Monday, February 29, 2016

Military Monday - Learning More About Capt William Nelson

A recent e-mail from a nephew contained the photo above, taken during a visit to a local historical center, and an important question: "Are we related?" After all, there are several William Nelsons in my husband's family tree. I had just finished with a big project and was looking for something different on which to focus. Learning more about Capt William Nelson seemed like a good place to start.

Using the information from the photo, I was able to find some additional military information about William Norborne Nelson on At the age of 30 Nelson had enlisted as a captain in Company C of the Second Virginia Infantry, mustering in at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia in April of 1861. During the battle of First Manassas, 21 July 1861, he was wounded and was away from his unit from a number of months due to the wound he received. Finally, his health lead to his being discharged from the Confederate army on 18 May 1862.

Googling I found mention of Captain Nelson in Virginia at War, 1861 by William Davis. One snippet of information about Capt Nelson mentioned that Company C was known as the “Nelson Rifles”. The book also related that Nelson was wounded so severely in the left breast that he was never really able to return to active duty. That further explained his short period of military service.

Later, checking US census records from 1860-1900, I saw that Nelson had returned home to Clarke County, Virginia, where he was a farmer for the rest of his life.

FindAGrave provided photos of the two markers memorializing Captain Nelson. His memorial page also listed the names of his parents, siblings, wife, and two of his children.

Then, I stumbled upon something I had not ever found in any of my previous research - a poem written in honor of someone I was researching. Francis Orray Ticknor wrote "The Virginians of the Valley" in memory of William Norborne Nelson and the other Confederate soldiers who had fought at Manassas.(1)

I ended up starting a separate family tree in Family Tree Maker based on the information I had found about William Norborne Nelson. This gave me a way to keep up with the information I found using various resources. 

But, in answer to my nephew's question, no, William Norborne Nelson was not a relative of our family. I was not able to find any connection between this William Nelson and all of my husband's family scattered across North Georgia. 

My research wasn't wasted, however,  because I was able to exchange several e-mails with my nephew as we shared information and our interest in Capt Nelson. We both marveled at Nelson's recovery from a chest wound during a time period when medical practice coupled with poor battlefield sanitation would usually have lead to a soldier's death, not to his recovery. Being a retired military officer, my nephew contributed how William Nelson was most likely the company commander of the Nelson Rifles since the company bore his name. So what if William Norborne wasn't our Nelson family's relative; he was still an interesting individual to research.

Lessons learned: 

  • Never be surprised at the various places in which you can find information about someone.
  • Even it is turns out not to be a relative, you can still enjoy the hunt and the story.

(1) Ticknor, Francis Orray. The Poems of Francis Orray Ticknor. Neale, 1911; accessed on Google Books, Feb 2016.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Exploring a Branch of the Birch (Family) Tree

The Birch Tree
By Randi Hausken via Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes to break through a brick wall, you just have to try something different. Speculate. Question. Follow a hunch. Sometimes it gets you nowhere. Sometimes trying a new way can help you discover a new branch on your family tree.

I was continuing on my quest to locate wills for as many of my direct ancestors as possible. I had found an informative will for my 3GGrandfather William Houton Smiley, plus I knew the names of direct Smiley ancestors for several generations further back. I hadn't been very successful, however, in learning about the ancestors of his wife Susan Birch.

William Houton Smiley was first married to Sarah Birch. After she died, leaving behind several small children, William married her sister Susan Birch. Together William and Susan had nine more children, one of whom was my second GGrandfather Thomas Bainbridge Smiley. Although I wanted to know more about the Birch sisters, I just had not found the right avenue to do so.

The first Ah-Ha moment came as I was looking on FindAGrave at the interment list for the Quigley Cemetery in Crawford Pennsylvania, the site where both William Smiley and my 3GGrandmother Susan Birch Smiley were buried. For the first time I noticed a whole group of Birches buried in the same cemetery, 30 out of the 97 burials listed. Surely these people had to be related somehow to Susan Birch Smiley.

When I looked at the 1840 census for Vernon Township, Crawford County, Pennsylvania, I noticed another list of names that would be worth investigating. William Smiley was listed right in the middle of a series of Birch families headed by Thomas, James, Johnson, James Sr, and George Birch. Finding that the same family members lived close by and were buried in the same cemetery suggested there had to be a family connection.

1840 census for Vernon Township, Crawford County, Pennsylvania,

Looking at the names and age tally marks, it seemed that the Birch males might all be related, living on parts of family land. If so, then the family patriarch might be James Birch Sr, age 80-90 in 1840; the other Birch males were younger, within the 30-50 age range.

Returning to FindAGrave, I looked at the memorial page for a James Birch who was born about 1758 and had died 15 June 1852. This lifespan seemed to match with the age tally for James Birch Sr in the 1840 census. All of this was starting to interest me, but there just wasn't anything solid to prove a connection between William Smiley, his wife Susan Birch Smiley, and all these other Birches.

However, once I started to speculate on possibilities, I thought of some research avenues through which I might find some concrete information. If this James Birch Sr had died in 1852 in Crawford County, Pennsylvania, he might have left a will. My next step was to look for a will. It turned out that the Crawford County Will Books accessed on did not contain a name index, but at least the wills were recorded in chronological order. After skimming over about 40 pages of wills from 1852, I found a will for a James Birtch that had been recorded in June of 1852. The name had a slightly different spelling from the "James Birch" of Quigley Cemetery, but the date corresponded with the FindAGrave memorial page.

This time I read over the will slowly, taking notes of names, and finally doing a happy dance when I saw that wonderful phrase "... to my daughter Susan Smiley". Yes! That hunch had paid off as I finally found the father of Sarah Birch and Susan Birch. And things didn't stop there. The will contained a list of bequests to be made to specific individuals, almost all of whom were identified by name as well as by the relationship to James Birtch Sr.

Will of James Birch Sr (1) with names of beneficiaries underlined

By the time I finished reading the will, I had the following names and relationships to add to my family tree:

1. sons Thomas Birtch, Johnson Birtch, and James Birtch Jr
2. Mariah Battillion [see #10]
3. Rebbecca Battes [another daughter or granddaughter perhaps, see #9]
4. daughter Susan Smiley
5. James B Smiley, son of Wm Smiley [and daughter Sarah Birch Smiley]
6. Nancy Gehr, daughter of Wm Smiley [and daughter Sarah Birch Smiley]
7. daughter Anna Hues
8. daughter Eliza Byers
9. Hiram Battes, son of daughter Maria
10. daughter Maria Battallion

Later when I looked at the 1850 census for James Birch in Crawford County, Pennsylvania, it made sense to find him living in the Battallion household. And the bequest which William Smiley had made to a Nancy Gehr in his will was finally understandable.

Now, I hope to find marriage records for the rest of the Birch family members mentioned in the will. I'll also be recording in Family Tree Maker the burial sites of some Birch family members listed on FindAGrave, especially those buried in the Quigley Cemetery. The will also mentioned a pending Birtch vs Battes lawsuit which might affect the disbursements. Wouldn't that be interesting to learn about!

Lessons Learned:

  • The cemetery and census connections turned out to be examples of looking at Family Acquaintances and Neighbors to learn more about an individual. Just as it is often worthwhile to look at all the names on a census page, it was also helpful to look at the list of the interments at Quigley Cemetery. 
  • I'm glad I followed the hunch to look for a will for the eldest of the Birch men. Doing so lead me to my 4GGrandfather as well as some other relatives. Even if the search for James Birch's will had proved to be fruitless, I would have just recorded my search strategy in my Research Log. 
  • This experience will probably prompt me to explore a hunch or speculation in the future as a way to chip away at a brick wall.

(1) Pennsylvania, Wills and Probate Records, 1683-1993, Crawford County, Will Books, Vol A-B, 1813-1853, p 448-449, will of James Birch, 19 Sep 1850; accessed