Select Page

A natural father’s love for a natural son

David Coon's natural son, 1840 will

Reader Cyndy Bray writes that the will of her third great grandfather, David Coons, filed in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1842, identified one beneficiary as “my natural son George Washington Coons or McDonald by which ever name he may be called.”1

She reports that David Coons may have been married twice, she was unable to find evidence as to the child’s mother, and didn’t know if McDonald could be his mother’s name. And, she said, “I see different explanations of the term “natural son” as well as alias. Wonder what the terms actually meant back then.”

The terminology questions here are the easy ones.

The word “alias” in law was used instead of the longer form alias dictus, meaning “otherwise called.” When two names were used together (“John Doe alias John Smith”), it meant that “the same person is known by both those names.”2

The phrase “natural son” in a will meant one thing and one thing only: an acknowledged child of the testator who had been born out of wedlock. The only meaning the phrase had in the law in that context back then was “a bastard; a child born out of lawful wedlock.”3

So David here was definitely acknowledging George as his own child, born out of wedlock. And he was doing so handsomely. David, a wealthy man whose estate was valued at nearly $80,000,4 noted he had already given George $11,000, and gave him a building lot 25 feet by 100 feet on the corner of Fourth and Cedar Streets in St. Louis “together with the house now building on the same.”5

Under the law, David could easily have left everything to his widow, Mary, and his four legitimate children — son Benjamin Franklin Coons, and daughters Mary Ann, Virginia Elizabeth and Victoria Coons.6 His acknowledgement of George, and his choice to include George in his will, simply wasn’t required by law.

To the contrary, at common law, an illegitimate child was filius nullius — the child of no one.7 Bastards had no right of inheritance from either parent and, in fact, were not regarded as children for purposes of the law.8 They couldn’t inherit from either father or mother, and neither father nor mother could inherit from them.

English law continued to take a hard line on inheritance by illegitimate children long after attitudes in America softened. Here, as early as 1785, Virginia expressly provided that “Bastards also shall be capable of inheriting or transmitting inheritance on the part of their mother, in like manner as if they had been lawfully begotten of such mother.”9 New York, in 1828, gave the mother the right to inherit from the child, but not the child from the mother.10 That same year, Massachusetts changed its laws so that mother and child could each inherit from the other.11

Note that only the mother was mentioned in these laws. It wasn’t until 1977 that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state laws that prevented an illegitimate child from inheriting from the father unless the father set out the inheritance specifically in his will.12

So this is a clear case of a natural father taking very good care of his natural son. But that leaves a much harder question here: who was George’s mother?

The law doesn’t provide a lot of guidance here. Historically, a bastard child took the name of the mother.13 In some jurisdictions, it was the law that an illegitimate child was given the mother’s name.14

But remember: the common law also allowed anyone to use any name he wanted15 — and so George could have chosen the name for reasons we may never know. Any evidence that might specifically identify his mother would most likely be found in the records of his home state of Kentucky.16 That’s where any court order requiring Coons to pay support for young George is most likely to have been entered.

And it’s worth checking to see what might be found by way of a death record in California, where his wife was shown as a widow living with their son David in the 1880 census.17 The Family History Library has Sacramento County death records back to the mid-1800s; whether any record might contain a hint as to George’s parents remains to be seen.

So McDonald could have been his mother’s name. But maybe not.

Just to make this a little more fun, there is a curiously complicating record online that provides a hint in another direction. It’s an 1839 record of George’s marriage to Symphronia Lanham in a Catholic church in St. Louis.18 The marriage was performed by Father Joseph Lutz, who recorded that he had given the couple a dispensation on the ground of religion (one of the two must not have been Catholic).

And in that marriage record Father Lutz also recorded the parents of the couple getting marriage. The bride, he recorded, was daughter of George H. Lanham and of Sempronia Hamilton. And the groom? “George W. Coons, son of David & of Mary Coons.”

Mary Coons — David’s widow — as George’s mother? It’s possible. Under Missouri law at the time, “If a man having by a woman a child or children, and afterwards shall intermarry with her, and shall recognize such child or children to be his, they shall thereby be legitimated.”19 That was (and is) also what canon — church — law provided.20

So if George was born to David and Mary before they married, then once they married he would have been legitimate in the eyes of the church for sure… and in the eyes of the law in Missouri. Perhaps his father was simply been hedging his bets in calling George a natural son in the will!

Cyndy, you’ve got some work to do chasing this genealogical rabbit down into its hole. Let us know what you find out!


  1. St. Louis County, Missouri, Will Book C: 35-36, Will of David Coons, 6 Jun 1840, recorded 8 Jan 1842; Probate Court, St. Louis.
  2. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 58, “alias dictus.”
  3. Ibid., 801, “natural child.” See also John Bouvier, A Law Dictionary Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States of America and of the Several States of the American Union, rev. 6th ed. (1856); HTML reprint, The Constitution Society ( : accessed 27 Mar 2012), “natural children.”
  4. David Coons estate, statements of accounts, undated, c1847; Document 1, Collection 5, Case No. 01721, Missouri Judicial Records database and images, Missouri Digital Heritage ( : accessed 27 Mar 2012).
  5. Will of David Coons, Will Book C: 35.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Black, A Dictionary of Law, 492, “filius nullius.”
  8. William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book the First: Of the Rights of Persons (Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1765), 442-443; html version, Yale Law School, Avalon Project ( : accessed 22 Mar 2012).
  9. Laws of 1785, chap. LX, § 19, in William Waller Hening, compiler, Hening’s Statutes at Law, Being a Collection of all the Laws of Virginia from the first session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619, 14 vols. (1819-1823; reprint ed., Charlottesville: Jamestown Foundation, 1969), 12: 139.
  10. 1 New York Rev. Statutes (1828) 753, 754, §§ 14,19.
  11. See Kent v. Barker, 2 Gray 535, 536 (Mass. Sup. Jud. Ct. 1854).
  12. Trimble v. Gordon, 430 U.S. 762 (1977).
  13. See Thomas Poynter, Doctrine and Practice of Ecclesiastical Courts … Relative to the Subject of Marriage and Divorce, 2d ed. (Philadelphia : John S. Littell, 1836), ; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 27 Mar 2012).
  14. See, for example, Act of 14 June 1897, Pennsylvania P.L. 142.
  15. Judy G. Russell, “What’s in a Name?,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 12 Mar 2012.
  16. George was shown as born in Kentucky in the 1850, 1860 and 1870 censuses. 1850 U.S. census, St. Louis County, Missouri, population schedule, p. 536(B) (stamped), dwelling/family 1971, George W. Coons; digital image, ( : accessed 27 Mar 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication M432, roll 414. 1860 U.S. census, Sacramento County, California, population schedule, p. 82 (penned), dwelling 667, family 668, G.W. Coons; digital image, ( : accessed 27 Mar 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication M653, roll 63; imaged from FHL microfilm 803,063. 1870 U.S. census, Sacramento County, California, population schedule, p. 405 (stamped), dwelling 173, family 157, Geo W Coon; digital image, ( : accessed 27 Mar 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication M593, roll 77; imaged from FHL micrfoilm 545,576.
  17. 1880 U.S. census, Sacramento County, California, San Joaquin, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 112, p. 325(B) (stamped), dwelling 227, family 231, Sempronia Coons; digital image, ( : accessed 27 Mar 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication T9, roll 71; imaged from FHL microfilm 1,254,071.
  18. Marriage entry for George W. Coons and Symphronia Lanham, 29 Jan 1839, “Early U.S. French Catholic Church Records (Drouin Collection), 1695-1954,” database and images, ( : accessed 27 Mar 2012); citing Gabriel Drouin, compiler, Drouin Collection, Montreal, Quebec, Canada: Institut Généalogique Drouin.
  19. Act of 11 February 1835, Revised Statutes of the State of Missouri (St. Louis : General Assembly, 1835), 223; digital images, Internet Archive ( accessed 27 Mar 2012).
  20. New Advent, Catholic Encyclopedia ( : accessed 27 Mar 2012), entry for “Legitimation.”
Print Friendly, PDF & Email