Place Studies…or “Yah Gotta Know the Territory!”

James-SarahYour ancestors lived in and were a part of a community. They may have purchased land, attended school, voted, celebrated life events, gone to war, owned a local business, advertised in the local paper, attended church, or broke the law! And there could be a record of any one of those everyday occurrences in a life. Clues, possible records await, but as the Music Man said, “yah gotta know the territory.”

Family historians often hunt for the most obvious of life event records – birth, marriage, death – but with some knowledge of the place, the life of your ancestors could become far more complete, even colorful! A study of place, within the timeframe of your ancestor(s) life there will very likely yield new discoveries about them.

Last month I wrote about Eva Gillan and her siblings, who in the 1870-80’s attended Illinois Wesleyan College in Bloomington, McLean County, Illinois. Eva’s parents, James and Sarah McClure Gillan, were Irish immigrants from County Antrim, arriving in Philadelphia about 1846, where they stayed about 2 years. According to James’ obit in 1907, the family migrated to Tazewell County, Illinois, “traveling by steamboat down the Ohio River and up the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers to Pekin [Illinois].”
What no wagon train?! No, the Gillan family traveled from Philadelphia to Pekin, Illinois by waterways (this tidbit found in a county history). This is a researchable moment…was this a common mode of travel in the 1850’s? What records exist of the steamboats and river travel of the time? Maybe passenger records exist. How much would it have cost? How long did it take?

After a few years in Tazewell County, James and Sarah moved to the next county, McLean (1865). James bought a large farm of 600 acres. At that time, McLean County was a prosperous place with a sizable population, flourishing businesses and train service. In 1850, Illinois Wesleyan College was established in Bloomington, Illinois.

From my research, I found that James help establish a school in his area, gave land for a cemetery, served as a county supervisor and Justice of the Peace in McLean County. He and Sarah were literate and educated people who sent at least 5 of their 10 children through school and on to college at Illinois Wesleyan and Illinois State at Normal….daughters too!

How did I find out the Gillan children went to Illinois Wesleyan…or that James was so active in his community? Hints in daughter, Eva’s obit about her going to Wesleyan and Illinois State. So I contacted both schools and was able to get transcripts and other details on siblings who attended. Schools have archives and I’ve found helpful historians and librarians at schools who are glad to help. The archivist at Wesleyan also sent me a copy of book about the history of not only Wesleyan, but the development of McLean County.

Getting to know McLean County involved contacting the area libraries, courthouses, exploring county history books and genealogy journals and newspapers in the area. The local courthouse, too, yielded land records, estate and death records. I was able to find Gillan relatives and descendants of James or his siblings still living in the area, leading to a fruitful exchange of family research and adding cousins too. There was even a story of James’ horses running off with his buggy in the local press!

James Gillan (wife, Sarah died 1880) lived in Martin township, McLean County from 1865 till his death in 1907. It was a time of great changes in that county and “knowing more about the territory” certainly led to finding more about their lives and who they were too.

Jane wrote her will…but was it legal?

Jane F. Roper Samuel, my 3rd Great Grandmother, wrote her will in 1862….long before it was legal to do so in Kentucky and many other states in the United States.

From Famous Kentucky Women :
As early as 1800, women pushed for a better legal position, but Kentucky was backward in regard to women’s rights. Since Kentucky had not seceded from the Union, after the Civil War it did not have the favorable constitutional revisions that women in the Confederate states had.

In Kentucky, a married woman had no property rights. She couldn’t make a will. If she did own property, all of it became her husband’s. She could not make contracts, sue, or be sued. If she took a job, her husband had the right to collect her wages. He had sole guardianship over their children, even if she left him and even over an unborn child. The husband could separate the children from their mother if he wished and, in case of his death, could will their guardianship to some other male.

In 1894, decades behind most other states, Kentucky passed a married women’s property law, as well as laws that allowed women to make wills, serve on the board of directors, and keep their own wages.

Jane wrote her will 11 March 1862. It was recorded with the Clerk of Court’s office in Rockcastle County, Kentucky. As was the norm in those times, the will was handwritten into the official record, Will Book D, pages 336-337 by D.C. Colyer, Clerk of Court. Jane signed the document and it was witnessed by two people.

Did Jane know she was breaking the law? How about the Clerk of Court who recorded the will into official record? It is possible, she and husband, Herndon were no longer married. Although no divorce record has been found, records do show that Jane and Herndon had not co-habited for many years.

Jane Roper Samuel, died 6 November 1862 at the home of her daughter, Martha Samuel Thompson. She was 69 years old. Jane’s will bequeaths to all of her children and one granddaughter, to whom she leaves her side saddle.

Jane F. Roper Samuel’s Will
Written 11 March 1862
Rockcastle County, Kentucky

In the name of God, Amen, I Jane Samuels [sic] being weak in body, but sound in mind make this my last will and testament (viz).

I will to my son, Z. L. Samuels 1 bed stead and furniture, To my daughter Betsy H. Potts 1 frame, and part of my bed clothes, and to her daughter, Gertrude T. Potts my side saddle. I will to my son, John C. Samuels my feather bed and some bed clothes. I will to my daughter, Martha Thompson’s children, $5.00 or the worth of it in something else. All the remainder of everything else that I have I will to my daughter, Rebecca J. McClary. To my son David A. Samuels, I will $1.00.

Given under my hand this 11th of March 1862. Signed, Jane Samuels

Att: A McClary, Susan McClary

(Recorded with Clerk of Court, D.C. Colyer, Will Book D, pp. 336-337, Courthouse, Mt. Vernon, Kentucky)


Genealogy Snapshot

Name: Ancestor Jane F. Roper Samuel, 1793-1862

Parents: John Roper and Mother unknown

Spouse: Herndon Samuel, 1788-1872

Surnames: Samuel, Roper

Relationship to Bonnie Samuel: 3rd Great Grandmother