Even that “contemporaneous” record can be wrong…

It’s one of the great joys of Kentucky research, those few short unexpected years of birth records in the 1850s.

It’s also one of the great frustrations of Kentucky research.

And an object lesson in why we never ever accept a single record at face value, even one that’s fairly close to being contemporaneous with the event.

Take The Legal Genealogist‘s Johnson family, for example.

Mathew Johnson married Mary “Polly” Fore in Union County, Georgia, in the summer of 1839.1 They were still living in Union County in 1840, when the census recorded the family as one adult male and one adult female, both aged 20-30 years, and one female child — presumably daughter Sarah — under the age of five.2

They moved to Pulaski County, Kentucky, sometime around 1846. Mathew was not on the 1845 Pulaski County tax list; there is no surviving 1846 list; and he was recorded as a poll taxpayer in 1847.3 By 1850, the family had grown to include four children: Sarah, 9, Napoleon, 7, and Louisa, 5, were all shown as born in Georgia; the youngest, James, age 1, was shown as born in Kentucky.4

By Kentucky law, births, marriages and deaths beginning in 1852 were to be recorded by the tax assessor for each tax district at the same time the assessor made the tax list. The assessor was to make strict inquiry of all heads of families and to return the list to the clerks of the county courts with the list of taxable property. The clerk then was to copy the lists and transmit them to the auditor of public accounts.5

1857 birth register

Now think about that for a minute. The head of household reports to the tax assessor who reports to the clerk of the county who reports to the auditor of public accounts. I don’t know about you but I count at least three chances for the information to be messed up: when somebody in the house first said it; when the tax assessor wrote down what he thought he heard; and when the court clerk copied the information over to send to the auditor of public accounts. And any time a list was recopied — if the tax collector made a clean copy from his field notes, for example — there’d be another chance to mess it up.

But hey… it’s going to be close enough, right? And some record is better than none.

So, sure enough, there in the Pulaski County is the 20 October 1852 birth of the next son, William.6 Well, almost. He’s shown as Wm. F. P. Jonston, male child, born alive to Mathew Jonston and Mary Fore. Close enough.

And the last three of the Johnson children follow right along:

• 13 April 1856, Mary Purkins Johnson, male child, born alive to Mathew Johnson and Mary Fore.7

• 13 February 1857, Mathew Johnson, male child, born alive to Mathew Johnson and Mary Fore.8

• 13 February 1859, Penelope Bertrand Johnson, female child, born alive to Mathew Johnson and Mary Fore.9

Yeah, right. And just how many boys do you know named Mary?10 So you have to figure that somebody wrote that down wrong, and the child born in 1856 was a girl.

Do a double-check of the family on the 1860 census and you’d sure expect to see the Kentucky-born children as boy, boy, girl, boy, girl: James (born before the registration was required) and then William, Mary, Mathew and Penelope.

Nope.

What you see is boy, boy, girl, girl, girl: James, William, Mary, Martha, and Nelly.11

Um… Martha?

Where did she come from?

Fast forward to 1870. The family — now headed by Mary as a widow — is in Parker County, Texas. And the younger children still living at home: James, William, Mary and Mattie.12

Mattie. Age 12. Female.

Mattie who, four years later, married Martin Gilbert Cottrell in Parker County.13

Mattie who, in 1898, gave birth to her last child, my grandfather Clay.14

Mattie. Martha. Not Mathew.

Now you know how that happened, don’t you?

I mean, you can almost picture it in your mind and hear the conversation, can’t you?

There’s the tax assessor standing in the doorway collecting the tax information, and looking at the new baby in the cradle or on the floor.

“What’s the baby’s name?” he asks.

“Mattie,” is the answer.

“Mattie,” he thinks. Named after the father. Mathew. Boy.

Sigh…

That Johnson child. Reason 8,462 why we never ever accept any record as the gospel. Even one as close to contemporaneous as that Kentucky birth record.


Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “That Johnson child,” The Legal Genealogist (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : posted 28 Mar 2020).

SOURCES

  1. Union County, Georgia, Marriage Book 1-A: 43, Mathew Johnson-Mary Foore, no. 44, 1839; Office of the Judge of the Probate Court, Blairsville, Georgia; digital image, Georgia Virtual Vault (https://vault.georgiaarchives.org/digital/ : accessed 28 Mar 2020). The entry is dated the 18th but the month is missing. The preceding entry was 18 July, the following 19 August, both 1839, so either month is possible.
  2. 1840 U.S. census, Union County, Georgia, p. 13 (stamped), Mathew Johnson household; digital image, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 28 Mar 2020); citing National Archive microfilm publication M704, roll 52.
  3. Pulaski County, Kentucky, tax books 1845-1847; digital images, “Tax books, 1799-1875,” FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org : accessed 28 Mar 2020).
  4. 1850 U.S. census, Pulaski County, Kentucky, population schedule, p. 2B (stamped), dwelling/family 27, Mathew Johnson household; digital image, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 28 Mar 2020); citing National Archive microfilm publication M432, roll 217.
  5. §4, Chapter 393, Acts of 1851-82, set out in Revised Statutes of Kentucky … 1851-1852 (Frankfort, KY : State Printer, 1852), 547; digital images, Google Books (https://books.google.com/ : accessed 28 Mar 2020).
  6. Pulaski County Births, 1852, Clerk of the County Court, p.6, entry for Wm F P Jonston, 20 Oct 1852; digital images, “Births, marriages, deaths,” FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org : accessed 28 Mar 2020).
  7. Ibid., Pulaski County Births, 1855, p. 1, entry for Mary Purkins Johnson. There are numerous births shown as 1856 in this 1855 list despite the existence of a separate 1856 list.
  8. Ibid., Pulaski County Births, 1857, p. 3, entry for Mathew Johnson.
  9. Ibid., Pulaski County Births, 1859, p. 4, entry for Penelope Bertrand Johnson.
  10. C’mon, people, even the country-western song had the boy named Sue. Not Mary, for cryin’ out loud…
  11. 1860 U.S. census, Pulaski County, Kentucky, Somerset, population schedule, p. 2 (penned), dwelling/family 8, Mathew Johnson household; digital image, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 28 Mar 2020); citing National Archive microfilm publication M653, roll 393.
  12. 1870 U.S. census, Parker County, Texas, Precinct 1, population schedule, p. 382B (stamped), dwelling/family 373, Mary Johnson household; digital image, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 28 Mar 2020); citing National Archive microfilm publication M593, roll 1601. There’s no death record we’ve found for Penelope, but no record of her life after the 1860 census.
  13. Parker County, Texas, marriage license and return, M G Cottrell-Mattie Johnson, 27 Aug 1874; County Clerk’s Office, Weatherford.
  14. See 1900 U.S. census, Wichita County, Texas, Iowa Park, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 127, p. 238(A) (stamped), dwelling/family 86, Martin G “Catrell” household; digital image, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 28 Mar 2020); citing National Archive microfilm publication T623, roll 1679.
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