The grandson

The missing generation

The census records seem to tell a straightforward story.

In 1870, Scottish-born Thomas and Margret Finlayson were farming in Baker County, Oregon. Both of the Finlaysons were in their mid-40s. Four girls, apparently their daughters, were enumerated with them in the household: Isabell, age 15; Mary, age 11; Lizzie, age 9; and Allie, age 7.1


In 1880, Thomas and Margret, by then age 55, were still farming in Baker County. Only Mary of their daughters was still living at home. But recorded in the household, as a grandson, was three-year-old Thomas Finlayson.2

So… no sons in the household in 1870, but a grandson with the Finlayson surname in 1880. It’s a pretty clear case of a missing son who needs to be identified. Got to be an older boy who was out of his parents’ house by 1870, right?

So we go back to the census records and both 9-year-old Lizzie and 11-year-old Mary from 1870 were shown as born in Iowa, and that’s confirmed by the 20-year-old Mary’s birthplace recorded in 1880. Pretty good chance at finding this family in Iowa in 1860.

And, sure enough, there they were. Thomas and Margret “Finleyson,” Scottish-born farmers in their mid-30s. And the children in the household: 12-year-old Margaret; seven-year-old Jesse; five-year-old Isabel; and one-year-old Mary.3

Well, that was easy, wasn’t it? Grandson Thomas must be the son of Jesse, no?


There are a couple of clues that something isn’t quite right in the census records.

The big red flag is that the name “Jesse” may be spelled in that 1860 census like the male version of the name… but the gender recorded: female.

And even if the gender was incorrectly recorded, there’s another red flag — the birthplaces. The two oldest children in 1860, including Jesse, were shown as having been born in Scotland. The third child, Isabel, in Illinois. And the youngest, Mary, in Iowa. The 1870 census shows two more Iowa-born children, Lizzie and Allie.

And little Thomas on the 1880 census? He was born in Oregon. His father was born in New Hampshire. And his mother was born in Illinois.

So where in the world does the Oregon-born Thomas Finlayson fit into the family tree? And how do we know?

The answer shows up in what may seem like an unexpected place: the Laws of Oregon.

In October 1864, the Oregon Legislature passed a law restricting name changes and requiring that:

Each judge shall annually, in the month of December, make a return to the office of the secretary of state of all changes of names made in the court …, and the same shall be published in a tabular form with the statutes of the following year.5

And, in accordance with that act, in the statute books thereafter, the Legislature duly published the names of persons whose names had been changed during the year. Many were adults, who simply wanted to use a different name. And many were children, most of whom had been adopted. Most of the time, the mandate of the 1864 act was strictly followed, and the information was presented in a table.

But on rare occasions the whole report of the county judge was set out.

As it was in the case of little Thomas Finlayson6:


So he was Thomas and Margret’s grandson, all right. But not the son of a son. The son of a daughter — Illinois-born Isabella — instead.

Bell had married O.H. Clement — a man her father’s age — in January 1871.7 She herself can't be found in census records thereafter. But in 1880 O.H. Clement, a 55-year-old butcher born in New Hampshire, was a boarder in Mary Howard's boarding house in Baker City. His marital status was shown as divorced.8

Here, as in so many cases, it's knowing the law that points the way to the right answers.


  1. 1870 U.S. census, Baker County, Oregon, Baker City, population schedule, p. 26B (stamped), dwelling 98, family 85, Thos Finlayson household; digital image, ( : accessed 29 July 2013); citing National Archive microfilm publication M593, roll 1285; imaged from FHL microfilm 552784.
  2. 1880 U.S. census, Baker County, Oregon, Baker City, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 1, p. 10(B)(penned), dwelling 164, family 169, Thomas Finlayson household; digital image, ( : accessed 29 July 2013); citing National Archive microfilm publication T9, roll 1080; imaged from FHL microfilm 1255080.
  3. 1850 U.S. census, Jasper County, Iowa, Independence Twp., population schedule, p. 44-45 (penned), dwelling 314, family 304, Thomas “Finleyson” household; digital image, ( : accessed 29 July 2013); citing National Archive microfilm publication M432, roll 325; imaged from FHL microfilm 803325.
  4. Of course. You know me better than that by now.
  5. Act of 24 October 1864, §14, in The Organic and Other General Laws of Oregon: … 1845-1864 (Portland, Oregon : H.L. Pittock, state printer, 1866), 694; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 29 July 2013).
  6. “Names Changed,” Report of A.B. Baker Elmer (corrected!), Judge, Baker County, Oregon, 1 Dec 1879, The Laws of Oregon: and the Resolutions and Memorials of the Eleventh … Legislative Assembly… 1880 (Salem, Oregon: W.H. Odell, State Printer, 1880), 182; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 29 July 2013).
  7. Baker County, Oregon, Marriage License Book 1: 31, Clement-“Finalyson,” 5 Jan 1871; County Clerk’s Office, Baker City, Oregon; digital images, “Oregon, County Marriages, 1851-1975,” FamilySearch < ( : accessed 29 Jul 2013).
  8. 1880 U.S. census, Baker County, Oregon, Baker City, population schedule, ED 1, p. 3(C)(penned), dwelling 87, family 87, O.H. Clement, boarder, in Mary J. Howard household.
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22 Responses to The grandson

  1. Alice Crain says:

    My first guess would have been that three-year-old Thomas in the 1880 U.S. Census was Mary’s illegitimate son. Your narrative provides a wonderful example of: a) the peril of leaping to undocumented conclusions, and b) the value of Google Books. Thank you for posting it!

    In footnote #6, I think you meant to write ELMER, not Baker, as the judge’s surname. I hope you don’t mind me pointing this out; I only mention it because I make similar mistakes as a matter of course and would want to know.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Thank you for the kind words, and for the correction (I’ll fix that! — I’m a descendant of Bakers and that plus the Baker County… ooooops).

    • Dave says:

      This was my immediate thought, as well, since I’ve run across such a situation several times. As Alice says, this emphasizes the need to research all possibilities and not jump to conclusions!

      • Judy G. Russell says:

        That’s always my second thought, Dave, behind the missing-son theory. But the adoption by the grandparents is sure something to think about for the future, isn’t it?

  2. W David Samuelsen says:

    It is those gems that are among the least known sources for family history. I’m native of Baker County, Oregon and I do recognize Finlayson, Clement and especially Elmer whose descendants are still in the county.

  3. Jeanette Hopkins says:

    What do you supposed happened to Isabella? I have a similar situation in Ohio with a missing woman after a divorce. She disappears from the records and I’d love an idea or two on where to go next. She’s not with her family members or listed in the counties records for remarriage. What did a divorced woman do in 1870?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I don’t know but would sure like to find out! I suspect a good number of these women went elsewhere to start over. Perhaps if we found the older sisters, we might find Isabella too!

    • Susan Winchester says:

      Try looking for her siblings. You may find an article or entry in a mugbook about the sibling that refers to a sister with the right first name and a different surname.

  4. Scott says:

    I had an issue with a niece & nephew of my Great Grandfather. They were listed as niece & nephew on the 1900 Grayson County Census Record with William F. Mitchell (my great-grandfather’s brother). So, I kept trying to figure out which sister they were the children of since their last name was Groves.

    Much digging later, and the help of another researcher, I finally determined they were the great niece/nephew, and the grandchildren of my great-grandfather’s sister Nancy Caroline Mitchell-Knighton-Caulder-Hillis, by her daughter Lydia Knighton-Groves.

    So, sometimes, the niece and nephew on a census record might just be a great niece and nephew since Census Takers didn’t, at least in this case, differentiate that fact.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Oh yeah… those kinds of relationship designations can often just be the start of the question, for sure. Great example of the problem, thanks.

  5. Good detective story here, with the law as the big clue. Young Thomas must have had a much happier life living with his grandparents than staying with parents who were on the point of being divorced. The name change adds a finality to that decision.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      We can hope he did, Mariann. I wasn’t able to find his grandfather’s death info; his grandmother died in 1893 when he would have been only 16.

  6. I love footnote 4. Thanks for another great story, Judy.

  7. Celia Lewis says:

    I always (always) look at your footnotes – you are such a charmingly funny teacher, Judy! Tongue firmly in cheek. As for this 3 year old, my very first thought was ‘oh dear, one of the daughters’ illegitimate son’. My second thought was omg-I’m glad I don’t have to raise a 3yr old boy!! This name change and household change seems to be quite a serious change in this boy’s young life. I have more questions about it all …

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Celia! Yes, there surely is more to this story than meets the eye — and wouldn’t we all like to have an easy way to get the answers to all those questions! Alas, there’s that awful four-letter word: time.

  8. Gus Marsh says:

    When I first started reading this blog, I thought to myself if Isabell was 15 in 1870, then she would be 25 in 1890. I said to myself that she is old enough to have a son. I have seen this happen in my own family, only the dad was 38 when he fathered his first child.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Both she and Mary would have been old enough — but the Finlayson last name complicated the question, Gus! Not to mention the gap between the likely marriage age of the grandparents and the age of the first child shown in 1870.

  9. Pingback: Where Oregon Genealogy, Name Changes, and Legislative History Meet Up | Oregon Legal Research Blog

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