, N.Y.  Keeseville is a hamlet straddling the Ausable River, half in Clinton County and half in Essex, just a few miles from Lake Champlain and within the confines of today’s Adirondack National Park.  Civil War documents consistently describe him as a farmer, 5’8”, with dark hair, fair skin and hazel eyes.

A birth in Clinton County is confirmed by the 1855 New York State census, where Calvin appears as “Luther C. Norton”, 10 years old, living with the widowed Elizabeth (Cornell) Allen in Oswego, Oswego County, N. Y., over 200 miles to the southwest of Keeseville on Lake Ontario.  The space for “Relation to the head of the family” seems to say “Nev.”  I believe Calvin is somehow a nephew or grand-nephew of Elizabeth, who was the daughter of Revolutionary War soldier Caleb Cornell (1756-1803) and his wife Martha Anson (c. 1765-1848).

After Caleb’s death Martha married Aaron Norton (c. 1750-1813), another Revolutionary War veteran, and Calvin may be descended from this man by an earlier wife.  A Cornell A. Norton, whom I suspect is a son or grandson of this Aaron, seems likely to be related to Calvin in some way.

For years I could not find Calvin in the 1860 U.S. census, but I now believe he is the “Luther Parrot” aged 16 living in Schuyler Falls, Clinton County, N.Y. in the household of Delia E. Cornell and her first husband, Horton Parrot.  Delia was the daughter of Silas Anson Cornell, a brother of Elizabeth (Cornell) Allen above, so that she is likely a cousin to Calvin in some way.  Delia was a very popular name in this Cornell family, I believe because it was the nickname of their ancestor Deliverance Gifford (1727-1759).  Besides Caleb and Delia, other unusual names favored by Cornell descendants are Godfrey, Govett, Guilford, Junius, Lafayette, Loyal, Narcissa and Rheuby.  Many American boys were named for the Marquis de Lafayette after the Revolution, so this name may have no family significance other than an association with the Patriot cause.

Delia (Cornell) Parrot left Horton in August of 1862.  Like many deserted husbands, he announced this fact in the newspaper so as not to be liable for any debts she incurred.  Their son Henry Douglas (1862-1940) would have been 2 months old at the time of the marital break-up, and was probably soon given into the care of John H. and Rheuby (Cornell) Fallon, Rheuby being another child of Silas Anson Cornell.  Henry Douglas used the surname Fallon throughout his life, and is mentioned in John Fallon’s will as “my adopted son Henry.”Cornell, Delia 1862 Deserts Husband

Calvin enlisted in the Vermont Volunteers at Burlington, where he seems to have been living, on 22 Feb 1862.  He was 17 though he claimed to be 18, probably so that no parent or guardian would have to sign.  When asked for the name of his closest relative while in an army hospital in 1864, he answered Nathan Maxfield.  I began researching this man, and discovered both that he enlisted in Burlington on the same day as Calvin, and that he had married Delia (Cornell) Parrott since enlisting.  He was seemingly only a relative in the sense that he was the wife of Calvin’s probable cousin.  This suggests that Calvin had few living relatives by the 1860s.Norton, Calvin Luther 1862 Enlistment (2)

Calvin had served the bulk of his three year commitment when he was captured at the Battle of Cedar Creek, Va. 19 Oct 1864.  He was transported to Richmond where he remained a prisoner until 15 Feb 1865.  He was held at both Libby and Pemberton Prisons, with scant rations under overcrowded and often extremely cold conditions.  This is likely where he contracted the lung and heart problems that would plague him the rest of his short life. 

Calvin married Delia Bell 25 Jun 1865, only two months after being discharged.  Delia was the daughter of farmer and shoemaker Francis Bell and his wife Susan Pray of Ausable, Clinton County, N. Y.  The ceremony was performed by Methodist minister Lucius D. Gay at his home in Clintonville, Clinton County, N.Y.  I am sure that Calvin and Delia knew each other before the war—her brother Francis Bell lived and worked on John and Rheuby (Cornell) Fallon’s farm as of the 1860 census, and the Fallons’ son Silas Henry, Calvin’s contemporary and possible cousin, signed an affidavit in Calvin’s pension file saying that Calvin also worked on the Fallon farm before the war and was then able-bodied.Norton-Bell 1865 Marriage.jpg

Calvin and Delia’s firstborn arrived 13 Aug 1867 in Peru, Clinton County, N.Y.  All of my family papers give this son’s name as Calvin Cornell Norton, but both his Social Security application and his death certificate give his middle name as “Colonel” and I am not sure what to make of that.  He was a literate person and I assume he would have known what his middle name was and how to spell it, so could it possibly have been Colonel, and if so, why?  Or was Cornell pronounced like the word “colonel” by the family and never written down so that he assumed his middle name was Colonel?  He lived until 1950 and my father’s family would visit his farm in Essex, Chittenden County, Vt. fairly often.

Norton Family

The Norton family circa 1931.  Calvin Colonel Norton is the older gentleman with the dark coat seated left of center.  My grandfather Thurber is the dark haired gentleman standing on the right.

Calvin and Delia’s second child Lafayette A. Norton was born 24 Mar 1870 in probably Clinton County, N. Y.  I have never found a record that gives his middle name, and he may have had an additional first name–his father’s gravestone says “Erected by his sons C. C. and C. L. A. Norton.”  He was killed 13 Jan 1891 in a tragic quarry accident in Essex, Essex County, N.Y., when ice caused the brake to fail on the gravity railroad used to lower stone 900 feet down to Lake Champlain for shipping.  The loaded car raced down the slope, causing the empty car going up to fly into several men, killing Lafayette and three others instantly. He is buried in the Hinesburg Village Cemetery with a gravestone that includes the words “How we miss him.”

Norton, Lafayette A.

Lafayette Norton about 1890.

Their third and last child was my great grandmother Mary Ann Elizabeth “Libbie” Norton, born 1 Feb 1873 at Willsboro, Essex County, N. Y.  She would marry tinsmith James Milford Thurber in Hinesburg in 1890, and would name one of her daughters Rheuby Mae. 

Norton, Mary Ann Elizabeth 1

Mary Ann Elizabeth Norton about 1890, possibly on her wedding day.


Calvin was last enumerated in Hinesburg, Chittenden County, Vt. in 1880, where he was a farm laborer.  The spaces where the birthplaces of his parents should be listed are blank, and I think it is likely he was orphaned at a young age and did not know much about his parents. Lafayette and Mary Ann Elizabeth are at home, but Calvin Colonel is attending school and working in the home of a Taggart family eight miles away in Charlotte.  I cannot find any other connection to these Taggarts.


Norton, Calvin Luther 1888 Obit

Calvin’s death notice from the Burlington Weekly Free Press 24 Feb 1888 found on Newspapers.com.


So this is the simple version of where my research stands–I have also spent a lot of time researching associated families. Besides working the DNA angle, I should also look for the records of the Hinesburg, Vt. Grand Army of the Republic Post to which Calvin belonged, also known as Post 37 or the Cummings Post.  I have been told that many of these groups produced short biographies of all their members, usually including their parents’ names.  I would also like to take a trip to the Keeseville area to visit repositories there.


Norton, Calvin Luther 2

Calvin’s gravestone at the Hinesburg Village Cemetery.



Edward Freeman Tillman (1861-1941) and Tillman’s Lane

My mother-in-law’s paternal grandfather Edward Freeman Tillman was born 7 Oct 1861 in Copiah County, Mississippi, the first child of Leonidas Haden Tillman with his second wife Martha Ann Harris.  After 1870 the Tillmans and other associated families left Mississippi for Texas.  Edward’s family appears twice in the 1880 census, enumerated June 3 in Waco, McLennan County where Edward was at school, and on June 10 in Corsicana, Navarro County where he was a clerk in a grocery store, presumably his father’s.

Edward was said to be living in Dallas when he married Caroline Gay Chandler 19 Oct 1882 in Gatesville, Coryell County, Texas.  Caroline was the next to last of 13 children born to the Rev. Pleasant Barnett Chandler and his wife Mary E. O’Kelley.  This couple had migrated from Georgia to Texas in 1846 as Baptist missionaries.

Tillman-Chandler 1882 Wedding Galveston Daily News 20 Oct (2).jpg

Gatesville happenings in the Galveston Daily News of 20 Oct 1882 found on Newspapers.com.

Edward and Carrie first settled in Gatesville where he worked as a railway agent for the Cotton Belt System and was also the local telegraph agent.  By the 1900 census Edward and Carrie had had six children, lost an infant son named Edward, and were living in Brownwood, Brown County, Texas.  Though the census lists him as a hardware salesman, he will be appointed Commercial Agent for the Fort Worth and Rio Grande Railway in September of that year.  In 1901 the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway, more commonly called the Frisco, would take over the F. W. and R. G., which it operated as an independent subsidiary.  In spite of the name, the closest the Frisco ever got to San Francisco, California was the Texas panhandle.

Tillman, Edward Freeman 1890 Railway Agent Paradise_Messenger_Sat__Dec_20__1890_

Advertisement from the Paradise (Texas) Messenger of 20 Dec 1890 showing E. F. Tillman as a Railway Agent in Gatesville.

Carrie (Chandler) Tillman died at age 42 on 20 Jun 1902 in Brownwood and was buried in the Greenleaf Cemetery there with sons Edward (1897-1897) and Luther Edward (1901-1901).  This must have been a very difficult time for the family, with five children ranging in age from 19 to 8–Lida Nan, Maybelle, Hayden Chandler, Alvin Young and Sadie.  Edward married secondly Nora Mann on 14 Feb 1904 in Tom Green County, Texas.  Edward and Nora had one son, Felix Leon “Bill” Tillman, born in 1906.

Tillman, Hayden and Alvin Young I 1

Hayden Chandler and Alvin Young Tillman

Soon after acquiring the Fort Worth and Rio Grande, the Frisco financed an extension of the railroad from Brownwood southward to Brady.  In order to facilitate the transport of cattle from the Sonora area up to the end of the rail line in Brady, Edward began purchasing and leasing land on behalf of the Frisco, creating a fenced trail between the two, 250 feet wide and 100 miles long, with watering places and holding pens placed conveniently along the route.  What came to be known as Tillman’s Lane began a little south of Sonora, followed the old Fort McKavett Road to McKavett, then went by Menard and on to Brady.  The railroad was extended from Brady to Menard in 1911, shortening the fenced trail, but it remained in heavy use until a rail line was put through from San Angelo to Sonora in 1929.

Edward was named livestock agent for the Frisco in 1908, a job he would hold until his retirement.  He traveled quite a bit, mainly in Texas and Missouri.  I am sure much of this was for conducting ordinary business, but he also attended livestock conventions, like the 1915 convention in Wichita of which he said the “attendance is splendid.”  In 1932 he addressed the Oran (Missouri) Livestock Shippers Association on marketing strategies.  In 1933 he spoke on behalf of the Missouri Farmers Association at a rally in Carter County, Missouri as part of the organization’s effort to gain recruits in the “fight for a square deal.”IMG_0013

E. F. Tillman’s pocket watch.


“Retired Railway Man” Edward Freeman Tillman died 16 Nov 1941 in Tarrant County, Texas and was buried in Brownwood’s Greenleaf Cemetery with his first wife, Carrie.

Mix and Match Memoirs: Alice (Marsden) Whitworth (1789-1863)

I learned some key things as a novice researching the Marsdens of Sheffield, Yorkshire, England.  The most important is that people often get family information completely mixed up, but that even mixed up information can be useful once you sort it out.  Also that being printed in a book (or carved in stone) doesn’t make something true, and that you should pay attention to witnesses at weddings and find out who they are.

My father’s 3rd great grandmother Alice (Marsden) Whitworth (1789-1863) has the only memorial inscription I have ever seen with the dates in Roman numerals—it says she was born “NOVr XXVIIIth MDCCXC” (28 Nov 1790), though her 1851 and 1861 census returns indicate a birth a year or two earlier.  Both returns say she was born in Sheffield, though she was living in Wakefield when she married local wine merchant Robert Whitworth there 9 May 1815.

Whitworth, Harriet (2)

Alice’s gravestone at the Barnsley (Yorkshire) Metropolitan Cemetery.  Photo by Wayne Bywater posted on Findagrave.com.

The only Alice Marsden I have ever found baptized in or near Sheffield at around the right time was the daughter of Robert and Hannah Marsden, baptized 28 Dec 1789 at Queen Street Independent Chapel, a Congregational church.  Some online trees then and now show this Alice as the daughter of Robert and Hannah (Smith) Marsden, with Robert born 1749 in Baslow, Derbyshire, which is about 12 miles from Sheffield.

I soon found the source of this information, a book entitled Genealogical Memoirs of the Family of Marsden:  Their Ancestors and Descent traced from Public Records, Wills, and other Documents and from Private Sources hitherto unrecorded.  This was “self-published” in 1914 by three Marsdens, an Anglican clergyman who studied at Oxford, a surgeon, and a chemistry professor, Robert Sydney Marsden (1856-1919).

Scan_20170916 (2)

From p. 98 of Genealogical Memoirs of the Family of Marsden.

Believing that three well-educated fellows using original records and private sources could not go wrong, I decided that the Alice baptized at Queen Street could not be the same Alice who married Robert Whitworth, because the book said that she had married “Rev. John Raison of Tunbridge Wells.”  The book also said that Alice’s sister Ruth married “Benj. Whitworth, gent., of Wakefield,” which seemed like an odd coincidence, but I left Alice parentless in my tree for a few years.

When I went back to this problem I looked at Alice’s marriage record again, and I noticed that two of the witnesses were “B. Rayson” and “R. Rayson” which is only one letter off from Raison.  I looked for a Rayson who had been minister at Tunbridge Wells.  There was never any John but there was a Protestant Dissenting Minister Benjamin Rayson, who was from Sheffield, and who before coming to Tunbridge Wells had been the minister of Salem Chapel in Wakefield, which eventually came to be known as Rayson’s Chapel.

Rayson, Benjamin

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Rev. Benjamin Rayson.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/98807c86-1393-f9fe-e040-e00a180639db

I believe he is the same Benjamin Rayson who married Mary Marsden at Sheffield Cathedral 15 Mar 1796, and that Mary was Alice’s older sister though not mentioned in Memoirs.  A Mary, “daughter of Robert Marsden, Cutler” was baptized at Sheffield Cathedral 9 Feb 1777.  The Robert Marsden who joined Queen Street Chapel was a cutler and razor maker, but he did not become a member until 1783, so it makes sense that this earlier daughter was baptized in the Church of England.


Sheffield Cathedral.  By Tim Green from Bradford (Sheffield Cathedral) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 It seems likely that Alice lived with her elder sister Mary and brother-in-law Benjamin Rayson in Wakefield, where she met her husband, and that her brother-in-law and niece Ruth Rayson, who would have been 18 years old, served as witnesses at her marriage.

Of the three authors of the Memoirs, Robert Sydney is the only one I believe is my cousin.  I think he was in touch with his relatives and got very good information about many people in his generation and the two prior—only a few facts are slightly off there.  I think people’s memories were naturally hazier when they tried to remember what they had heard about his great grandfather Robert, his wife and his children, resulting in the marriage and name mix-ups.  Then, wanting to tie Robert in to some family or other, he hooked him to a likely Derbyshire family.  I have an alternate theory about Robert’s parents that makes a lot more sense which is another good topic.

The Noones of Killacorraun, County Mayo Part One: Bridget (Noone) Willis (1860-1893)

I started researching the Irish ancestors of my Scranton, Pennsylvania-born father-in-law Bernard John Willis (1922-2008) in 2002.  My husband’s family thought that they were mainly or all from County Mayo.  Scranton’s Sister City is Ballina in Mayo because so many Scrantonians have roots near there, including Vice President Joe Biden.

My mother-in-law told me that Bernie’s paternal grandparents were Richard William Willis and Bridget Noone, and that Bridget’s parents were named Peter Noone and Catherine Mulherin.  She also said that Bridget had died giving birth to her second child who also died, and that both were buried in Scranton’s Cathedral Cemetery.

Noone or Noon is sometimes tricky to search, because either spelling is the same as a common English word.  Fortunately Peter is not the most common given name in Ireland, though searching for “Peter Noone” alone brings up a lot of information about the lead singer of Herman’s Hermits.  The surname is principally found in Galway, Roscommon and Mayo, and is said to come from the Gaelic for “descendant of Nuadhán,” Nuadhán being a personal name derived the name of a Celtic sea deity.

I have never been able to find Bridget in any U.S. census, though today I know she should have appeared in both 1870 and 1880, as well as the lost 1890.

I wrote to Cathedral Cemetery which is sometimes also called the Hyde Park Cemetery or the Hyde Park Catholic Cemetery, and is run by the Diocese of Scranton.  Many of Scranton’s Irish Catholics are buried there, but unfortunately their records are very poor before 1929, and they have no record of Bridget (Noone) Willis’s burial.  In most cases I only know people were interred there from the newspaper articles about their funerals.

I was able to get Bridget’s birth and death dates using Lackawanna County marriage licenses.  Richard and Bridget’s license says that they were married at St. Peter’s Cathedral in Scranton 19 Oct 1887, that Bridget would turn 27 in November of 1887, and that she was born in Ireland to parents who were in fact named Peter and Catherine.  Many Irish immigrants were unsure of their birthdates and often underestimated their age, but this information turned out to be correct.

Willis-Noone 1887 Marriage 1 (2)

Richard and Bridget’s marriage license.  Licenses from 1885 on are available to download at no charge  from the Lackawanna Public Inquiries website.

Richard married secondly Winifred Ruane 24 Nov 1896, giving 19 Jul 1893 as the date of his first wife’s death.  Newspaper notices confirm this, but I should also get a copy of her City of Scranton death record.  Her death notice confirms that Peter Noone was her father, and says that she was “a very estimable woman and beloved by all who knew her.”

Noone, Bridget 1893 Obit

Bridget’s death notice from the Scranton Republican 20 Jul 1893 found on Newspapers.com.

When the Irish Family History Foundation (IFHF) brought transcripts of Irish Catholic records online, I was able to find “Biddy Noon” baptized Nov 1860 in the parish of Crossmolina, parents “Pete Noon” and “Cate Mulheran.”  I also found her sister Winifred baptized there 11 Aug 1862, parents “Peter Noone” and “Catherine Mulherin.”  Fortunately Irish Catholic baptisms almost always record the mother by her birth name, because I have not been able to find Peter and Catherine’s marriage.

Noone, Bridget 1860 Baptism (2)

Nov 1860 baptism of “Biddy Noon” in the Roman Catholic parish of Crossmolina from the National Library of Ireland website.  I originally found a transcription of this and the following record on the Irish Family History Foundation Website (www.rootsireland.ie) which has excellent indexing and a great search facility.

Noone, Winifred 1862 Baptism (2)

11 Aug 1862 baptism of Winifred Noone in the Roman Catholic parish of Crossmolina from the National Library of Ireland website.

It is difficult to read the address recorded in the baptisms, but the IFHF transcribed it as “C.curan” for Bridget’s baptism and Cuillcran for Winifred’s.  It took me some time to realize that these and Cuilgurrane and Killacorraun and several other spellings all referred to the same place, the same townland, from the Irish “Coill an Chorráin,” meaning “Wood of the Hook.”  The townland is the smallest administrative unit in Ireland, and finding your ancestor’s townland of origin, however many spellings it has,  helps you to locate relevant records.

I guessed that Peter and Catherine married about 1859, had these two children in Ireland and then emigrated.  Though I have found a few Scranton Irish arriving at other ports including Philadelphia, the vast majority came through New York City, which is only about 100 miles from Scranton.  Between 1850 and 1890 passengers were processed at the Castle Garden immigration station, in today’s Battery Park.

Searching for Peter Noones or Noons arriving 1862 or later in the New York Passenger Lists I found Peter age 24, Catherine age 21, Bridget age 2 and the infant Winifred arriving 11 Apr 1863 on the 1422 ton square-rigged ship Thornton.  Traveling with them were two bonus Noones:  James age 20 and “Patt” age 18, who would turn out to be two of Peter’s brothers.

Noone 1863 Passenger List (2)



Noones arriving in New York 11 Apr 1863 on the Thornton, from New York Passenger Lists on Ancestry.com.


A Quiet, Nature-Loving Life: The Artist William Pell Zabriskie

Zabriskie, William Pell

Of the several talented artists in my family, “Uncle Pell” was the one I heard the most about while growing up. William Pell Zabriskie was my grandmother’s great uncle and lived with her family for many years. She talked about him quite a bit, and several of his oil paintings hung on our walls. One of his later paintings hangs in my house today.

Born in Paramus, Bergen County, New Jersey 12 Jun 1839 to Jacob J. Zabriskie and his wife Elizabeth Pell, he went to school at Ashland Hall in Bloomfield, Essex County, N.J. He spent the academic year 1858-1859 at the Hartwick Theological and Classical Seminary in Otsego County, New York, and then entered the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) as a sophomore in the fall of 1859. His first semester went very well, with good attendance and high marks in Latin, Greek, Math, the Bible and Theology. There was a drastic change in the spring though, when he was absent so often that he was not allowed to continue with his class. The records of the Board say that these absences were due to the illnesses and deaths of his relatives, but I have not found any of his close relatives dying at this time.

Ashland Hall Boarding School

In 1861 he began studies at the New Brunswick Theological Seminary, presumably intending to become a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church. I don’t know if he felt a genuine calling to the ministry, but he did make it through two academic years there, leaving after the spring of 1863. According to Princeton’s records he was living in Farmer Village (now Interlaken), Seneca County, N.Y. in 1869, but he does not appear there in the 1870 census.

In 1872 he began to study painting with the noted Hudson River School artist William Hart (1823-1894). By 1876 he was able to show his work at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. He also participated in the Louisville (Kentucky) Industrial Exhibition of 1879, and showed work at the National Academy of Design in New York City. Though he lived in Bergen County, New Jersey for most of his life, he maintained a studio in New York City for many years. In 1876 he was listed at 52 E. 23rd Street, and from 1878 to at least 1903 he had space at 788 Broadway.


Zabriskie, William Pell 1872 Lessons

Receipt from the artist William Hart.

Uncle Pell seems to have fit the stereotype of the eccentric artist, and might have been what people today call a “crazy cat person.” He wrote many undated notes to his niece about the activities of his “kats” as he spelled it. These cats may have been dressed up at least some of the time–in one note he asked her to sew a new outfit for one of them. He said the clothes should be “suitable for the coming cold weather” and that what this cat would really like was a neckerchief embroidered with bugs and crickets.

He never signed any of his work that I have seen, and I wonder if there are unattributed paintings of his hanging on people’s walls. His mature work consists mainly of beautiful landscapes, some extremely meticulous and some painted with a freer hand. He painted in the mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire, upstate New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Though I have never seen examples, he is also said to have painted dogs, quail and at least one flying squirrel.

In 1931 Princeton pressed my great-grandmother for information about her uncle, at the time their “oldest living non-graduate” and one of very few artists they could claim. She wrote back with what she knew, ending her letter by saying “He has just lived a quiet nature-loving philosophical life.” He died in Paramus 30 Apr 1933 and is buried with many relatives in the Valleau Cemetery in Ridgewood, N.J.


William Pell Zabriskie Drawing

A pen and ink drawing on tissue.

Zabriskie, William Pell Drawing

Pencil drawing on the back of a business card.


DSCF4951 (2)

A later painting with a small study below.


Zabriskie, William Pell 1876 Centennial Exhibition


Getting Started

Vermont Poem Illustration

I am starting this genealogy blog to record my progress, to share my discoveries with relatives, and to share problems and strategies with other researchers. I also hope that writing about my thorniest problems will help me to think more clearly about them.

I did not begin researching until 2002, but from a very young age I was interested in the genealogy papers held in a large drawer in the hallway of my childhood home, a 1926 cottage style bungalow in Eagle Rock, part of the City of Los Angeles. The 1930 U.S. census shows a McMurray family living there, next door to newlyweds John and Carol (Henning) Steinbeck, neither of whom listed an occupation. By 1947 my maternal grandparents lived there with their three daughters, and in 1960 my parents bought the house. I was born in 1962.

The big drawer contained all sorts of yellowing papers pertaining to my New Jersey-born grandmother’s Dutch ancestors, my second great-grandfather Grover’s shoe company based in Lynn, Massachusetts, my father’s Thurber ancestry and a few scraps about other branches. Most of the Thurber papers were letters between my Dad’s aunt Rheuby Mae (Thurber) LaPierre and a Charles H. Thurber of Michigan who was trying to document all members of the Thurber family for a book. Mixed in were things like a charming little card (above) containing a poem about Vermont, my Dad’s home state, and a generic history of the Grover surname on onionskin with a gray backer.

Sometimes I would sort through these papers and try to draw one big tree containing all of my direct ancestors, not knowing there were nice printed charts I could have used, or that genealogy could be a career. I would wonder about the places named in the records—where is Tingwick, Quebec? Denby Dale, Yorkshire? I would wonder about the lives these people lived in between their births and deaths, and how a person named Dupuytren Vermilye got through life at all.

I did not think about my ancestors much between childhood and 2002. Occasionally when I was tired of whatever I was supposed to be reading at the College of the University of Chicago I spent precious library time looking at the records of Rehoboth, Mass., where the immigrant John Thurber had settled in about 1670.

After graduating in 1984 I moved to Boston, eventually living on Newbury Street, where almost every day for five years I walked past the New England Historic Genealogical Society building. Every time I passed it I thought “I should go in there sometime” but I never did. The entrance is much more welcoming now, but back then it seemed intimidating, and I wasn’t sure you could just walk in. To this day I don’t understand why I didn’t at least call to find out more about the organization.

I married my husband Chris Willis in 1990, and we had two sons by 1994. In 2002 our eldest was in 5th grade and had to do a family tree project for school. He cared less about this project—and  I cared more about it—than seemed reasonable, and I have been working on “it” ever since, almost every day, even on vacation.

Today after 15 years of research and several genetic tests I know that some of what we put on the original project poster was wrong. Via Y-DNA I learned that there is a non-paternity event in my father’s Thurber line, probably in 1835 in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, and that he most likely has no biological connection to any Thurbers in early Rehoboth. Instead he is probably the descendant of a Scottish immigrant with the surname Robertson.

I know that the Grover Shoe Factory Disaster of 1905, caused by a boiler explosion, had nothing to do with “our” Grover shoe factory.

I know that my ancestor Asa Fuller born about 1787 was not the son of Asa Fuller and Meletiah Metcalf of Dedham, Mass., even though the notes in the drawer said he was. (When presented with this fact my mother accused me of being “too scientific” in my research.) His origins remain a mystery except that his parents were probably Baptists and he has some connection to Maine, as several of his children’s records state that he was born there.

We also incorrectly assumed that my father-in-law’s ancestors from County Mayo, Ireland arrived in Providence (now Scranton), Penna. about 1847-1850 because of the famine, and while one branch did, the Noone-Mulherin family did not come until 1863 and the McGreevy and Willis direct ancestors arrived about 1880, another difficult time in Mayo. These later arrivals have been much easier to trace than the earlier ones, who were born and married too early to appear in extant Irish Catholic records. Thankfully most of the information we had on my mother-in-law’s Southern ancestry has been corroborated by both documentary and DNA evidence.

Making up for several family tree disappointments are hundreds of interesting discoveries, including direct connections to Jamestown, the Mayflower, Dutch Manhattan, the Salem Witch Trials, over 30 Revolutionary War soldiers (including one Loyalist), some 18th century swashbuckling New York City sea captains, early pioneers in Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Texas, Civil War soldiers, the first French settlers in Quebec and the trees in Killarney National Park. Looking at collateral relatives—I try to research to the second cousin level—there are connections to the Gold Rush, the Mormon Trail, the Great Exhibition of 1851, and the Opium Wars.

Every once in a while I wonder if I am wasting an enormous amount of time on all this. Everyone needs a hobby, but maybe nobody needs an obsession unless it does some real good in the world. But if there is one thing that is true about all of my close relatives alive today it is that we are people with obsessions. Studebakers or Triumphs, orchids or wildflowers, horses or spiders—every person in my family has at least two passions. (My other one is habitat gardening). So maybe I can’t help it.

Also there is one personal (and maybe social) benefit to family history research that is often overlooked: You learn a tremendous amount of history, some incidentally, and some on purpose in order to understand people in the context of their time and place. And I believe you gain a much truer picture of social history than most people have, since their notions are typically formed by watching historically inaccurate movies, hearing persistently circulating myths, and accepting “facts” that fit with their pre-existing worldview while rejecting any contrary evidence. We all do this last to some extent but good research depends on keeping an open mind to try to figure out what really happened. You are usually looking at original records left by real people, and though people sometimes lie or make mistakes, eventually you get a clearer picture of the past, at least in the regions you are studying.

And also family history research is mainly detective work, documenting lives and solving mysteries using evidence and logic, which must help to keep the mind in shape. So I am not going to try to get over my obsession, and I am excited about this blog. I am going to start by writing about my most difficult brick walls.