Brick Wall Busters: Divide and Conquer

Brick Wall Busters: Divide and Conquer

Sort what you know from what you're guessing and genealogical victory could be yours.

A “really high brick wall” threatens to defeat Carolyn Rohr’s family search. Her 20-some years’ worth of attempts to discover the identities of her ancestor Sarah Middleton Taylor’s parents have failed. But before Rohr declares this brick wall insurmountable, let’s retreat to the locker room for a research regroup and strategy session.

Sorta successful

When you’re faced with a seemingly unsolvable pedigree problem, a good initial step is to sort your data into three categories: documented facts, secondhand knowledge and leads. In Rohr’s first group, she’d put all her information from primary sources, such as marriage certificates and court documents; in her second, details from published indexes, county histories and other secondary sources; and in the third, research avenues to be explored. Here’s the breakdown:

Documented facts: According to Taylor’s marriage license, she wed John Dillard Cook in Kentucky in 1814. It also provides her guardians’ names: Dr. Henry Newberry and his son William. In land records for Frankfort, Ky., Rohr learned Newberry bought land from a John and Nancy Taylor in 1800.

The 1850 federal census shows that Sarah and her husband, both 58, lived with their children in Missouri. The couple gave their birthplaces as Virginia. The details in this enumeration establish a tentative birth year of 1792 for Sarah. I say “tentative” because a census taker or even the individual in question could have gotten the facts wrong.

Information from secondary sources: Rohr researched the Newberrys and discovered Sarah and a woman named Hannah Middleton listed with Henry and William on an 1800 Frankfort, Ky., tax record. Rohr can’t tell from this record whether Middleton is Hannah’s maiden or middle name.

The elder Newberry also shows up as 21 years old on a 1795 list. These lists are arranged by county in Early Kentucky Tax Records from The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society (Genealogical Publishing Co.). The Kentucky state archives <> and Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Library (FHL) <> have various tax lists on microfilm.

If you’re looking for tax records covering your ancestral playing field, run a place search of the FHL’s online catalog for the county name, then look for a taxation heading. You can visit a local FHL branch Family History Center to rent the film.

In the 1888 book History of Southeast Missouri (Goodspeed Publishing), Rohr found details on John Dillard Cook and his career as a judge. The book states Sarah was a cousin of Zachary Taylor, president of the United States from 1849 to 1850.

Leads: Sarah’s marriage license, the land record and local history book suggest some clues to pursue and questions to resolve – which we’ll explore now.

Great plays

One of the puzzles Rohr faces is why the Newberrys were Sarah’s guardians when she married. In the 19th century, courts appointed guardians for orphaned children; if a mother remarried, her new husband would be made guardian of her children.

Guardianship documents would show for sure whether Henry Newberry married Hannah Middleton and became Sarah’s guardian. Unfortunately, though, Rohr learned Frankfort’s guardianship papers for this period no longer exist – information I confirmed in the genealogical reference Red Book, 3rd edition, edited by Alice Eichholz (Ancestry).

The tax record hints that Henry was married to Hannah, but doesn’t give a wedding date. Later records Rohr found show additional children in the household, all with the last name Newberry – further supporting the idea of a marriage. Each child bears the middle name Middleton. This key fact suggests a relationship between Hannah and Sarah, but without documentation of Hannah’s marriage or a birth record for Sarah, we can’t definitively link the two as mother and daughter. Sarah could be Hannah’s child from an earlier marriage, or Hannah could be Sarah’s older sister.

Given this naming pattern, it’s worth looking for Middleton-Taylor and Middleton-Newberry marriages. A marriage record for Henry Newberry could confirm Hannah Middleton’s maiden name or reveal a previous marriage into a Taylor family.

I wonder if further research in census and land records could turn up additional information linking Hannah and Sarah to John and Nancy Taylor, who sold land to Newberry in 1800. Kentucky was established in 1792 on land formerly in Virginia, so land records from the time of Sarah’s birth could be in either state. Rohr can check the Library of Virginia’s online database of land records <>. A good Kentucky resource is James F. Sutherland’s book Early Kentucky Landholders, 1787-1811 (Genealogical Publishing Co.).

Aiming high

The question of Sarah’s presidential connection is another lead. Is she related to Zachary Taylor, as claimed in the southeast Missouri history? A quick check of FamilySearch’s Ancestral File turned up a user-submitted family tree of President Taylor, one of 12 children born to Richard Taylor and Sarah Strother in Virginia and Kentucky. Proving a the connection involves researching the children of Zachary Tayor’s paternal uncles to find a Sarah born in Virginia in 1792.

Rohr can begin by using Ancestral File to generate pedigree charts and family group sheets for each uncle. It’s easy: In a person’s record, click the Pedigree or Family link. Since there’s no way to know whether research submitted to Ancestral File is reliable, Rohr should look for primary documents to verify the data.

But a few shortcuts can help Rohr circumvent a lengthy search into the presidential family. First, she can make it a group project by contacting Ancestral File submitters (the individual records give names and mailing addresses). Since Taylor is a common name in Virginia, DNA testing might help establish the presidential link. Several individuals in Relative Genetics’ <> Taylor surname study claim relationships to Zachary Taylor. The study administrator, reachable through the Relative Genetics Web site, can tell Rohr how to proceed. 

Learning the identities of Sarah’s parents is a challenging brick wall, but it’s still too early to throw in the towel. Instead, with these research leads, Rohr can get out there and show ’em what she’s got.

From the September 2007 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

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