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

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