Q. I finally found a spouse for my ancestor Thomas Muse Sr. in an online database of family trees. It says he was married to an Elizabeth Sturman, but how can I be sure that she’s the mother of Thomas’ son James?
A. When looking at spouses, keep in mind that the era of multiple marriages didn’t begin with Liz Taylor, nor was it limited to royalty such as Henry VIII. Divorce is not a 20th- century invention. It’s also possible that an ancestor was widowed young and remarried. You’re right to be cautious about jumping to the conclusion that just because two people appear to have been married, their children all came from that union. While online pedigree databases can be useful starting places and offer clues from other genealogists’ research, you always should seek to prove—or disprove—such connections yourself.
In this case, it turns out you’re wise not to write “Elizabeth Sturman” on your family tree in ink. Prior to marrying Thomas Muse, she’d apparently already been married twice before, to a John Stewart and a Bryant Murphy. Nor, evidently, was she the first wife for Thomas Muse.
Court records can be useful in untangling ancestors’ multiple marriages. Many early records have been collected in book form; some have been made available online. A little digging reveals that Elizabeth Sturman didn’t get along with all of Thomas Muse’s children, and actually went to court to reclaim a slave named Hannah from James Muse. Thomas had left the slave to his son James in his 1729 will, but Elizabeth successfully claimed that Hannah had been a “deed of gift” to her from her grandmother Dorcas (Spence) Jordan in 1696.
There’s also the 1735 will of Elizabeth herself, which pointedly omits any of Thomas Muse’s children from a previous marriage, including James. In a further 1735 court document, Christopher Muse—identified as Elizabeth’s stepson—swore that her will was written by his brother Thomas Muse Jr. on behalf of their stepmother. Since James was born before Christopher and Thomas Jr., it’s clear that none of the three is the son of Elizabeth Sturman.
Your quest for the identity of James Muse’s mother, alas, goes on. But don’t assume that Thomas Muse Sr. had only one wife prior to Elizabeth Sturman, either. After all, if she had three husbands—and Thomas was “well stricken in years” (according to his will) by the time he was married to her—he might well have had three wives (or more).
Want more strategies to solve research problems? You’ll find them in the book The Family Tree Problem Solver: Tried and True Tactics for Tracing Elusive Ancestors by Marsha Hoffman Rising (also available as an e-book).
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