Making a Genealogical End Run
Updated: Jan 3, 2021
Brick walls. Every genealogist runs into one sooner or later. The dead-end of a trail of evidence with no obvious solution in sight. When this happens one has several choices. 1. Let the question sit a while. When you come back to it later, new information may have become available.
2. Keep battering at the wall. This is not usually productive, but if one does take the time to review all of the original documents, sometimes a new detail stands out.
3. Consider whether DNA testing might reveal new information.
4. Make an "end run" by broadening your search to extended family members and neighbors.
The particular brick wall I've been tackling the past few months is that of my 4th great-grandfather Henry Morris (about 1796-1874).
I was two years old when my great-grandfather, William Jasper Morris, died on September 12, 1975. I don't remember him, but I feel like I do because his wife, daughters, and granddaughters spoke of him so much. Because his parents' marriage was unstable, he lived with his grandparents, William Henry Morris and Rachel Amanda Fawley Morris (pictured right), for periods of time in Kosciusko County, Indiana. Grandma would proudly show us their photograph, but we really did not know much more about them.
Vital documents such as birth certificates and death certificates often provide important and interesting details about individuals. Unfortunately, William Henry Morris's death certificate was both missing information and contained erroneous information. According to the certificate he was born in Illinois on March 2, 1830 (or was that 1829? More about this below). His father was "W. H. Morris" and his mother's name was unknown. His supposed birth in Illinois proved false as the preponderance of other information confirms his birth in Indiana. However, He did live in La Clede, Illinois for an undetermined number for years between 1853 and 1866, and served in the Illinois Infantry for a number of months at the end of the Civil War.
With this limited information, I turned to U. S. Federal Census records. Assuming W. H. Morris was really another William Henry Morris, I started looking for William Henry Morrises in Indiana who also had a William Henry Morris for a son. That turned up nothing. I did find my 3rd great-grandfather in the 1850 census where his father was listed as Henry (born in Pennsylvania) and his mother Mary. They were living in Fayette County, Indiana. Thinking this reference to Henry Morris an anomaly, I continued searching for William Henry Morris in Pennsylvania. I might as well have been searching for John Smith. William Henry was a very popular name among the Pennsylvania Morrises. I needed more reference points. It was time to broaden my search.
I started with William Henry Morris's first wife who I had discovered in the Illinois records (this was new information too). They had married in Indiana on February 23, 1853, and moved to Illinois where Margaret died in 1866. Surprisingly, her maiden name seems to have been Morris as well. I wondered if William Henry and Margaret might have been cousins. Margaret Morris (1831-1866) was born in Indiana with origins that took me back to Mount Morris in Greene County, Pennsylvania, named for one of her uncles who was a prominent settler in the area. But no William Henry Morrises popped up in the network of brothers, uncles, and cousins I investigated.
At this point, I decided to return to the Indiana census records. Searching the United States Federal Census prior to 1850 is often an exercise in frustration as the census only collected the names of heads of households from 1790 to 1840. In my present search this was not enough to help me know I'd correctly identified my ancestor. In fact, after my experience in the Pennsylvania records, I was fearful of how many possible matches I would be up against. However, by targeting my search to Fayette County, Indiana, I hoped to narrow the list. Searching for Willam Morris it turned out did not produce any likely candidates, and W. H. Morris did not find anyone at all. That left Henry Morris, and most exciting, there was only one. Searching for Henry Morris proved to be fruitful.
Henry Morris migrated to Fayette County, Indiana, sometime before 1830. Few people today have heard of this small county in southeast Indiana unless they have reason to travel there. In the frontier days, it was an important gateway to settlement of the Old Northwest Territory. Between 1853 and 1858, Henry Morris was elected county surveyor. He was also a founding member of the Fayette Baptist Church, an offshoot of the original Franklin Baptist Church after the great Baptist schism of the 1840s. Otherwise, he was farmer. In 1850, he married Mary Ann Blew (or Blue) who was likely a widow with a son. By this time, Henry Morris already had possibly as many as six children of which William Henry (1829-1911) was the fourth. So who was their mother?
Solving the mystery of Henry Morris's first wife, and the mother of at least four of the children including William Henry, required moving forward in time in order to go backward. At the time of the 1870 Federal Census, it turns out that Henry and Mary Morris were living with Oliver Morris, Henry's eldest son. Unlike his brother, Oliver's death certificate did include the names of his parents. His mother's name? Elizabeth Wright (1799-1829). And with that discovery, a few more things started to click into place.
In searching for Henry Morris in the 1917 History of Fayette County, Indiana, I had already come across connections between the the Morrises and Wrights. This history unfortunately did not include a biography of Henry Morris, but it did include Henry M. Wright (1819-1884), whose mother was an Elizabeth Morris (1799-1827) who married Justus Wright (1789-1873) in Greene County, Pennsylvania. In fact, Justus Wright's first wife was Rachel Morris (1790-1814), daughter of George and Margaret Morris. Elizabeth Morris was his second wife and the daughter of Levi and Elizabeth Morris. Justus and Elizabeth Morris moved to Indiana in 1821, and it is quite likely that Henry Morris married Justus Wright's sister, Elizabeth, in Pennsylvania and moved to Indiana around the same time.
This was all looking like a good theory, except that William Henry Morris's death certificate said he was born in 1830, while his mother Elizabeth Wright Morris died on July 15, 1829. Death certificates, and even birth certificates, can be mistaken however. The final piece fell into place when I discovered that someone had scanned and shared Thomas Wright's will on Ancestry.com. Thomas Wright (1762-1853) was the father of Justus and Elizabeth. He died in 1853, after his daughter. While his other children are named in the will, Elizabeth is not. However at least two of her children, including William Henry Morris are named. This was the final piece to verify that I had finally found my Morris ancestors in Pennsylvania. It appears that William Henry Morris was born the same year as his mother died (he was four months old when she died). Given that his death certificate incorrectly records his place of birth, perhaps it should not be surprising that his date of birth is incorrect as well.
Many questions await further research. Henry Morris had more children after his first wife, Elizabeth, died and before he married Mary Blew (or Blue). Who was his second wife? The Wrights and Morrises all migrated from Greene County, Pennsylvania, and settled in Fayette County and adjacent Rush County in Indiana. William Henry and Margaret Morris were not alone when they settled in La Clede, Illinois, for a time. They moved along with other relatives and neighbors. The pattern of intermarriages between the Morrises and Wrights, as well as group migration, suggests there is a high probability that William Henry and Margaret were indeed cousins. The answers to these questions will have to wait for my next post.