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Sunday, October 19, 2014

My Search for Seba: a Cautionary Tale of Genealogical Research

My great-grandfather Ernest John Andrews was, as he put it, bitten by the genealogical bug in the late 1890s when he was in his 30s. He spent the next forty years of his life researching and writing about his ancestors. This article is his delightfully candid expression of what happens when one is happily researching, still inexperienced, and prone to jump to conclusions in advance of the facts (as Sherlock Holmes would have put it). It is also an eye-opening look into the difficulties of genealogical research before the Internet, before microfilm even, when writing letters, going to libraries, and traveling were the only ways to gather information, and when having contacts in Washington D.C. was nearly essential for the researcher of early New England ancestry. He wrote this probably in the 1920s.

My Search for Seba
by Ernest John Andrews

Seba Norton was not one of my ancestors, but I thought he was. I am writing this for the good of others who may be searching for ancestors. I did not know that his name was Seba, nor even that there was such a name. I knew that my mother’s grandfathers were Asa Piper and Asa Norton, but I knew nothing of their parents until I was stung by the genealogical bee. I then began my search, not for Seba, but for the parents of the Asas. In time I found the parents of Asa Piper; but the search for the Norton parents was more interesting and instructive.

Asa Norton in 1851 at the age of 70
My mother knew that Asa Norton spent most of his life in Crawford County, Illinois, at Heathville, near the county seat Robinson, and was in the early days a county judge and a state legislator. She knew that he came from Norwich, New York, where he was married about 1804 to Mary Bell [the name turned out to be Belknap, but throughout this article he uses Bell. —MAW] who was from Vermont.

I searched many biographical books, such as The Members of the Bar of Illinois, for Asa Norton’s name and ancestry. But evidently he was not sufficiently famous, or his descendants hadn’t offered sufficient inducement, to get his name in the books.

I also tried the other end and looked up the Norton genealogies. They ran back to William the Conqueror; but I wasn’t interested in him—I wasn’t interested in any Englishman as it was highly improbable that Asa’s parents came from England and settled away off in central New York during the end of the 18th century. So I turned to the early settlers in New York. I found many lines of Nortons but no Asas. I couldn’t search for Seba then; I could search only for Asa Norton of Norwich who married Mary Bell about 1804. It was a losing search at the beginning.

I turned to Norwich. I wrote for a copy of the town records relating to the Nortons about 1800. But it turned out there were no records existing of that time, nor until many years after. I wrote to the Clerk of the Surrogate Court for a copy of any Norton wills from 1790 to 1840. The clerk replied that there was only one will recorded during that time, that of Cyrus Norton who had died in 1807. Cyrus then must be my man; my search was ended. This was but a few years before Asa and his brother and sisters went west. Probably the mother had died soon after the father; the property was disposed of and the children went west. My mother knew that two brothers and two sisters, besides Asa, came west.

I looked over my tables of Nortons and found no Cyrus. I went to the library and looked up the printed records of the United States Census of 1790. The census of 1790, unfortunately, is the only census printed. But what a joy these books are to the genealogist! The first census of the United States, and all easily available except New Jersey, which was destroyed before printing. I found that Cyrus of Waterbury, Connecticut then had a wife, four boys under 16, and two girls. Yes, this was the family: six children. I knew of five—one probably died. But I sent for a copy of the will; even though I felt I had reached the end of the search, I would play fair and send the money to the clerk; besides, it was only a dollar, and there might be data in the will worth the money. It is sometimes easy to play fair.

Asa’s brothers and sisters I knew to be Lydia, Benjamin, Theodore, and Sarah. The will came: Cyrus’ wife was Catherine; his children were Ambrose, Amzi, Milton, Ariel, Leman Green, and Jabis Simon.

So I took up the search again. I had cards printed asking for information in reference to the parents of Asa Norton and mailed one to each Norton listed in the Chicago Telephone Directory.

I had been very successful at this with relation to the other Asa ancestor, Asa Piper. I knew he had married Margaret Ficklin and that she had a brother named Joseph. Ficklin was an uncommon name. I looked in the Chicago Telephone Directory and found Joseph C. Ficklin’s office. This was surely a descendant of Margaret’s brother. I wrote and asked for information in reference to the family of Margaret Ficklin of Virginia who married Asa Piper. He sent me the Ficklin genealogy, referred to page 40, and there it was. It is easy to make a bull’s-eye shot, however, if the target is all eye. There had been only one other Ficklin in the directory, and that was Joseph C.’s wife.

There were over a hundred Nortons, and no Asas, nor Theodores, nor Benjamins. So I sent a card to every Norton in the book. There were three times as many in the Chicago City Directory, so I thought I would send a broadside to the houses rather than to individuals; besides, those having telephones somehow seemed more likely to have ancestors.

I got a few replies, but nobody seemed to know anything of value. One professional genealogist called. He wasn’t a Norton, but one of my cards had been referred to him. He offered some suggestions; I looked on him with suspicion. I knew professional lawyers and had some reason to be suspicious of professionals [Note: Ernest John Andrews was himself an attorney]. But this, like much else, depends upon the man and not the class. He suggested that the census of 1850 gave the state in which each person was born. It might help to know where Asa was born. I finally asked him to look up a trifling matter for me. He came into the office about three months later and began to tell about the trouble he had had in looking for my information. Cold chills ran up my back. I thought of lawyers’ fees. I would not pay him. I had not told him to go to all that trouble. But I said nothing. He concluded by saying that his charge was fifty cents. Silence is sometimes golden. He would never know that I had expected him to ask for ten dollars!

He has since done other work for me; and for genuine efficiency in genealogical work I now always recommend a good professional genealogist unless one’s time is entirely valueless.

I had my lawyer associate in Washington D.C. look up the census. The government will not allow any employee to do this, but any good lawyer or genealogist will do it effectively and cheaply. I found by the census of 1850 that Asa was born in New York State in 1781.

In the meantime I had collected a large amount of data relating to the early New England Nortons. I had finally obtained access to a manuscript genealogy of the family made by Lewis Mills Norton of Goshen, Connecticut, a copy of which was owned by Norman C. Thompson of Rockford, Illinois. I carefully examined this data after putting it in systematic form, and from this drew certain conclusions as to Asa’s ancestors, which were expressed at the time in the following article.

Asa Norton, Husband of Mary Bell
     Asa Norton was perhaps the son of Jabez Norton and of his second wife Sarah Buell. This is evidenced by the following facts.

  •        Out of some 300 Nortons, constituting most of the Nortons living prior to Asa Norton’s birth, I find but one Asa, a doctor. He was born some fifty years prior to our Asa, and the evidence is much stronger that our Asa was a son of Jabez than that he was a descendant of Dr. Asa. There is nothing to raise a presumption that Jabez had a son Asa other than that the most probable father of Asa is Jabez.
  •         Jabez had a daughter Sarah born in 1772, and Asa had a sister Sarah. But Asa was born in 1781 and was older than his sister Sarah.
  •        Jabez and Asa each had a sister Lydia.
  •        Jabez had a second cousin named Theodore born ten years before Asa’s brother Theodore, and there is no other Theodore known in the Norton family.
  •       Jabez had a second cousin named Benjamin and Asa had a brother Benjamin, and there is no other known Benjamin in the Norton family, except cousin Benjamin’s son.
  •        Jabez had a cousin named Deborah and a third cousin named Deborah, and Asa had a daughter named Deborah.
  •        Jabez had a niece named Miranda, and Asa had a daughter and a granddaughter named Mirinda. There is no other known Miranda or Mirinda in the family. The granddaughter Mirinda was named after the daughter, and it was her understanding that there was a mistake made in the original spelling of the name and that it should have been Miranda.
  •        Jabez was just about the right age to be Asa’s father.
  •         In 1790 Jabez was living in New York State and had three boys younger than 16 and one daughter at that time. Asa was 9 years old and Theodore five, and he had a brother Benjamin younger than 16, but no known sister at that time. Asa and Theodore were born in New York and were living there at least some ten years later.
  •        Asa had a son named Wellington B. This B may have stood for Bell, his mother’s maiden name, or it may have stood for Buell, the maiden name of Jabez’ wife Sarah. (Later it was found that it stood for Bertolf.)
  •       Jabez was born in Goshen, Connecticut, and while living there married Margaret Beach who lived in Winchester, some eight miles away. Presumably she died and he married Sarah Buell. Apparently he went up to New York and settled in Hillsdale and had three sons under 16 and one daughter in 1790. Now, Asa married Mary Bell of Vermont about 1803, and the Vermont state line is only about 40 miles away from Hillsdale. Jabez had a brother Abijah, who lived in Ballstown, Albany County, New York in 1790, and that is but a few miles from Vermont. Abijah then had four girls, so Asa might have stopped at his uncle’s on his way to Vermont, or he may have met Mary at his uncle’s. When Asa married Mary, they went still farther into New York and for some years were in Norwich, and then they went still farther into the wilds and landed in Crawford County, Illinois. There were also a good many Bell families in New York in the neighborhood of Hillsdale.
  •       It might be added that in the Buell families, the names of Deborah, Lydia, and Sarah appear often.
  •        Asa is said to have had a very straight, soldierly bearing. Jabez was in the Revolutionary War for five years, and Asa was also a soldier though not until he was 30 years of age.
     We may next consider other possible candidates.

     The descendants of John Norton of Farmington show two Sarahs; but so far as I know, no other name appears in his line which is the same as those known to have been in our Asa’s family. Hence, as Sarah is such a common name, this line may safely be eliminated.

     Among the descendants of George Norton of Salem are several candidates:
  •        First is Dr. Asa, who died at Newtown, Connecticut. We may reasonably assume that our Asa and his brothers were born between 1780 and 1790. This Asa was born in 1729 and could possibly have been our Asa’s father at the age of 52 or so; one of Asa’s brothers was born about 1785 when Dr. Asa would have been about 56, and sister Sarah was born about 1800 when Dr. Asa would have been 71, so on the whole it is unlikely. Dr. Asa had sons Nathaniel and Pilo; Nathaniel was born in 1766. Asa had no such named brothers, so far as is known. Dr. Asa had a sister named Sarah, but none of the other names associated with our Asa appear in Dr. Asa’s family. Hence, it is improbable that Dr. Asa was our Asa’s father.
  •        Dr. Asa had a brother named Elijah born in 1741; hence, so far as age is concerned, he is more probable as our Asa’s father. He had a brother named Asa and a sister named Sarah. But he named his son Elijah, while our Asa had no such named brother that is known. In the 1790 Census, either Elijah the father was not living, or he had no sons living with him. Even though he apparently went to New York, he could hardly have been Asa’s father.
  •       Dr. Asa’s brother Aphia is a possible candidate, but there is no Aphia in the 1790 census.

  •       Dr. Asa’s brother Daniel is also a candidate. He was born in 1751, just the right age, and he was probably in New York in 1790. Ancestor Asa was born there in 1781. One Daniel in New York had no children with him in 1790, so we can eliminate him; but the other, in Stillwater, Albany County, New York, had three boys and two girls, which was just right for our ancestor’s family. 
                     As the children of the other relatives of Dr. Asa are known and do not contain an Asa, and as there is no other Asa known in the line, it is probably safe to eliminate this entire line. It is possible that some one of these descendants may be the desired ancestors, but it is hardly probable.

     The most probable members of the descendants of Thomas Norton of Guilford, collateral to Jabez, are the sons of Isaac and Mary (Rockwell) Norton of Durham and Bristol. These have sisters Lydia and Deborah, and a second cousin Benjamin. The candidates are as follows.

  •       Sylvanus, born in 1742, is of the right age and may be the man, but he does not appear in New York.
  •       Aaron is similar: he was born in 1749.
  •       Isaac was born in 1747, and there was apparently an Isaac in New York during the War, and there were two Isaacs in the 1790 census in New York. But he had only two sons, one named Isaac after him. Asa had two brothers certainly.
  •      Joel, the last son of Isaac and Mary, was in New York in 1790, but he had no sons then.
  •       Of Jabez’s brothers, Samuel’s children are known; Abijah had no sons in 1790; and Levi was not the head of a family in 1790.
So far as the records at hand show, there is no other Norton who even approaches Jabez in the probability of being Asa’s father.

Job Norton (possibly Jabez) was in East Harford in 1764 and 1775. He was among those who marched from Hartford for the relief of Boston in the Lexington alarm of April 19, 1775. He was in Hartford in 1792 but not in 1790.

In 1818 Jabez was granted a pension as a private then residing in New York. Pensions were first granted in 1818.

A Jabez Norton is recorded as having married Ruth Davis in New York on July 29, 1781.

In the 1790 Census for New York, Jabez is reported as being the head of a family in Hillsdale, Columbia County, and apparently has three boys under 16, a daughter, and a wife.

The Hillsdale History (F851.363-18) gives no Nortons nor Davises residing there in 1780–1781, and a complete list of inhabitants is given of that date.

I cannot account for the marriage with Ruth Davis. This may have been another Jabez Norton. There is no evidence that our Jabez resided in Hartford during the latter half of the war, but undoubtedly Colonel Webb’s regiment was in New York more or less of the time. In 1781 General Washington was in Hartford and then moved all of his own forces down through New York into Virginia, leaving the 6000 French soldiers under Rochambeau in Hartford until July.

It is supposed that Jabez resided at Norwich, New York, about the beginning of the 19th century. Asa the son was born in 1781. He married Mary Bell, was a probate judge and farmer in Crawford County, Illinois. Asa’s brothers and sisters were:
  •       Theodore, born in 1785, became a doctor and farmer and lived in Crawford County, Illinois, married Lucinda who was born in Connecticut in 1793, and had sons Ira and George.
  •        Benjamin, lived in Vincennes, Indiana, and married before 1800.
  •       Lydia, younger than Asa, born in 1797, married a Goodrich in New York and a Grimes in Illinois.
  •       Sarah, born about 1800, married a Tobey, was said to be much younger than Asa.
They were all full brothers and sisters. Although the children all came west, the parents apparently remained in New York.

Jabez’ known children were:
  •           Margaret, married a Stannard.
  •           Ashbel, born 1768.
  •           Noah, born 1769, married Margaret Patterson.
  •           Sarah, born 1772, probably the daughter of Sarah Buell the second wife.
  •           Jabez, an infant, died in 1777.
These children may have all been born in Connecticut, and those born in New York were perhaps not known and may have been the brothers and sisters of Asa given above. The record of Jabez and his known children was taken from the Goshen History. He left Goshen as early as 1778 and went to Hartford, Connecticut. He was in East Hartford in 1783 when it separated from Hartford, and our ancestor Asa was born in New York in 1781.

The only Norton heads of families in New York in 1790 that have a possible right number of children are:
  •           Caleb               Northeast Dutchess Co.                     2-5-5
  •           Daniel             Stillwater, Albany Co.                        1-3-3
  •           Brion               Brockhaven, Suffolk Co.                     1-2-3
  •           Jabez               Hillsdale, Columbia Co.                     1-3-2
  •           James              Saratoga, Saratoga Co.                        1-5-5
  •           Sarah               Saratoga, Albany Co.                          1-5-5
  •           George            Brookhaven, Suffolk Co.                    2-2-3
  •           Thetomattry    Brookhaven, Suffolk Co.                    1-2-4
  •           George            Huntingdon, Suffolk Co.                    2-2-2
  •           Samuel            Saratoga, Saratoga Co.                        1-2-5
  •           Jonathan         Pittstown, Albany Co.                        1-2-4
  •           Nathaniel        Southold, Suffolk Co.                         1-2-5
  •           William           Harrison, Westchester Co.                 3-5-2
Although many doubts are raised in this article, many of them were injected after the original was written. At the time the article was first written I had no doubt that Jabez was my Seba. But alas, I learned at last that Jabez had died about 1777 or 1778, several years before Asa was born. Jabez had to be abandoned.

I then sent to Washington D.C. for the Norwich census returns of 1800 and obtained the following data:

 Sebe or Thebe Norton                                               
1 male under 10 years
1 male 10 – 15 years
1 male 26 – 44 years
2 females under 10 years
1 female 10 – 15 years
1 female 26 – 44 years

This was the family: I had found Seba. There were Sebe and wife between 26 and 45, Benjamin, Thoda, Sarah, and Lydia, some strange girl, and only Asa missing. Asa was then 19 and no doubt was away when the census was taken. I looked over my data and found a “Leba” Norton of Suffield, son of Abel. The L no doubt should have been read as an S. In fact, this proved true as I gathered a large amount of information then relating to Seba.

But finally I obtained the names of Seba’s children, and alas! not one of them corresponds to Asa or his brothers’ or sisters’ names.

In 1790 the father of Asa Norton should have had in his family 1-3-1, as then neither Lydia nor Sarah was born, and Benjamin was no doubt under 16. [It would not be long before EJA realized the Naughtons of New York were a variant spelling of the Nortons and held the key to finding the right ancestors. —MAW]

And so Seba was not Asa’s father after all.


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