Jonna Peterson’s ancestor William Hawk Stout is one elusive fellow. She can’t find a record of his birth, his parents’ names or even his final resting place. This man’s life has acquired a legendary quality relatives still puzzle over his mysterious past and the few traces of his existence he left behind.
Peterson has found proof Stout isn’t a figment of her family’s collective imagination, though, and several clues hint he’s American Indian. But she’s had trouble discovering any new information. Let’s take a look at what she knows and how she can start putting together the puzzles of this mystery man’s life.
Starting with censuses
When you can’t find official birth and death documents, or if your ancestor was born before vital recording began (as is the case here), go to federal census records. Beginning in 1790, they give you glimpses of your ancestors every 10 years (except 1890; almost all those census records were ruined in a fire) through 1930, the most recent available census.
Peterson has taken this step. The earliest census she found for William Stout is 1850, where he’s living in Indiana with his 17-year-old wife, Sarah Lawrence Stout. The enumerator noted William Stout’s birthplace as New Jersey and his age as 28, which suggests he was born in 1822.
In the 1860 census for Denmark, Perry County, Ill., the Stouts appear with their 3-year-old son, G.W. (Peterson’s ancestor) and a Nancy Stout, age 50, born in New Jersey. Peterson couldn’t find William Stout in the 1870 census, leading her to believe he died during the previous decade.
Peterson looked for land records in Indiana and Illinois. If William Stout bought property, he would’ve left tracks between censuses. Indeed, in 1854 and 1856, he purchased land in Pinckneyville, Ill., along with his wife and a brother James.
Peterson then searched the 1850 census for James Stout. He shows up at age 31 living near William in Indiana. In his household are his wife, their four children, and 49-year-old, New Jersey-born Nancy Stout. Since she’s in both Stout house-holds at different times, she’s probably a relative perhaps their mother. The age discrepancy from the 1850 to 1860 censuses could be the enumerator’s mistake, the informant’s wrong information, or an instance of two different women with the same name.
Researching earlier censuses for a Nancy with sons named William and James isn’t possible, since counts before 1850 name only heads of households, with tick marks for everyone else. But Peterson should still research the family members. Learning where Sarah Stout born, for example, could point to a that might have William’s marriage record. Since the brothers seem to have traveled together, other people might have joined the group and settled nearby, too. If Peterson can learn where neighbors came from, she might have an answer about her ancestor.
Also, creating a timeline of her ancestor’s life, including dates from research as well as historical events, will help Peterson identify additional resources to check. Ancestors of the right age, for example, may have gone to war.
Going to the grave
Peterson’s cousin, looking for St. Louis court records related to a family tale about the 1869 murder of James Stout, stumbled upon an 1861 deposition mentioning William Stout’s death that year. But an obituary for Sarah Stout in the Dec. 24, 1909, Pinckneyville Advocate states he died in 1859. (She remarried a couple of years later.) Neither man shows up in census mortality schedules (lists of deaths occurring in the 365 days before each US census date in 1850 to 1880).
Family folklore claims William Stout was buried in his Perry County backyard. Since Peterson can’t find him in local cemeteries, she wonders if it’s true. Her family still owns the land, so she shouldn’t have any trouble getting access. Ground-penetrating radar can locate graves, but the devices are expensive and hard to come by. Not one to give up, Peterson has found a university professor who’s intrigued by her “problem” and may help look for the grave.
A relative’s photograph of a Stout descendant with a patterned blanket supposedly passed down from William Stout hints at American Indian heritage. Peterson’s cousin believes the pattern proves William Stout was a member of the Delaware Indian tribe (also called Lenapi) of New Jersey, but I wouldn’t jump to conclusions before seeking professional advice. An expert, such as a curator at the National Museum of the American Indian <www.nmai.si.edu> in Washington, DC, might be able to help. Peterson also should consider that the blanket may be just a photographer’s prop.
Stout’s middle name, Hawk, could be a clue, too, as many Indians adopted Christian names in addition to their given ones. It’s not ironclad evidence, but New England Historic Genealogical Society <www.newenglandancestors.org> historian David Lambert tells me it’s likely Hawk is an Indian name.
1 Review research to create a timeline of an ancestor’s life.
2 Research those who appear in records along with your target ancestor.
3 Neighbors may be your ancestor’s fellow migrants. Look for their names in census and land records, then search for their origins.
4 Confirm (or disprove) circumstantial evidence of Indian heritage by studying tribal histories and consulting experts when necessary.
From the May 2008 issue of Family Tree Magazine.