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Errors at beginning and end

Tomorrow marks the 104th anniversary of the death of Martha “Mattie” H. (Johnson) Cottrell, who died in Frederick, Tillman County, Oklahoma — The Legal Genealogist‘s great grandmother.

And reflecting on that event reminds me that I need to work on correcting errors from both the beginning and the end of her life.

She was born in Pulaski County, Kentucky, in 1857 — and she appears just as she should appear as a three-year-old on the 1860 census in the household of her parents, Matthew and Mary (Fore) Johnson.1

And we are so very fortunate that, for a very brief period in Kentucky history, and just at that time, there were birth records kept at least by some Kentucky counties. From 1852 to 1862, Kentucky law required the tax collectors to note births, marriages and deaths when they went out collecting the tax information.2

Now… the law as written almost guaranteed that there would be problems. The lists of births, marriages and deaths had to be kept separately from the tax lists, and the clerks of the courts had to copy the lists over again and send copies to the state and the state was to copy the lists over in tabular form and publish them.3 And we all know what happens when copies are made of copies are made of copies…

That may be part of the explanation of the error made at the beginning of Mattie’s life.

Oh, there is a Johnson child recorded in the birth records of Pulaski County in 1857.

But it’s not a little girl named Martha.

It’s a little boy named Mathew.4


Right parents, Mathew Johnson and Mary Fore, so no chance that we’ve got the wrong Johnson child for 1857.

But boy oh boy do we have the wrong Johnson child for 1857.

How did it happen?

Well, it could of course have been as simple as a copying error.

But I have another theory.

I have a vivid mental image of the tax collector standing in the door of the Johnson home at tax time 1857. It’s some months after the birth of this child, whom I picture as a chubby infant utterly gender-neutral in clothing and appearance, rolling around on the floor or on the hip of her harried busy mother.

The tax collector has just noted that the head of the household is Mathew. And, he then asks, “what’s the baby’s name?”

My second great grandmother Mary “Polly” (Fore) Johnson replies, “Mattie.”

And the tax collector writes, “Mathew.”

I’ll never know for sure, of course, but…

As for the error at the other end of her life… well, that one will take a little more work to correct.

Because Mattie’s grave there in the City Cemetery at Frederick, Tillman County, Oklahoma, is unmarked.

The cemetery itself is beautifully kept, and she’s surrounded by her neighbors and people I hope had become her friends by the time of her untimely death at the age of only 55 of heart failure likely brought on by kidney disease.5 She’d only been living in Oklahoma for three years after separating from her husband, my great grandfather Martin Gilbert Cottrell, in 1909.

But it hurts my heart to know that there is no stone…

And that’s an error I’m going to have to work on.


  1. 1860 U.S. census, Pulaski County, Kentucky, Somerset, population schedule, p. 2 (penned), dwelling/family 8, Martha Johnson; digital image, ( : accessed 5 May 2004); citing National Archive microfilm publication M653, roll 393.
  2. See Chapter 82, “Registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages,” in Richard H. Stanton, editor, The Revised Statutes of Kentucky… 1852 (Cincinnati, Ohio: Robert Clarke & Co., 1860), II: 235-236; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 1 July 2016).
  3. Ibid., §§IV-V.
  4. Pulaski County, Kentucky, Birth Register 1857, page 3, line 42, Mathew Johnson; microfilm, Kentucky Department of Libraries and Archives, Frankfort.
  5. Oklahoma State Board of Health, Death Certificate No. 6119 (1912), Mrs. M.G. Cottrell; Bureau of Vital Statistics, Oklahoma City.
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