Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A Brick Wall on My Family Tree

Since the character in my books, Torie O'Shea, is a genealogist, I'll start with some of the problems I have faced as a genealogist and talk about how I coped with them.
I've decided that on this blog, I'm probably going to eventually discuss all of my hobbies. There are a lot of them. In addition to genealogy there's quilting, scrapbooking, gardening, birding. Quite a few. But for this first blog, I thought I'd start with the genealogy, which is what most of my readers think of when they think of me.
Let me tell you about my great, great, great, great grandma, Betsy Weaver. Betsy Weaver has been a big GIANT brick wall on my family tree since I started researching almost 23 years ago, right out of highschool, and still remains my biggest brick wall today. Her son, my third great grandfather, got married in the 1860's and on his marriage license he stated that his mother was Betsy Weaver and his father was UNKNOWN. At that time in my life, I couldn't imagine somebody not knowing the name of their father. Especially back then, when so much of the property and estate descended through the male heirs, not the females. I could understand if maybe he'd never met his father, but not even know his name? I'd never encountered an ancestor who knew of his mother, but not his father. So, being the ever optimist, or supremely naive, I'm not sure which, I assumed it was a typo. :-) Yes, that's right, I assumed the clerk either didn't want to be bothered (that's happened before) or didn't understand him. I know this makes no sense, but I couldn't believe--nay, I couldn't accept--the fact that this man didn't know who his father was because otherwise, the implications for that were really upsetting. That meant, I'd never be able to trace that line out!!! The words no genealogist ever wants to hear: DEAD END. BRICK WALL.
It's one thing to have the past hidden and shaded from us in the present. But for my own ancestor to not even know who his father was, well how the heck was I supposed to know if the didn't know?
So, I did a little research and it turns out, his father was as elusive as a rainbow. As much as his father was untraceable, his mother seemed to appear out of the ether one day in the 1830 census, as Betsy Weaver, head of household. No husband. So, I assumed Weaver was her married name and thought, there has to be a spouse for her somewhere, he was probably just dead by then. But how to find it? I couldn't search all of the Virginia marriages for a male Weaver marrying a female Betsy. Especially not back then, when it would have required me to snail mail every single courthouse in the state with this request! Oh, how they would have laughed.
Upon further investigation, I discovered that Betsy was living in the poorhouse in a later census. Then it hit me. If she was Betsy Weaver, head of household, in 1830, and her son, my ancestor wasn't born until the late 1830's or early 1840's . . . How did he get the last name Weaver if there was no husband around to have fathered him? Then she turns up in the poorhouse and has a daughter, too, also with the name Weaver.
Alas, I came to the conclusion, that unless new and brilliant records appear from the depths of Virginia/West Virginia, it appears as though my 3rd great grandfather probably didn't know who his father was, because his mother probably didn't either, and, Weaver is either her maiden name . . . or she was married briefly to a Weaver who then succumbed to any number of horrible things in the Virginia wilderness. When she found herself pregnant with her son, she just gave him the same name she had.
This also made me stop and think about other things. If she lived in the poorhouse, then that meant she probably didn't have any male family members. No brothers, uncles or a father who would take her in. All sorts of horrible scenarios started running through my mind. Was she a prostitute? Is this why she didn't know the name of the father for her two children? What happened to her daughter? Regardless of how sad and scary Betsy Weavers existence must have been, if it had been any other way, I wouldn't be here.
Now, in my books, Torie would never stand for a loose thread like this. But in truth, fiction is not the same as the real world, and in the real world, sometimes . . . you just have to know when to accept the unknown. That doesn't mean that I don't still look up her name each and every time I'm at the library, because I do. And it doesn't mean that if I ever get back to Virginia and went to the courthouse near where she lived, that I wouldn't uncover something new, because I could. There's always hope. I just realize that my poor, homeless ancestor may never get a documented ancestry. She may always end up being, "Betsy Weaver, Poorhouse" forever.
Amazing, how thankful I am for her sacrifices. And it's okay if this brick wall never comes down. I'm hoping it does, but I'll live with it if it doesn't.
Next week I'll tell you about a brick wall that I came to and knocked on for twenty years and it finally came tumbling down.
Rett MacPherson, St. Louis, MO

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