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A death in 1793

It’s called the butterfly effect.

It’s the notion that events are connected in a profound and unpredictable manner, and that small changes at the start can lead to vastly different outcomes.

So, for example, as small an act as a butterfly flapping its wings can in the end cause a storm of the magnitude of a typhoon.1

And The Legal Genealogist posits that nowhere is this concept more intriguing than in the area of genealogy: if things had been different in the life of one single ancestor, how much different would life be for us today?


Today — or a day close to this one — is a case in point for me and my family.

Because on this day — or a day close to this one — in 1793, a woman died in what was then Burke County, North Carolina.

Her name was Mary (Webb) Baker, and she was the wife of David Baker, a veteran of the Revolutionary War who had followed his family to North Carolina at the end of his service and married there.2 David and Mary had six known children: Elizabeth, born in 1780; Thomas in 1782; William in 1784; Nancy in 1786; James Crittenden in 1788; and Mary born in October 1792, just months before her mother’s death.3

The family story is that Mary and “several” of her children died of milk poisoning.4 Of this Webb branch of the Baker family, only Mary has a stone in the Old Bakersville Cemetery on a hill overlooking what is now the Mitchell County Courthouse, with a recorded birthdate of 18 December 1762 and a recorded death date of 16 May 1793.5 All of the children we know of from this marriage were still alive and expressly mentioned by their father in his will decades later6 — there could of course have been others whose lives were unrecorded.

So there was David with a family of young children, one not even a year old. What was he to do? How was he — a farmer — going to raise those youngsters alone?

The answer, of course, is that he wouldn’t, and he didn’t. In short order he married again to a cousin, Dorothy Wiseman, daughter of his mother’s niece Mary Davenport and her husband William Wiseman.7

David and Dorothy then went on to produce an additional seven children: Susannah, born in 1795; Martin in 1797; Dorothy in 1799; David Davenport in 1801; Josiah in 1802; Sophia in 1804; and Charles in 1806.8

And for huge numbers of people — the butterfly wings of Mary (Webb) Baker’s passing changed everything.

Because we don’t descend from Mary (Webb) Baker.

We descend, instead, from Dorothy (Wiseman) Baker.

My own line of descent is from Martin, the first son of that second marriage. And in my genealogical database as of this morning there are 311 names of direct lineal descendants from Martin alone — and I know I’m missing a lot of names, particularly of newer additions to the family. And even with a lot of work yet to do on the other lines, I have more than 500 persons named in my database who descend from that second marriage.

People who simply wouldn’t exist had Mary (Webb) Baker survived.

Oh, David and Mary might well have gone on to have other children. But they wouldn’t have been the same children that he had with Dorothy. The genetic mix would have been different, the family dynamics different, the life experiences different.

And adding Dorothy to the mix changed life for Mary’s children and their descendants as well. Whether she was a kind and loving stepmother or not, there can be no question but that she was different for them than their mother was.

The butterfly wings of Mary (Webb) Baker’s death set off that typhoon in the Baker family.

But for that death in 1793, those of us living today simply wouldn’t be who we are.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “The butterfly effect,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 16 May 2020).


  1. See Jamie L. Vernon, “Understanding the Butterfly Effect,” American Scientist ( : accessed 16 May 2020).
  2. See generally Affidavit of Soldier, 26 September 1832; Dorothy Baker, widow’s pension application no. W.1802, for service of David Baker (Corp., Capt. Thornton’s Co., 3rd Va. Reg.); Revolutionary War Pensions and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, microfilm publication M804, 2670 rolls (Washington, D.C. : National Archives and Records Service, 1974); digital images, Fold3 ( : accessed 16 May 2020), David Baker file.
  3. Maribeth Lang Vineyard and Eugene M. Wiseman, William Wiseman and the Davenports (Franklin NC : p.p., 1997), 69. See also John Scott Davenport, “Five Generations Identified from the Pamunkey Family Patriarch, Namely Davis Davenport of King William County,” in The Pamunkey Davenport Papers, CD-ROM (Charles Town, W.Va. : Pamunkey Davenport Family Association, 2009), 19.
  4. See ibid.
  5. Old Bakersville Cemetery (Bakersville, Mitchell County, North Carolina; on Bakersville Memorial Cemetery Road, northwest of its intersection with Duck Branch Road, Latitude 360005N, Longitude 0820920W), Mary Webb Baker marker; photograph by J.G. Russell, 14 Jun 2003. I emphasize that these are recorded dates because this is a modern stone and there’s no identified source for the dates.
  6. Yancey County, North Carolina, Record of Wills 1: 30, will of David Baker, 26 Jan 1838; North Carolina State Archives microfilm C.107.80001.
  7. See Vineyard and Wiseman, William Wiseman and the Davenports, 13.
  8. See Josiah and Julia (McGimsey) Baker Family Bible Records 1749-1912, The New Testament of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (New York : American Bible Society, 1867), “Births”; privately held by Louise (Baker) Ferguson, Bakersville, NC; photographed for JG Russell, Feb 2003. Mrs. Ferguson, a great granddaughter of Josiah and Julia, inherited the Bible; the earliest entries are believed to be in the handwriting of Josiah or Julia Baker.
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