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Saying it ain’t so, Joe…

There’s an absolutely lovely story out there on the internet about the parents of Joseph Moore, who died in Caldwell County, Kentucky, around 1820.

Repeated in roughly a kazillion online family trees, the story is that he was the son of William and Mary (Steele) Moore of North Carolina, named in his father’s 1770 will, and so fond of his stepfather Alexander Coulter that he named a son Alexander.1

Since Joseph Moore is The Legal Genealogist‘s fourth great grandfather,2 it sure would be nice if this was true. That would push my North Carolina Moore line back another generation.

Alas, however… it sure doesn’t look like it.


Yep, I’m debunking yet another wonderful possibility for pushing my own line back another generation.

Moore deed marks

Here’s the problem.

There is a deed in Rutherford County, North Carolina, that was clearly executed in the fall of 1787 by the Joseph Moore who was the son of William and Mary Moore. It transfers 200 acres of land “being granted by his Majesty George the third to William Moore dated 1766 and transferred to the said Joseph Moore by a lawful will bearing date October the 19th 1770.”3

And there’s another deed in Rutherford County, North Carolina, that was clearly executed in the fall of 1801 by the Joseph Moore who was my fourth great grandfather. It transfers 50 acres of land on Howards Creek and it’s signed by both Joseph and Rebecca Moore4 — and that’s my Joseph’s wife.5

And — sigh — it’s pretty darned clear these are two different men.

One of the key factors that can distinguish between people of the same name in the same area at the same time is literacy: is there evidence that the person or persons we’re looking at were literate? At a minimum, we want to know if the person signed his or her own documents with a written signature, or signed with a mark. And when, as here, we’re looking at the clerk’s record of a deed rather than the original, we need to be sure the clerk was being careful in recording who signed and who used a mark.

Both clerks in both deed books appear to have been very careful about recording signatures versus marks.

Within just a few pages of the first deed, the same clerk in the same handwriting carefully indicated which grantors and which witnesses signed with marks. The clerk in this case did not record that this Joseph Moore, son of William, signed with a mark: the record is evidence that he could sign his own name.

Even on the same page as the second deed, the one by the Joseph Moore who’s clearly my guy, that clerk also carefully distinguished between signatures and marks of both grantors and witnesses. And in this case both Joseph and Rebecca are recorded as signing with a mark. That record is evidence that my Joseph could not sign his own name.

But, you may say, the deeds were executed 14 years apart. Surely conditions can change!

True. Someone who can’t write his own name can certainly learn.

But someone who is apparently healthy, whole and producing a boatload of kids every year or two — a fair description of my guy — isn’t likely to have forgotten how or lost the ability to sign his own name.

And for these two deeds to be executed by the same man, that’s what would have had to happen here.

Yes, it’s an assumption, that someone who once could sign would still be able to, and so using a mark on another document supports a conclusion that we’re talking about two men, not one. It’s what we call a valid assumption: a concept “generally accepted as true unless convincingly contradicted.” And we’re entitled to rely on it if we’ve looked for evidence that would say it’s not true, and we can’t find any.6

Adding in the facts that the clerks in both record sets carefully distinguished between signatures and marks, that the mark was used on a deed after the deed with the signature, and that my guy — the mark user — wasn’t frail or ill or ailing … well, all I can say is…

I’m saying it ain’t so, Joe.

William and Mary Moore were not my Joseph’s parents.

Back to the drawing board.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Another theory shot down,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 4 Dec 2021).


  1. You’ll forgive me please if I don’t identify any particular tree or website. I’m not out to embarrass anybody, and I sure made my share of undocumented relationship mistakes back when I was a baby genealogist…
  2. See Judy G. Russell, “Landing the fourths,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 22 Dec 2020 ( : accessed 4 Dec 2021).
  3. Rutherford County, North Carolina, Deed Book J-L : 139-140, Moore to McClure, 11 September 1787, recorded 11 January 1794; FamilySearch (, digital film 007517761, images 562-563.
  4. Rutherford County, NC, Deed Book 22-23 : 291, Moore to Henderson, 5 November 1801, recorded 11 January 1794; FamilySearch (, digital film 007517764, image 462.
  5. See Judy G. Russell, “Landing the fourths,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 22 Dec 2020.
  6. Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards, 2d ed. rev. (Nashville, TN : Ancestry, 2021), 26, Standard 45, “Assumptions.”
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