Thursday, August 24, 2017

Sometimes the Best Strategy is to Wait

Seeing the difficulty I'm encountering in locating any information on the nearly-First-Families settlers of Tennessee, the Davis and Tilson families, you might have been tempted to conclude that I should just chalk this up as a "brick wall." Shut down the online searches, push back from the desk and call it quits on James Davis and Rachel Tilson. The Greasy Cove settlement is as good as non-existent, as far as the results I'm finding.

While I might have been tempted to sport that attitude in the past, that's not my experience lately. I've learned a different way to view such research roadblocks now. I now know that time will buy me some unexpected bounty, if I just content myself to wait—and then revisit the specific research question in the future. See? Genealogy can teach us patience.

This frustrating experience has dogged me before, believe me. I have many snags in my research progress, but I've learned to hold on, give the problem some time to marinate, and then make myself an appointment to revisit it later.

What I've learned, when I hold to this process, is that the unfailing verve of multitudes of other researchers—and the talents of those dedicated to providing multiple options for viewing historic records—has created an insatiable demand for access. With online venues multiplying—a warehouse-full of genealogically-useful hyperlinks, if you take a virtual stroll through Cyndi's List—and expanding their reach, what might not have been online today may very well be found in a search sometime in the near future.

Mega-sites—those go-to resources for genealogical research like or—are constantly adding new collections, whether indexes, transcriptions, or visual representations of the actual documents. It is only a matter of time before someone uploads the records that would be useful to me in my quandary over those early Tennessee settlers.

And if not, chances are excellent that some smaller organization may take it upon themselves to provide records that perhaps only they had access to in the past. My own local genealogical society has recently moved to our new cyber-home, and we are in the process of uploading many databases of records pertinent to researchers interested in the settlers in our county. This is not only happening in my corner of the country; many other societies are upgrading their digital digs and following their mission mandates to find and preserve local records of genealogical interest. Someday, that will include the Tennessee locations I'm most interested in for my Davis-Tilson pursuit.

Sometimes, the students in my beginning genealogy classes bemoan their lack of progress on one of their family lines. They say things like "I'm stuck with a brick wall" or "guess I'll have to give up on that one." But no roadblock is permanent. There is always a way around. The way may not open up right while you are working on the problem. It's okay to set it aside. Wait a while—but don't forget to revisit the dilemma. In time, either something else will pop up in the multitude of online resources, or you will be able to travel to the source and see what's available locally.

With time, sometimes the gift of revisiting a research dilemma isn't only the gift of the very document you've been seeking. Sometimes, it's the gift of seeing the problem with fresh eyes. A detail will stand out in a different light, or a new understanding may have evolved in the interim. Whatever the situation, learning to wait when faced with a research roadblock is never conceding genealogical defeat. It's just the wisdom of adopting a long-term research strategy, and the experience to know that some day, that answer may very well show up.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Genealogical Wandering

Sure, it was Baxter Davis I was targeting in my most recent attempt to figure out just who it was who married my Mayflower ancestor's descendant, Rachel Tilson. James Davis had seemingly come out of nowhere to show up at a pioneer settlement in the hills of northeastern Tennessee—well, more accurately, what would later become part of Tennessee. It seemed there was an early settler in a place called Greasy Cove—later to become the town of Unicoi—who was known as Baxter Davis. Conveniently, I had noticed James and Rachel Davis named their firstborn son that same name: Baxter. Connection?

If you think I was able to come up with digitized documentation identifying anything further on that elder Baxter Davis, think again. The more I try to pursue this line of thinking, the less I seem to accomplish. Other than getting plenty of googling exercise, I haven't found much substance.

Granted, I found many other resources. That's what comes from the "milling about" disorientation from a lack of straightforward research purpose. I only think the Baxter connection will lead me somewhere. It might not. That's the price a researcher pays to experiment with "what if."

In the meantime, I've spent a lot of time wishing I were in Knoxville, researching at the East Tennessee Historical Society's McClung Collection—or at least being able to access the names of settlers included in the society's First Families of Tennessee collection.

I'm realizing, once again, the difficulty of trying to verify facts about ancestors who persistently chose to settle in places where they could maintain their fierce independence. Though my Davis line settled in and around the town of Erwin, Tennessee, claims that their settlement was in Unicoi County are misleading when spoken in the same breath as those 1790s dates. Unicoi, as a county, was simply not a governmental entity until 1875.

In those first-settlement situations, one question concerns the granting of land. Looking back at the last stop in this family's multi-generational migratory process—that spot on the southwestern part of the colony of Virginia near the Holston River—the earlier generation of Tilsons were said (at least by one account) to have moved there to claim land granted for William Tilson's service in the French and Indian War.

How to track records like that? Which would be the governmental entity serving as repository for that? At least, in the case of a paper trail for settlement at Greasy Cove, there are records dating back to January, 1778. But who keeps these records which came into being long before the current governments took charge? This is not going to be a straightforward paper chase.

And yet, stumbling along through those many Google hits, I did find some gems. Of course, I didn't need Google to tell me that the FamilySearch Wiki would provide helpful links for the county. But in my wanderings, I did stumble upon a cool map website providing historic maps of the area. Most importantly, I found a list of publications of local history, thanks to the U.S. GenWeb project for Unicoi County, Tennessee.

Better yet, that list included the option to take a peek at what was inside the cover of several local history books—including one which was apparently written by a distant Davis cousin. Reading the introduction to Linda Davis March's Images of America: Erwin and Unicoi County, I spotted a name in the credits who was not only listed as the author's cousin, but was a woman I had corresponded with, years ago, about our mutual Davis research challenges.

Taking that opportunity to peek at the pages in that book, I found a photograph of my second great grandmother, plus another photograph of her home in Erwin. What a strange experience to open a book at random and find such treasures!

While I wasn't able—yet!—to find anything further on the elusive Baxter Davis, pioneer settler of Greasy Cove, it was reassuring to discover others in the area who are also researching these same lines. It was also informative to find websites and indications of local historical societies for groups which I had no idea were even in existence. It does take some orienting to become facile at the terms of a locality's history, but the more I learn as I wander through this region's history, the better I'm armed with additional search terms.

Be very sure I'll be using that knowledge to my advantage. You will be found out yet, Mr. Baxter Davis!

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Grunt Work of Next Steps

Sometimes, genealogical research flows smoothly and everything falls nicely into place. Other times? Those are the times a researcher wishes for the ability to travel to do on-site research. Sometimes, the wonder of online access loses its luster.

Now that I've reached that third part in my process to connect myself—and my prodding sister, incidentally—to ancestral passengers on the Mayflower, I'm languishing in the lack of documentation for my Davises in Tennessee.

Granted, the Mayflower Society directs applicants to hold off on the documentation part of the process until the original presumption has been properly vetted. But you know me: I can't wait. This is going to be a challenge to obtain the type of documentation I know most lineage societies will want to see. And challenges take time to overcome.

Meanwhile, it isn't every day that I pass through the state of Tennessee. Nor, when I go, do I customarily head to tiny Erwin in the northeastern portion of the state—last time I touched down in Tennessee, I flew to Nashville, a long way from either Unicoi County or its parent county, Washington County. To get there for research purposes would take planning.

At a point like this, it's easy to lose focus on what the appropriate next step might be. When nothing seems to surface, the feeling can strangely be much the same as when everything seems to surface: it's overwhelming.

Time to sit down and draw up a genealogical Venn diagram of what I have and what could possibly be found—if such a document even exists. In that process, a tally of which online resources might produce such documents would also be a handy inventory to keep.

I once had a professor in college who called this disorienting stage of research the "milling about" stage—not really sure which way to head or what approach to take for definitive results. While I'm not exactly preparing to write a term paper, this wandering research malaise has the distinct feel of such a dilemma.

Perhaps, given this uncertainty of the next best step to take, another approach might be to explore that little hint that I unearthed last week, while scouring online resources for any mention of the Davis surname in that little pocket of early settlements in northeastern Tennessee. The discovery of a Baxter Davis named in the generation previous to the appearance of my James Davis might actually help me stumble upon some other helpful records.

Maybe this is the best approach to take, while puzzling over those genealogical Venn diagrams to set my research course for the next step in the process. At least, in retrospect, it will seem to be the "best approach" if I manage to actually find something that connects me with the right Davis line in that early state history of Tennessee.

Monday, August 21, 2017

A Different Sliver of Life

While some families are sending their children off to the first day of school this week, others may be playing hooky. In fact, every time I heard someone tell me their family was taking a vacation this week, my mind flew to one particular reason to take a trip at this late date in the summer: to find the most advantageous spot to view today's solar eclipse.

Solar eclipse mania has captured the attention of a good number of people in this country, where the time of occurrence coupled with the abundance of promising viewing situations makes it an accessible activity for many. A friend of mine drove northward earlier this month with plans to rendezvous with other traveling friends somewhere on the path of the eclipse in Oregon. Likewise, my husband, squeezing a flight northward into his busy schedule, will blend taking in the solar spectacle with some much-needed social time with a good college buddy.

One thing that hasn't been lost on me, in the midst of this astronomical activity, is the predictable regularity of such signs in the heavens. Tracking the records of people who tracked the eclipses has given us an idea of how early in history such things were noticed—and calculated. In fact, there's even a name for someone who pursues such a study: archaeoastronomer.

Records from over five thousand years ago in Ireland helped one archaeoastronomer determine the precise date for an eclipse corresponding to the arrangement of one specific megalithic monument in County Meath, Ireland. Similar records from China, ancient Babylon and Greece align closely with the dates of other eclipses. Solar eclipses in particular have long captured the attention of our fellow human beings.

Once people have been able to determine the reason for these alarming celestial occurrences, it wasn't long until they could predict such events in their future. Of course, with technology and equipment at our disposal today, that dating system has been finely honed.

While you and I may not have the wherewithal to determine even who our ancestors were who viewed the eclipses of past millenia, we have at our access lists of dates for when these solar events occurred. A quick consultation at lists such as this five millennia catalog, provided by Wikipedia, can also allow us to learn when the more accessible of our ancestors might have looked upwards in wonder at the drama unfolding across the face of the sun.

Of course, for those who have letters or, better yet, diaries of their relatives from past generations, they may be privileged to learn when such events occurred in the lives of their family—and what those past family members might have thought about the eclipses of their day. For those of us who don't have such treasures, we can still learn the dates when our ancestors may have viewed various solar wonders—total, annular, or partial—just by consulting such lists as this one for eclipses of the 1800s.

When we think of assembling the family history of our ancestors, there is so much more to include than those stark realities of names, dates and locations of birth, marriage or death. The small but significant events that occur in our lifetimes have also, in one form or another, occurred in the lives of our forebears. When we think about these key events in life and how they might have intersected with the life stories of our great-grandparents and those who lived before them, it somehow brings their stories to life so much more crisply than the plain recitation of dates and places ever could.

And with the realization of these commonalities, we are gifted with a stronger sense of connection with the very people whose genes gifted us with the characteristics and tendencies that make us who we really are.

Above: "The Long Coronal Streamers of 22d January 1898 (from a photograph in India by Mrs. Maunder)" from page 230 of the 1900 book by Mabel Loomis Todd, Total Eclipses of the Sun; courtesy Google Books via Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Already Back to "Back to School"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 19, 2017

What Heritage
for the Heritage Hunters?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 18, 2017

Figuring out that "Washington District"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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